Fun and Free World Language Learning

Traci Andrighetti suggests five fun ways to improve language skills without spending a centavo

As recently as the early 1990’s, those who wanted to learn a foreign language had three basic means of doing so: textbooks, cassette tapes or CD-ROMs. Today, advances in technology and the mass adoption of the internet have revolutionized the foreign language learning industry. Thanks to laptop and tablet computers, media players, satellite dishes and smart phones, students have more options than ever for learning a foreign language.

The technology-based language-learning tools described below have two main advantages over traditional language study methods. First, the use of technology in language learning increases opportunities for success by offering students greater versatility. Teachers of foreign language have long known that students do not learn language in the same way, and foreign language acquisition research abounds with explanations for this disparity, including differences of age, learning styles and motivational factors. Now that students have a variety of language-learning tools literally at their fingertips, they can choose the ones that best suit their individual learning needs and preferences.

Another benefit of the use of technology in foreign-language learning is that it allows students to personalize their learning. Not everyone studies a language for the same reason, a fact that is rarely reflected in traditional language study materials. Although most people cite personal development, travel or business as their primary reasons for learning a foreign language, others study language to research their heritage or follow a passion for such things as cycling, fashion or wine. Whatever the motivation, technology-based methods make it easier for language learners to focus on the specialized vocabularies of their areas of interest.

The following list presents the five most innovative and engaging ways to study a foreign language currently available to students. Regardless of learning style or interest, these methods offer something of value to every foreign language learner. And the best part is that they are free.

1. Apps
Apps are the newest fad in foreign language learning, and Babbel has produced one of the best language-learning apps on the market. The Babbel app provides portable, situational travel instruction in seven languages: English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, and Portuguese.

Although world language apps admittedly have a ways to go into terms of functionality, Babbel has several impressive features. Users learn vocabulary as it is pronounced by a native speaker with a corresponding image to aid in memory retention. Integrated speech recognition technology allows users to assess pronunciation skills, and the intelligent review manager provides feedback on weak areas in vocabulary and targeted exercises to improve it. And, because the vocabulary is arranged by category, learners can focus on the lessons they want, such as the vocabulary of travel and business.

The Babbel app is free for the iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad. For a low monthly fee, this app can also be used as a complement to the Babbel online portal at for access to additional features and learning material.

2. Internet Sites
Although there are countless language-learning sites on the Web, the 40 BBC language websites at are arguably the most comprehensive. The BBC sites offer beginners, post-beginners, and intermediate-level students a virtual smorgasbord of learning opportunities in languages such as Mandarin Chinese, Greek, Arabic, and Urdu. Each website features language-specific audio courses, interactive video courses, TV and Radio programs, plays, games, fun facts, weekly e-mail tips, dictionaries, cool slang, weather reports, RSS feeds, and much, much more.

The audio and video courses are particularly useful to those interested in learning business vocabulary. With the audio course French Steps, users can learn the basics of conversational language. The video program The French Experience teaches users how to talk about intermediate-level subjects such as Travel, Health and Fitness, Shopping and Eating Out. Even more useful are the extensive scripts with English translations provided on the site. “Make French your Business,” for example, provides written conversations between two people who discuss topics such as Presenting Yourself and Your Company, Talking about Your Business, Getting Information, Making Appointments, Business Lunches, Meetings, Marketing, Innovation, Publicity, and Recruiting People, among others. There are even hilarious videos of language mistakes and faux pas submitted by language learners from around the world to help users avoid their same fate.

Learners who want to go the traditional classroom instruction route can use the BBC language sites to locate courses offered in their area. Teachers and tutors can also use these sites to access free pedagogical materials and other resources.

3. Software Programs
For those who want language-learning software without the hefty price tag of Rosetta Stone, the Byki Express desktop software program is an excellent choice. Available for free at, Byki offers instruction in an impressive 74 languages ranging from Spanish to Zulu.

