How To Learn A New Language For Free (Or Really Cheaply)
Learning a new language is among the cheapest hobbies you can have… if you know where to look. There are an infinite number of places, both online and off, where you can regale yourself with cheap or even free content to help you on your language learning journey.
I’m a frugal language learner, and proud of it! Though I have spent a lot of money over the years on this hobby of mine, I did so because I wanted to, not because I had to. Learning a new language shouldn’t be expensive; and thankfully, it isn’t.
Let’s take a look at some of the places where you can find all the affordable resources you’ll need to start your journey. They’re broken down into the four language skills, so it’s easier to read and navigate.
A note before we start: If you’ve been perusing this site for a while, you’ll notice that I keep mentioning certain sites. This is because they’ve been so helpful to me, and they continue to be valuable aids.
There are a number of programs that have been designed to get learners speaking as quickly as possible, without wasting time laboring over traditional study. Grammar and vocabulary aren’t so much taught as learned.
In a sense you’re eased into the language the way a child would learn their native tongue. It’s a more natural way of learning that will suit those who learn best by absorbing and reproducing what they’ve heard.
A great resource is the Foreign Service Institute language courses. Used to teach diplomats and get them fluent enough to communicate when on assignment abroad, these intensive courses are public domain, completely free, and come with both speaking/listening lessons as well as accompanying written material.
You can download them to your computer or phone, and use them offline whenever you want.
Now, due to the fact that these were recorded decades ago, the audio quality isn’t the best, and some of the lessons are a little outdated. You’ll also find some of the terminology to be irrelevant. That said, you can still learn loads from them.
If you’d prefer up-to-date material, and a more fun, conversational approach, you might want to consider the Michel Thomas CD courses.
They focus solely on picking up the language naturally, through speaking. No reading or memorizing, making this a must for people with a bad memory.
The approach is unique in that you learn with two students, you being the third, and are thrown right into it. New vocabulary is introduced gradually, and you never feel overwhelmed. It also does help that Michel Thomas’s voice is so soothing, and his happy-go-lucky personality shines through in every lesson.
Not all of the courses are recorded by him, however; only Spanish, French, Italian and German feature him in them. Thought several Michel Thomas Method courses have been released since his death, I have no experience with those. Do your due diligence. Most of them offer free trials through Amazon’s Audible audiobook site.
Caution: Only buy the complete courses, not those silly, overpriced ones that are basically just broken up lessons sold individually in order to extract more money from you.
If you’re in the US, you can get these from eBay.com for under $30.
Once you’ve learned enough, you’ll want to practice with native speakers, build on your conversational skills. The Tandem app is just the thing you need.
It’s free, available on Android and iOS, and you can find speakers in over 150 languages, from the most popular to the most obscure. Whatever your chosen language, you’re sure to find someone with whom to practice.
You simply select the language(s) you want to study, choose the interests you want to talk about, then the app will find natives who also want to improve their skills in your native language.
Caution: If you’re as antisocial as I am, it can get a little overwhelming when you’re bombarded with messages from friendly people who want to chat!
Although speaking requires a great deal of listening, this is different. This is more about watching/listening for enjoyment, to get you used to hearing the language, and to boost your vocabulary by watching with context.
Use target language subtitles whenever they’re available, as these really do help to break down speech, making it easier to understand.
Finding stuff to watch/listen to in your new language should be easy, even for some of the more obscure languages. Your first stop will be YouTube, where free content abounds.
Seek out native content by typing target language search terms into YouTube’s search box. Don’t use your native language to search, as the results will be scarce. If you don’t yet know the words, just use Google Translate to get them. This way you’ll get all the results a native would, and you’ll have many more videos to choose from.
Some Youtube videos have subtitles, whilst others offer automated captions. While the latter are inaccurate half of the time, they can be helpful when you’re a little more advanced and can spot the errors.
You can even slow down the speed so the speech is easier to comprehend.
Amazon et al have a number of foreign language content on their platforms; some companies even provide subtitles and dubbing in several different languages. Prime isn’t free, however, but if you already have a membership, you might want to check out the movies/shows they have to offer.
