How to Learn a Language Without Going Back to School

As someone who uses more than one language on a daily basis – Dutch, my native language, and English, the language spoken in the country where I live – I’m often bemused by monolinguals. The school system in my current country doesn’t routinely teach children foreign languages and – as more and more people across the globe speak English as a second language – many people I meet are oblivious to the struggles language learners encounter.

I could write a book about the weird questions I’ve been asked: do I speak English with my family (nope, Dutch is our native language, so why would we?) and do you speak Dutch at all (this one came from someone who knew I was born and raised in The Netherlands). In the end it’s all down to a lack of experience and understanding. For this reason alone, I always recommend people at least try and have a go at learning a language other than their own. It’s not just a way to broaden your horizon, it’s also a lot of fun.

But traditional language courses can be time-consuming and expensive. And not everyone learns in the same way. If even a self-professed book worm like myself struggles to practice on a regular basis, I imagine most people do at some point. And it’s practice that, as the old chestnut goes, makes perfect. Or at least a little bit better every day.

Fortunately there are many fun and free options available for those that are unable and/or unwilling to spend a lot of time and money studying a language. True, your progress may not be as fast, but if you stick with your practice you will still benefit in the long run. I’m sharing my favourites here for everyone’s benefit. They’re all free and easy to fit into whatever crazy life you lead.

  1. Duolingo

Not the bookish type? Duolingo teaches a range of languages through games you can play on your smartphone. Take a lesson or two, compete with your friends, and – my personal favourite – play interactive stories. I love how easily I can fit practice into my daily routine with this app, and because it’s so much fun learning doesn’t feel like a chore.

  1. Open culture

For the more serious-minded, this website has a fantastic collection of free online language tutorials. It even features lesser-known languages such as Estonian and Amharic. Be prepared to lose weeks of your life though: Open Culture also offers a huge amount of documentaries, films, ebooks and other amazing stuff, all free to access and in the public domain.

  1. Tandem

Talking to real people is still one of the best ways to practice a language, and it’s more fun than staring at a text book. If you can’t find any people to practice with locally an online service like Tandem could be a good option. I like its reciprocity: you key in the language you’re looking to learn and the language(s) you speak fluently, and the service connects you with someone you can practice with so you can learn from each other. I’ve encountered similar services but Tandem remains one of the  best: easy to use and great functionality.

  1. Read and listen

Perhaps a straightforward piece of advice, and more suited to those at intermediate to advanced level, but so many people seem to forget that nothing is stopping you watching TV, reading books, and browsing websites in your chosen language created by native speakers for native speakers. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand everything (yet), this is not a competition and you don’t have to be perfect. Great for those (like me) who get bored easily if they’re not challenged.

Veel plezier!

 Image my own: First view of the Dutch coast from the Harwich-Hook of Holland ferry

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