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Learning a Foreign Language Online – What You Need to Know

Updated on November 20, 2016

About Me...

I teach English classes (conversation and writing) online via italki. You can view my teaching profile here: https://www.italki.com/teacher/3320461?ref=3320461x Teaching is my passion and I am excited to get out of bed every morning to work with students from all over the world (25 countries and counting). Working with students from so many different cultures and backgrounds has taught me a lot about language learning, perhaps even more than the initial language classes I took to receive my TESOL teaching certificate.

So, when I decided to learn a foreign language myself last month, I had a very good idea of how I wanted to accomplish this – essentially, as cheaply, quickly, and efficiently as possible.

Online language learning can be very inexpensive if you choose the right tools...
Online language learning can be very inexpensive if you choose the right tools...

Does language learning need to be expensive?

A Case Study of Two Students…

I currently have 2 students who have been studying English for just over 6 months. Both started at “0” and both are now considered B2, pushing C1 level (i.e. their English language skills are acceptable for employment at most any major international corporation where English is used on a daily basis).

Student 1: This student chose to move abroad for 6 months and study in one of Kaplan’s language immersion schools (20 hours of classroom time/week). He spent over $10,000 between his course fees and travel expenses, although this did also provide a once in a lifetime international experience.

Student 2: This student studied from home using almost entirely free online materials for his basic training. Once he acquired an intermediate level he began taking classes with me twice per week – one conversation and one writing. Not only was he able to stay at home and continue with his normal routine but he also spent under $700.

Granted, these two cases are extreme in their concentrated focus, but both individuals are now fluent in a second language and the professional opportunities available to them far outweigh the time and expense they put in. For the rest of us, myself included, becoming fluent in 1-3 years is a more likely goal, one that could cost under $500 depending on the language and approach. In my opinion, this is far worth the investment…

Being able to speak with others from around the world creates a whole new set of opportunities!
Being able to speak with others from around the world creates a whole new set of opportunities!

Why You Are Learning a Second Language May Affect your Approach...

Every language has 4 core areas – two passive (reading and listening) and two active (speaking and writing). The way in which you plan on using the language may, in part, determine the approach you should take. For instance, if you are acquiring a second language for professional or academic purposes, then you should focus on all 4 core areas; whereas, if you only want to watch movies in a foreign language (say Japanese manga) you can predominantly focus on just the listening skills.

Regardless of your chosen area(s) of focus, here are my personal recommendations to take you from complete beginner to advanced speaker as quickly and inexpensively as possible:

Learning the basics of any language is easy with free programs like Duolingo!
Learning the basics of any language is easy with free programs like Duolingo!

Learning Basic Vocabulary – The Foundational Building Blocks

The very first thing you need to do as a language learner is to begin memorizing basic vocabulary. Essentially, this is how all of us learned our first language (mama, dada, juice, etc). We can’t begin working on grammar and sentence structure until we first know the basic words that make up the language.

Now, at this point, most people think they need to purchase some $300 Rosetta Stone program, but in my humble opinion, the absolute best tool available today for learning all of the critical beginner vocabulary is Duolingo. Duolingo is an entirely FREE online program (PC, Apple, Android) that is currently available in 22 languages. It is an easy and FUN way to intuitively learn not only basic vocabulary but beginner sentence structure as well. There are no “grammar lessons” and yet by trial and error you are learning new vocabulary words and translating sentences from your Native Language into your Target Language and vice-versa. There is even a recorder setting that checks your pronunciation!

Duolingo is best used every day. There are 5 settings ranging from 1-5 lessons/day labeled as basic, casual, regular, serious and insane. I have been using Duolingo Spanish on the Insane setting for just over a month now and I am shocked by how much I have learned. My students who used this for English told me that it was really good – but I had no idea just how incredible it was until I started using it myself.

As I’ve said, I’ve only been using the program for just over a month (about a half hour per day) and I have already tested at a 17% fluency rate. Duolingo can potentially take someone to about 50% fluency, or low intermediate, which is perfect for travel. Put another way, this fluency level is considered by many learners to be equivalent to or better than two semesters at the college level. And, best of all, it's totally free and far more convenient!

Expanding your language learning can be a lot of fun when you select content based on your interests and hobbies.
Expanding your language learning can be a lot of fun when you select content based on your interests and hobbies.

Expanding Listening, Reading and Writing Skills

Of course, as great as the little Duolingo app is, it can only take a learner so far, which is why we need to expand our language exposure at this point. Depending on the core areas you desire to become proficient in, this could include podcasts and movies (listening), articles and short books (reading), or more advanced programs that incorporate speaking, writing and grammar skills.

Essentially, we are trying to immerse ourselves in the language. Granted, we may not understand a good portion of what we hear/read, but the exposure is extremely beneficial and given more time, we will comprehend more and more. As far as listening and reading go, focus on the things you enjoy! This could be Disney movies, technology podcasts or cooking shows. It could be international news segments, fantasy stories or short YouTube videos. You decide!