A free streaming app that offers diverse programming in 6 European languages – English, Spanish, French, Italian, German and Polish. From films to shows to anything you can think of, there’s lots to watch from all of the major European TV stations. Subtitles are available on some things, but not all.
You can find the site here, or download it from the Apple Store or Google Play store. Simply change the language to your target language (if it’s represented).
Many of the streaming services are country-locked to America, so I won’t suggest any of them here. I have also not included a certain other streamer on this list due to its recent involvement in, for want of a better word, questionable activities.
There are plenty of free digital radio apps you can download on your smartphone, giving you access to target language news, music, talk shows, podcasts etc.
Caution: You’ll find that many prefer to play English music, which isn’t helpful if you’re not learning English! You’ll need to try out a few stations to find ones you like.
Thankfully, there are a couple of apps that have compiled tens of thousands of radio stations all in one place, and all for free! One of them even pays you when you listen!
It boasts 100,000 radio stations from all across the globe. I’ve found great French stations using this app. It’s neatly organized, so you can easily search for the type of content you like, in whichever language you’re studying.
Where to find it:
Check out the site here. There’s no need at all to pay for the premium package; the standard is ad-supported, but completely acceptable.
A lesser known but really awesome site/app is the German company Bitradio. You can listen to over 119,000 radios from all over the world, and get paid to do so!
You’re paid in the crypto currency BRO, which can be exchanged for Bitcoin and then turned into cold, hard cash. It’s all totally free to use, of course. No other app does this, and you end up being paid for doing what you were doing anyway. Neat, right?
You’ll need a BRO wallet, but everything is explained on the site. If you’re new to crypto this might take a little getting used to, but once you’re set up, it’s a breeze.
Check out Bitrad.io
Learning a language through video games is one of my favorite methods. If you’re a gamer, or even if you’re not, you’ll get so much out of it, whilst having a bunch of fun.
This is a trick I don’t often hear language learners mention, which is odd, seeing as it’s super helpful, possibly more so than simply watching TV/movies. It’s also pretty cheap, if you know what you’re doing.
Nintendo DS/DS Lite
Okay, so this trick works best on older handheld consoles, or even non-country restricted mobile games. An old Nintendo DS and DS Lite won’t set you back much; local classified listings and online secondhand stores usually have them listed. Plus they’re region free, so you can play foreign games without problems.
Many games have European, Japanese and Korean versions. To find old copies you’ll need to look on the localized eBay and Amazon stores.
The best games to get are those with both dubbing and subtitles. One series I swear by is Professor Layton. If you can get your hands on the original DS game, Professor Layton and the Curious Village, it comes in 5 European languages (English, Spanish, German, French and Italian).
3 of the original games from this series (plus a couple of free standalone games) are now also available on mobile. Hurray! If you have a smartphone, you can pick up the full games from the Android and iOS stores, and they all have text in the 5 European languages.
This series is packed with both spoken and written dialogue, great, intriguing storylines, and interesting puzzles that get you really thinking in your new language.
For non-handheld consoles – Playstation and Xbox – the PS Store and Xbox store will tell you which games come with dubbing and/or subtitle options. But due to the sheer volume of dialogue in some of these games, most only come with subtitles, no dubbed option.
People learning Japanese
If you’re learning Japanese, you will, naturally, have a much wider selection of games to choose from, as so many games are made in Japan. You’ll find many Japanese-only titles, with nothing but Japanese dialogue.
One of my favorites is the Yakuza series (TechRadar did a great analysis of the Yakuza franchise).
After the first game, none of them were made with English dubbing, only English subtitles. They are extremely dialogue heavy, with amazing storylines, fighting scenes, and beautiful graphics. You’ll fall in love with Japan, if you haven’t already.
Secondhand copies of most of the titles in the series can be bought on Amazon and eBay. The franchise is Playstation-only.
As society moves further and further away from physical goods and opts for more digital, space-saving media, things like DVDs become obsolete to most people. But to the language learner, these are a goldmine.