The Byki approach utilizes online applications, vocabulary lists, articles, and games to help learners collect words and phrases in their memory “like items in a basket.” Users can slow down the pace of the native speaker’s voice to aid in pronunciation and comprehension and view charts and graphs that track their progress. Best of all, users can access shared word lists posted by members of Byki’s online community that allow them to expand their knowledge in the areas of their choice. For example, shared lists for Chinese include such topics as The Web and the Internet, Sales Calls, The Business Dinner, The Trade Show, and Import and Export.
Once learners have mastered the material on Byki Express, they can download the Byki Deluxe program for a small fee. There is also a free Byki mobile app that allows users to post their progress on facebook and connect with other users.

4. Online Courses
Learners who want to take an online course but don’t want to enroll in an online university to do so should visit Livemocha offers beginning to advanced courses that were developed in partnership with educational publishing powerhouses Pearson and Collins. But Livemocha is much more than an online course — it is an online community. Currently, the Livemocha community consists of an astonishing 9,943,676 learners representing 195 countries and 38 languages, including Cantonese, Kazakh, Icelandic, Yiddish, and Sanskrit.

A mix of traditional course content and social networking, the Livemocha method involves both independent study and user-assisted assessment. There are flashcards, games, quizzes, and a phrase arcade, which presents vocabulary in the target language with corresponding images and translations, to help learners acquire the basics of the language on their own. Once they are ready, users can complete spoken and written exercises and submit them to native speakers for review. In return, learners volunteer to help others learn their native language by providing feedback on assignments. Most importantly, there is a “people” tab that allows learners to view culturally themed photos submitted by other learners, make friends, find e-mail contacts, and chat with native speakers who share their specific interests or profession to broaden their understanding of the language and culture.

For a monthly or annual fee, users can purchase one of the Livemocha “Active” language programs, which entitle them to more in-depth learning resources as well as reviews of their work by professional tutors.

5. International TV Programs
International television programming, which is available for free on the Internet, is one of the most often-overlooked resources for foreign-language learning. Foreign TV stations created specifically for international audiences are particularly good resources for language learners. One such station is Italy’s RAI Internazionale at

In addition to viewing programs such as Imparare l’italiano in musica (Learn Italian Through Music) and Imparare l’italiano cantando (Learn Italian by Singing), users can watch two TV series created by RAI Internazionale for beginning and intermediate students, respectively: I Montalcino, una famiglia italiana (The Montalcinos, An Italian Family) and Casa Italia (Italy House). These programs model appropriate verbal and non-verbal language (facial expressions, gestures, and the like) and provide viewers with vocabulary and grammar recaps as well as brief quizzes at the end of each episode.

Other useful programs for intermediate and advanced learners include TG1, Italy’s main television news program, and Gran Sportello Italia (Great Doorway to Italy), which feature the latest information on topics such as business, politics, religion, family, and food for Italians and Italophiles living abroad.

Learners who use technology-based methods to study a foreign language must bear in mind that these methods, like traditional ones, provide only part of the language-learning experience. Language involves four main skills: speaking, listening, reading and writing. Speaking is the most of important of these skills, and yet it is the most difficult to practice in any language-learning environment except, of course, in an immersion situation. If the goal is to become proficient in a language, then it will be necessary to find a native speaker with whom to practice conversation regardless of the method used. If, on the other hand, the objective is to learn basic words and phrases for travel purposes or for use in a hobby, then one or a combination of the technology-based tools will serve as excellent resources.

Finally, students of foreign language must not discount the value of traditional language study methods. The grammar and vocabulary exercises provided in textbooks as well as the listening practice offered by audio materials are tried and true ways to learn language and reinforce knowledge. Students who are already utilizing these materials in a classroom-learning environment may therefore opt to use technology-based tools to enhance their language learning. Additionally, those who don’t have the luxury of returning to the classroom or who have difficulty learning through traditional methods will find that the apps, Internet sites, software programs, online courses and international TV programs featured in this article are entertaining, not to mention cost-effective, ways to learn a foreign language.

Traci Andrighetti holds a PhD in Applied Linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin, where she served as lecturer of Italian. She is a prize-winning literary translator, a writer, an editor and the creator of, a blog about the varieties and forms of Italian employed in contemporary literature.