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!
Microsoft have just unveiled the latest version of their Skype Translator, which will enable us to chat with people all over the world even if we don’t speak their language. This story ran in the Daily Mail here in the UK yesterday, under the rather depressing headline, ‘Don’t bother learning a foreign language! Skype will soon translate spoken foreign words in real time’.
I can definitely see that this innovation has its uses, particularly if you need to speak to a client or colleague in another country, and don’t have time to learn their language. And I’m in no way trying to undermine all the years of research that have gone into its development – it looks incredibly clever and impressive. But I think it’s unrealistic to believe that it’s going to make language learning redundant.
For one thing, I haven’t had a lot of faith in translation software since the time I needed to write an email to a colleague in Dutch. Since the only Dutch I know is ‘waar is de winkel?’ (‘where is the shop?’) and ‘de tweemansbob’ (‘two-man bobsleigh’), naturally I turned to Google Translate, copied and pasted the offered translation and sent the email, feeling pretty proud of myself. Until my colleague replied, telling me – in English – to never use Google Translate for Dutch again, because what I’d sent him made no sense at all. Hard to tell by email, of course, but I always picture him wiping away tears of laughter as he wrote his reply.
This was a few years ago, and I realise things have come on a bit since then. But these days if I have to use an online translation tool, I’ll always copy the text back in and check it makes sense in English before I hit send. And even then I’m never completely convinced I haven’t made some horrible mistake. As with any translator, if you don’t know the language at all, you have to put complete faith in the intermediary to correctly translate what you’ve said. With people, you can generally tell if they know what they’re talking about. With computers, it’s not so easy – especially given that this particular innovation also relies on speech recognition technology to even decide what needs translating in the first place.
I’m no expert but I’d assume most people with a need for the Skype Translator will be those needing it for business calls, and in that case you definitely need to know your translator is 100% reliable, or who knows what you could end up agreeing to? Presumably those who call friends or family through Skype will already know at least a little of the other person’s language – unless they’re calling their in-laws, in which case it’s possibly even more important to avoid embarrassing translation mistakes.
Secondly, even if I were completely confident that the translator was accurate, I’m not sure I’d want to use it. The brilliant thing about video call software like Skype is that it allows you to talk face-to-face with someone on the other side of the world, where before they would have been a disembodied voice on the phone or, even more impersonal, a written letter or email. Microsoft describes the translator as ‘human to human interaction’ but it’s not really – it’s ‘human to computer to human’, and what you hear is not your friend or colleague but a computer-generated voice giving you the translation of what they’re saying.
Personally, I’d rather do a bit of preparation, then fumble my way through a conversation, probably in a mix of languages and littered with mistakes, than have to sit and wait for a program to decide what it thinks I said and pass it on. Not only that, but making the effort to learn at least a little of the other person’s language shows respect for them and their culture. It’s well known that speakers of other languages would much rather you try, and get it wrong, than sit back and let a computer do all the work.
Finally, as we all know, there are no end of benefits to learning a language, far beyond making it through one Skype call. We’ve covered all these benefits elsewhere, so I won’t go into them all again. And in fairness, I don’t think Microsoft are trying to replace language learning. But I can’t agree with the Daily Mail‘s headline – just because a machine exists that can help us out in a tight spot, it doesn’t mean we should never make the effort to learn a language again. Language learning is as important as it’s ever been, if only to avoid an embarrassing situation like this, when we’re forced to leave the computer behind…
(Apologies in advance to any Italian speakers!)