Nancy Reynolds is a freelance writer from the USA, who’s currently working on a novel. In her spare time she studies Persian and has vocabulary contests with her teenaged daughter who has studied Latin, German, Mandarin and Ancient Greek. Here’s her language story…
For some people, learning a foreign language is good for business, a school requirement or a necessity because of a move. For me, it started in eighth grade with French, but more recently, it was to understand some Iranian friends I made on the Internet. Although my friends all know English, when they wrote posts in Persian, I felt left out. Although the different alphabet seemed daunting, I had studied Cyrillic for Russian and had done well, so I figured I could learn another alphabet. One reason I keep at it is to be able to read more and understand more of the Persian in movies.
A rewarding aspect of learning any foreign language is to understand another person. Values and concepts can be a direct result of the kind of language a person uses. Persian past tenses can distinguish between whether the life of a person in the past is still relevant today or not. We don’t have that in English. The term for a double bed in Italian is “letto matrimoniale,” implying that a person shouldn’t be sleeping in such a bed if not married. Which verb for “to be” you use in Spanish to tell someone she looks good will reveal whether you mean all the time or just today.
One of my greatest challenges in learning Persian is having to do it outside of a classroom. My friends are very busy or want me to help them with English, so I get little practice with spoken Persian. EuroTalk has made a difference because it is fun and I can use it whenever I want. The promotional assertion that it is good for five minutes or for hours of learning is quite true.
Ioana at EuroTalk asked me what my favorite word in my favorite language is, but I don’t think she was expecting the answer I have. It is “love” in English. To choose my favorite word in Persian is a challenge! I guess it would have to be “salam”, which means “hello”. Why? I have learned hello in many languages.
It is a thrill to greet someone in his or her language, get a stunned expression and then a broad smile. Such a simple word says I care about communication enough to step outside of my comfort zone.
Sometimes a funny, weird or awkward situation has occurred when I used a foreign language with a native or another speaker. In French I unintentionally propositioned a friend! Fortunately, he knew what I meant. Two delightful moments speaking Persian with natives were when I asked “Khoobi?” It is the casual way to say “How are you?” They were quite impressed.
A fun triumph, though, was reading the Persian on a soda can in a friend’s photo. Even though some of the letters were obscured, I still could read the well-known brand name: Fanta. I’ll drink to that.
Why do people give up on learning a language?
There are many answers to this question, of course. Recently, we’ve been running a survey (which you can still complete, if you have two minutes), about language learning, reasons for learning and things that might get in the way. According to the results so far, two of the top answers given to the above question are: lack of time, and lack of money.
As I know only too well, language classes, private tutors and language CDs or books can quickly become very expensive. Having recently decided to try and upgrade my schoolgirl French, I had a look round at languge tuition and was pretty depressed to see that I would struggle to afford even a few weeks of classes. But never fear, there are plenty of ways to learn even if you can’t afford to go back to school or buy expensive subscriptions.
So here’s my short guide to how you can learn a language on a budget. Happy learning!
There are a tonne of great resources to be found online without even paying a penny. Depending on your language, there are loads of websites for learning grammar, vocab and more. And you can often find really good sites for more advanced learners – I really love RFI for practising French (they have news reports in ‘easy’ French, with text transcriptions). For beginner to intermediate learners, busuu.com has a great programme for 12 languages, including grammar, reading, writing and vocab, and even allows you to chat with native speakers.
This probably only applies to intermediate to advanced learners, but it’s my favourite way to practise the languages I already speak. Try watching movies in your language, with English subtitles, or subtitles in the language. Or Google the online version of a newspaper in that language (if I’m feeling very motivated, I read lemonde.fr, spiegel.de or elmundo.es). The radio is also a great tool for language absorption. You can listen to radio in almost any language at tunein.com (and they have a great app for on-the-go listening). Even just listening to some music in another language gets you used to the sound.
I used to be obsessed with these when I was at school and uni. In my opinion, this is a great way to cram vocabulary. Either make your own with paper (write the foreign word on one side and the English word or a picture on the other) and test yourself or get a friend to test you. Or, even better, there are some free programs to do just that, which even remember which words you’re weaker on and bring them up more often until you get them right. I used to use this on the computer, but you can get flashcards in app form now too.
4. Find other people to speak to
Ok, I’ve got it easy here because we have a very international office and I’m never short of someone to annoy with my dodgy Spanish… But even if you’re not surrounded by native speakers, you might be able to track down a language partner using a website like totalingua.com that matches you up with an exchange partner. If no one lives in your area, you can always arrange a Skype chat instead of meeting face to face.
There are some amazing free or cheap apps to download on iPhone or Android. I’m using a combination of DuoLingo and uTalk to learn basic Italian. DuoLingo is free and gives you a good grounding in grammar and basic vocab, whilst uTalk features native speakers for all (70 and counting) languages, and has real audio for all the phrases and vocabulary, so I can pick up on the accent and pronounciation as well. I normally play a couple of the games on the bus to work, although I save the recording quizzes for the privacy of my room!
If you’re more of a paper and pencil type, then there are plenty of language-learning books on the market, and they’re mostly cheap to buy, or you can track some down second hand. I think there’s something to be said for having a paper dictionary if you’re a serious language learner (what if leo.de is down!?) – even if you just decorate your shelves with them to look intellectual (or is that just me?).
Have you got any more tips for people learning a language on a budget?
Next week: our guide to learning a language when you’re short of time. If you’ve got any particularly useful tips you’d like to see included, please let us know below!