There is no better way to understand a different culture than to learn the language of its people. If you are curious about the Middle East, learn Arabic, and if you want a peek into the next world super-power, start learning Mandarin. Here are eleven fun ways to learn a language without shelling out hundreds of dollars:
- Take a course: Log on to LiveMocha.com and sign up for a free course. Not only can you find interactive lessons in ten languages including Spanish, Russian, and Hindi, but you can also find others with whom to practice.
- Sign up for podcasts: If you learn best by listening, signing up for podcasts is a great idea. A search for Hebrew lessons on iTunes yields thousands of results. Some podcasts are daily, others are weekly or monthly. You can listen to a lesson on grammar, vocabulary, or usage in any language while running on the treadmill or on your way to work.
- Watch foreign films: Once you have the basics of a language down, use Netflix to find and rent movies in the language you are learning. Even though you will be reading the subtitles, the excitement of hearing the words you know will motivate you to study harder. You will also learn idioms that you will not find in books. Hearing native speakers use the language can be shockingly different from the slow and clear German or French spoken in an instructional video.
- Find online blogs, newspapers, and TV news websites: Most newspapers can be found online, and some television newscasts are broadcast online. Since those come with no subtitles or translations, they will be more challenging, but they will train your ears better. This also exposes you to a different vocabulary from what you will encounter in movies or personal exchanges.
- Use online dictionaries: These are the fastest way to look up words, and they are especially useful when you cannot find the word in your paper dictionary. Sometimes the computer does a better job of identifying the roots of verbs!
- Write letters and postcards to others practicing the language: email friends and classmates in the language you are both learning. Get practice wherever and whenever you can, because the more exposure you get the faster you will learn and the longer the language will stick in your mind.
- Read children’s books: Amazon has German, French, Japanese, and Chinese sites; there are online bookstores in many other countries as well. Read these to make sure that you learn all the basics that your textbook, newspapers, and movies will not cover. This is especially helpful for learning numbers, colors, and directions, as well as cultural differences.
- Listen to music: find the lyrics online if they do not come with the CD. This is a pain-free way to acquire vocabulary fast. Also, classical songs often strictly follow the grammatical rules of the language, so they could be a great way to learn verb conjugations. Memorize the lyrics of a song, and understand all the grammar rules in it. Easy!
- Practice with computer flashcards and real index cards: Take them wherever you go, and look at them whenever you can—a few seconds a day go a long way. Visit the Mnemosyne Project (http://www.mnemosyne-proj.org) for free software, or go the old-fashioned way and simply use index cards.
- Tape verb conjugations and noun declensions to mirrors, doors, the fridge, and your computer screen. Sometimes it is helpful to write out the entire verb. Use different colors and even pictures next to the conjugations of each verb.
- Listen to and read books on tape: If you have a hard copy of the book, follow along with the narrator, and soon you will sound like a native. This is something that you cannot get from watching a movie or listening to a newscast, where you might hear a word but not be able to imagine how it is spelled. With both the sound and the spelling in front of you, you will reinforce what you learn in other contexts.