You can get secondhand DVDs just about everywhere – flea markets, charity shops, online stores, random people on the street giving them away because they have no use for them anymore! It doesn’t matter. Many DVDs come with dubbed audio and plenty of subtitle options.
Check the backs of the cases to check which languages are included, and pick up a bargain.
Audiobooks make an awesome addition to your language learning resource arsenal. You can listen passively as you go about your day, picking up words and phrases here and there, and familiarizing yourself with the sounds.
Or you can even try the Listening-Reading method, where you listen to your target language whilst reading the same text, but in your native language. This does wonders for vocabulary building.
YouTube (free), Audible (free 30-day trial) and Scribd (free 30-day trial) are just some of the places where you can find target language audiobooks.
If you’re looking to spruce up your vocabulary, reading will do that for you. And this isn’t just restricted to books, though they’ll be the easiest and cheapest to find. Comic books are great because they have less dialogue; they’re conversational, and thus easier to follow than novels.
Foreign language books, thanks to the advent of eBooks, are now much more accessible than when I first started learning. Physical books are great as you can write notes in them in pencil. Charity shops, eBay and Amazon usually have a decent selection of foreign paperbacks.
I picked up these French-language Goosebumps from eBay France for a steal! They’ve been making my day ever since.
But eBooks will be where you get the most gain. The major eBook retailers sell digital books in many languages, which you can read on your phone with the help of their built-in dictionaries. This is an invaluable resource; being able to immediately look up and highlight words you don’t understand right from the comfort of your reading app will make the process much smoother.
Some languages – most – are not well-represented, however. Popular European languages won’t be a problem, but you’ll struggle to find good Asian or African books. Acquiring them from overseas can be very costly, so if you can find eBook equivalents, you should choose that option.
From my experience, Google Play and the Apple Books store have a much wider selection of more obscure language books than Amazon. You should take that into consideration when deciding where to purchase.
Buying when abroad
If you ever get a chance to visit a country where your target language is spoken, stop in at a charity shop or regular book shop. You can get great deals that you could never find in your home country.
I did just this while I was in Sweden. I found a charity shop and was able to pick up about a dozen books inexpensively.
Dialogue-only video games
I’ve mentioned video games as they relate to listening, but if you cannot secure dubbed versions, regular games usually come loaded with subtitles from many different languages.
A great franchise is the Pokemon games. This is a dialogue-heavy series whose vocabulary isn’t too difficult as it’s designed for children.
Brushing up on your writing skills can’t be achieved until you’re proficient in the other three skills.
Duolingo is great for writing practice. You’re forced to write what you hear and translate from your native language to your target language. The more you do this, the better your spelling will be.
You should move on to a language exchange app when you have enough skills to hold even the simplest conversation. Tandem also works well for this kind of thing, especially if you’re someone who is shy on camera or over the phone. You can communicate in writing, in a simple chat format, and your language partner will correct you when you mess up.
A good dictionary app is imperative for both reading and writing. Individual language dictionaries are the best, and you shouldn’t have to pay for those. So check your app store for free dictionaries in your target language.
Google Translate is good, too, but won’t show you any of the in-depth information you need to truly understand the words you look up. A good dictionary app will show several different meanings for words, their synonyms, and common phrases they feature in.
Get a journal/notebook
I can’t stress enough how important these are for your journey. You’ll need a way to write down new vocabulary as you learn it, and you should aim to write original content every day (songs, shorts stories, your musings etc.), utilizing what you know.
This is the notebook I use daily. Not only are you encouraged to learn 5 new words a day, you’re also given space to write them down in a sentence of your creation. If you can use them you’re more likely to remember them.
This list is by no means exhaustive. The internet is replete with resources, and as you progress on your journey to fluency, you’ll find many new ones. I find new sites and apps all the time.
I hope this article has illustrated how possible it is for anyone studying almost any language to learn without spending a dime, or spending very little.
There will be things you’ll eventually want to spend money on; you might find that some paid courses that offer free trials might suit you better than the free stuff. That’s completely fine, too. The point is, you have options. Many options, and most won’t break the bank.