Now, when it comes to structured learning programs that focus on grammar, speaking and writing, these can be a little harder to find but still available in plenty. For instance, many of my English students have had great success with Learn English through the British Council which is free and very well put together. Others have used American and British Academy of English (ABA English) which has both a free or inexpensive paid service. For myself, I plan on using StudySpanish for a month or two when I finish Duolingo. Their free material has been very helpful so far and I am confident that their premium service ($10/month) will really help cement my grammatical understanding. A quick Google search, and taking the time to read some reviews, can help you easily find the best additional program for your language of choice.

Long-term retention is vital for language acquisition.  Thankfully, free programs like MosaLingua greatly help simplify this process.
Long-term retention is vital for language acquisition. Thankfully, free programs like MosaLingua greatly help simplify this process.

Long-term Retention and Pronunciation

Now, we need to stop for a moment and discuss long-term retention. This is probably one of the biggest obstacles facing language learners today. This is how the story goes, “Fred” practices his new language religiously for several months and acquires a good level but then takes a long break and can’t remember what he learned when he goes to pick it back up again. That is because, very likely, his new language skills never made it into his long-term memory. For that reason, consistent review, at the proper time, is essential. For the basic levels, Duolingo has properly spaced reviews already worked into the program, but for more advanced learners, I recommend the following:

MosaLingua (either their free app or $5 premium app) and Quizlet (free version) are two programs that have helped the majority of my students retain their current comprehension. Mosalingua, in particular, has conducted some phenomenal scientific research into the brain that helps their program effectively target when you personally need to review your material – not before or after – but right on time. Essentially, these are both electronic flashcard systems, but the super-human kind! I am personally inputting all of my new words and phrases from Duolingo into MosaLingua to ensure that I never forget any of the words that I have learned.

Another great (free) program that I really like is Forvo. Essentially, this is the world’s largest online pronunciation database with over 2 dozen languages available. Simply type in your trouble word to find a list of native speakers pronouncing that single word. You can choose male or female speakers and an accent of your choice. When my students are struggling with pronunciation, I recommend that they take their word list to Forvo and study each word one-by-one. I recommend they listen to the word and then repeat it, listen and repeat, listen and repeat, and again until they are confident they are pronouncing it correctly. Of course, as their teacher, I always check afterward just to make sure :)

Speaking with a native is considered the #1 way to improve fluency.  Plus, it is a great way to meet new people and learn about other cultures!
Speaking with a native is considered the #1 way to improve fluency. Plus, it is a great way to meet new people and learn about other cultures!

Speaking with a Native – The #1 Thing You Can Do!

And that brings me to, what I believe to be, the most important element in language acquisition – speaking with a native. Working with a native language teacher not only provides excellent speaking practice but instant feedback on pronunciation, grammar, sentence structure, etc. As a language teacher, I personally only accept students at the intermediate to advanced level, in other words, students who have already completed a program like Duolingo and are listening to podcasts or reading in their target language. Often, I am the very first native that they have ever spoken with. The first couple of lessons they generally pause and stammer quite a bit, but within a few classes, they are speaking confidently and smoothly. Basically, all of my students have said that there is nothing like speaking with a native to improve their level, understanding, fluency and comfortability in a language.

There are many language coaching programs available online – I know because I researched them intensively before I decided to teach at italki myself. Italki is a user-friendly interface which quickly connects students with teachers that fit their learning style, goals or level. All classes are conducted via Skype and there are literally teachers available for over 50 languages at any time of the day or night. Sometimes I get last-minute students, but generally, my students book a class in advance at a time that they know works for their schedule.

Many teachers specialize in areas like beginners, children, business, test preparation, etc and it is easy for students to find the best teacher for them based on teacher profiles, video introductions and reviews. I like italki because students pay class-by-class and are not committed to one teacher or program - which results in greater flexibility.

Personally, as soon as I complete Duolingo and spend a month or two immersing myself in Spanish, I am going to use one or more native Spanish teachers on italki. Each language and teacher vary as far as price but I figure I can take 2-3 1-hour classes a week for only about $20. I also know that this is the number one thing that will improve my Spanish and have me speaking fluently as soon as possible. If you too want to give italki a try, using this link (https://www.italki.com/i/CBaaGd) will save you 100 ITC ($10 USD) on your first class!

Among other things, learning a foreign language opens up whole new travel possibilities!
Among other things, learning a foreign language opens up whole new travel possibilities!

The Final Polish – Advanced Movies, Books, Podcasts, and/or Travel

Maybe you’ve heard the phrase that “learning is a lifelong process” – this definitely holds true for language learning. However, learning another language not only enables you to communicate with others, but studies have shown that it strengthens the brain, even delaying or preventing diseases like dementia and Alzheimer's. Essentially, working in a second language exercises your brain like going to the gym for the rest of your body. Watching movies, speaking with natives, traveling or reading and listening to advanced books and podcasts are all ways to continue polishing your skills in your second language – a lifelong learning process that can be exceptionally fulfilling.

If you are considering learning a new language or are currently learning one, I hope the above information is helpful for you! I will try to update this page with my own language progress, but in the meantime, if you have any questions please enter them in the comment section below.

Thank you! Gracias! Merci! Grazie! Danke Sehr! Arigato! Khop Khun Mak Kha!

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All photos are public domain and curtesy of Pixabay.

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