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How to learn a foreign language online

How to learn a language online

by Racheal Smith

With emerging technology, the chance to learn a language has never been easier.  With smartphones, tablets and the internet, learners can access professionals, recordings and texts that can help us learn a foreign language.  It is now realistically possible to learn a language using only online resources in today’s world – here are just some of the ways.

Download an app

If you want to use your smartphone to learn a language then there are some effective apps on the market that you can download.
One of the most popular apps out there is Duolingo.  It is a free app and is well-designed.  The lessons are delivered in small chunks and it makes the process of learning a language like playing a game.  It splits the learning into topics but also into aspects of grammar, such as verbs, pronouns and sentence construction. 
One of the most successful design choices in this app is the control it gives you over the speed of the audio. This means that if you are struggling to understand you can slow down the pace of the speaker.  The main learning strategy is repetition, which might get a little tiresome but this form of drilling can be very effective.
Another potential app is Babbel.  The app breaks learning down into lessons that last around 15 minutes.  There are packs of lessons available for different abilities – from basic through to advanced.  The point of Babbel is to learn conversational English in a fun and logical way.  There are explanations of the grammar along the way but the main point is to get you speaking the language confidently.
Finally, though certainly not exhaustively, there is Memrise.  This app is also set up like a game and you travel around foreign planets as a spy and you win by giving correct answers.  It is based on the repetition of words and phrases – and there are audio recordings you can listen to – as many times as you like.  The app is essentially based on a series of flashcards – but this is an excellent way to learn a language, so is well worth using.
There are other apps you can try - including Busuu and Tandem – all of which can help you learn a language when you want to learn and in chunks that are manageable and completely in your control.

Use an online translator

If you have some ability in the language but you are just not that confident, another great option is to download a translator that can support you through some of the stickier moments.  An undoubted truth is that learning a language is best achieved by just speaking it and making mistakes.  This might feel like a catch 22 situation, as you need some language to use language.  However, an option is to take some basic French or Spanish or Italian and support it with a translator when needed.
Most of the major search engines offer translation services – most obviously Google but also Bing.  Google Translate also comes as an app and will actually offer to speak out loud your comments in your target language. There is also iTranslate and Waygo – with Waygo especially helpful at translating road signs on screen for you.
This might not feel like language learning but engaging in the language and trying to use it in situ is actually a sound way of learning. Immersing yourself in the words, phrases and grammar – with some support from the translation tool – is probably the scariest but most effective ways of learning.

Online lessons

One of the best benefits of an internet connection is the chance to engage with a professional tutor from your home.  Online technology is becoming more and more helpful to the online teacher – with software that allows for interactive whiteboards, video conferencing and the sharing of written communication.  There are software tools like Scribblar and Group board that allows for image sharing, document sharing, the display of written text from the tutor, as well as face to face conversation.  In short, these online whiteboard packages allow the classroom to come to the living room.
Skype has been a particular benefit to online tutors, who can have face to face lessons with students when that student is somewhere else in the world.  Native speakers can teach people around the world from their country of origin – what better way to learn Russian than from someone in Russia?  It is also possible to invite more than one student on a Skype conference; therefore, the lesson can be one to a group – which makes the process of conversational language learning that much easier.


YouTube and other online video portals have made it possible to get tuition from language tutors for free and when you want to access it.  Teachers around the world have taken the time to produce a series of lessons that can be watched again and again to embed language learning.  If you type “learn Spanish for Beginners” into YouTube, you start with a video from Fluenz that has had 2.5 million views in 7 years and promises to give you the basics to survive your first day in Spain.  Then comes CultureAlley’s video Basic Spanish Lesson 1 Introductions and Greetings, which has had 2 million views in 5 years.  This 10-minute video gives you a “self-paced audio-visual lesson and interactive practice exercises” – and there are at least 4 more lessons to get you started.
The great thing about these videos is that they are free to access and they can be accessed multiple times.  The learning is completely in the users control – and there are plenty of different sources on the website – meaning if one tutor’s approach doesn’t suit you then another might.
YouTube is also a great source of people from around the world speaking in their native language. You might not understand everything they say and may need to spend some time translating and puzzling out the conversation.  However, this act of “puzzling” is one of the best language learning approaches out there.  Anything that requires you to be curious is a great means of embedding learning in your mind.

Online foreign media and culture

The internet is also a great source of online media from around the world.  Immersion is one of the key means of learning a language.  Immersion is the equivalent of dropping someone in the deep end and say swim.  By being amongst the language with no hope of anyone stopping and speaking your language, you are forced to learn in order to survive.  This sounds brutal – but it works because necessity is one of the best motivators for the learning mind.
Therefore, if you go online and try to read an Italian newspaper or listen to a Chinese broadcast, bit by bit you will start to pick out what they are saying and learn the language.  The good news is that a lot of what you will be watching, hearing or reading will have a context that you will understand.  In other words, if the French media are speaking about the EU, then you are likely to know something about what is happening on that topic at that time and can use this to work out what is being said.
Another option which might be even more enjoyable is to watch popular films with foreign dubbing.  You could always also watch foreign films without the subtitles.  The experience of watching the films is the same as accessing the media. You are going to have to try to work out the language to understand the plot of the film.  If you watch a film you know very well in a foreign language then you have a better chance of keeping up.  As a starting point, you could always watch foreign films with the subtitles on.  The aim here would be to listen with a discerning ear – picking out the words, phrases and grammar as you are watching.  This is quite a tough intellectual exercise – but anything that forces your brain to work is going to be helping it learn.

A mixture of all the above

The secret to learning a foreign language online is to use all the above some of the time.  Variety is not only the spice of life but also the driver of learning.  If you commit to an online tutor, this is great, but why not also get involved with a language app that turns learning into a game.  Weirdly one of the biggest groups of users of language learning apps are people who already consider themselves pretty fluent in the language – they are just having fun with the app because it is like a game to pass the time.
You could choose to learn using YouTube videos but after a while you might take the leap and go abroad and use a translator app to bail you out when what you have learned so far is not enough.  The video is the starting point that helps you have the basics that mean you might feel you can communicate, with the app helping you out when the conversation gets tough.
So, learning a foreign language online is not just about linking up with a professional tutor and taking lessons this way.  There are a lot of ways that you can learn language and remain completely in control of the pace of learning.  The internet certainly does a lot to make the world a smaller place, not least in helping us communicate with people of many cultures.