First, let’s get it out of the way: we’d always recommend buying a language training software or enrolling in a live course as the best recourse for learning a new language. Even cheaper packages can be enough if all you want is to learn basic communication skills.
With that said, the internet has given rise to tons (and I mean tons) of free language learning materials. Some of them are good. Some of them are a total bust. Most of them linger somewhere in between.
Nothing is Free
Nothing is really free. Even in language learning. Want to know what you’re paying with when you do a free online course?
1. Your time. When you use free resources, a lot of the structure and format are left to you. As such, you’ll have to spend as much time planning your lessons as you do actually sitting through them. Contrast that with a paid language software where the lessons are already structured according to a system — all you have to do is sit down and do the work. That’s a ton of time saved.
2. Your email address. Many free courses require to sign up. In turn, they’ll upsell you on a variety of services that someone studying a foreign language is likely to be interested in, such as plane tickets, travel guidebooks, tour packages or language learning trips. All businesses need to make money after all and, whether you realize it or not, any online service offering free language lessons likely has a business plan in place (if they don’t, they’ll likely close within a year, so enjoy while you can).
3. Your mindshare. Ads constitute a big part of website revenues in the internet, so don’t complain if your favorite free language resource throws a bunch of ads at you, whether occasionally or frequently.
Our Ideal Setup
In a perfect world, we’d like all language students to either invest in a good language learning software or enroll in a reputable language course, then use free resources as a secondary aid to further their studies. Why? Because the work that goes into organizing materials, structuring lessons and ensuring proper progression is something free materials are rarely reliable at. In fact, many of the free resources online are single-lessons that you will need to curate and structure all by yourself — something you’re not genuinely equipped to do considering you aren’t actually knowledgeable in the target language in the first place.
We’ve given our fair warning. Whether you use these free resources as primary materials or secondary aids is now up to you. Just remember: time and effort is just as precious as money, so if you find yourself struggling relying solely on free resources, start reconsidering your steps.
Free Language Lessons
1. iTunes. Yep, Apple’s content portal offers a good selection of free audio lessons. The sources vary, but I’ve found offerings from the Open University, the US Peace Corps, various educational institutions and other organizations. Since these are free uploaded lessons, there are no guarantees in quality of instruction, but since they’re free, you should be able to download and evaluate all you want.
2. Podcasts. There are tons of language learning podcasts out there. We suggest downloading a podcast app (there are many of them for smartphones and PCs alike) and searching for podcast lessons in your target language. Do note these are usually short lessons, but could be very useful, especially for beginners.
3. BBC Languages. There are many websites offering language lesson content. Personally, I found most of them lacking, with some being nothing but shills for another language product. The BBC Languages portal, however, offers a good amount of lessons from a reputable organization at that, making it a great free resource if you’re in search of one.
4. LiveMocha. I’ve heard great things about Livemocha, although I haven’t personally tried it. People I know say they offer free lessons, combined with online practice that can really make a difference. Sign up is necessary, although most of the functionality is available for free.
5. Vocabulix. Some people, especially those trying a language on for size, are just looking for vocabulary lessons. Well, this website does just that. There’s also a baked-in social network if you enjoy that aspect of the web experience (I don’t).
6. Youtube. For the most part, I want to leave out Youtube, since most lessons I’ve found there are fragmented (like, a 5-minute here with no follow up lesson) or not very good. I have a feeling, though, I’m just not searching the right way, so you might have better luck on this end than me.
Free Language Practice
1. Language learning chat networks. These are dedicated chat networks and portals built specifically for language learners to meet each other and practice together. There are plenty of them, each with a variety of features and offerings. Popular ones include SharedTalk (from Rosetta Stone), Palabea, Mixxer, Conversation Exchange and the Facebook app Language Exchange.
2. Practice tests. Taking language tests is another great way to practice what you’ve been learning. The BBC Languages site have some resources for this, as well as many other language learning websites.
Other Free Resources
1. Meetup websites. Sites like Meetup.com can be very useful for finding fellow language learners in your area. If you’ve ever fancied the idea of forming a language group, this could prove an indispensable resource for finding people who might be interested.
2. Craigslist. As you probably know, people give stuff away on Craigslist all the time. And that includes used language learning materials. Most of the time, they’ll sell them for cheap, which isn’t so bad either. Also worth checking out: Freecycle.
3. Embassies, consulates and foreign organizations. Get a list of phone numbers for local embassies, consulates or non-profits of the country in which your target language is spoken, then give them a call, inquiring about whether they offer language lessons. Many, in fact, do. Granted, most charge a fee for the lessons, although they will occasionally offer free classes, so it’s definitely worth the trouble asking.