My top 10 tools I use to learn a language

For years I have been fascinated by the idea of learning many languages. Not only does it allow you to communicate with more people around the world, but it lets you get inside the mind of another culture in a way that is impossible without understanding the language.

I learn French, Spanish and Italian, which is easier than it sounds. I have been learning French for the longest and it is the only language I’ve taken a class in. A knowledge of French has helped me in Spain and Italy, because these languages are close cousins. This is why once you learn one, it’s not so difficult to learn more!

I have an okay grasp of Spanish and Italian. I think at this stage it’s enough that it would make life a lot easier if I was navigating around either country – never underestimate the power of knowing some basic vocabulary in a language!

Of course, there is no substitute for immersion, but sometimes you can’t spend three months in Paris to perfect your French. Okay, most of the time you can’t spend three months abroad to learn a language. Just because immersion is the fastest way to learn, does not mean there is no value in learning at home. I’ve got a good grip on three foreign languages, and continue to improve, using a combination of the tools listed below.

1. DuoLingo (Free)

I’ve been using this app for over a year now, learning French, Spanish and Italian. I did a few lessons in German, Dutch and Portuguese, just to see if I was interested in learning those languages at some point, but found I didn’t have the motivation to learn them. DuoLingo is free and makes learning languages fun, particularly if you have a competitive streak!

For each lesson you get 3 or 4 hearts or “lives”, and with every mistake you lose one. If you lose all your lives, you have to start over. You accumulate points to determine your level in that language and bonus points which unlock extra lessons, i.e. flirting in Italian.

I’ve used the app for both languages I had prior knowledge of (French & Spanish) and languages I was brand new to (Italian), and have found it really useful for both. You learn how to speak, write and comprehend Italian phrases, so I find it better than learning from a book.

Levanto, Italy |

2. Coffee Break Podcasts (Free)

The Radio Lingua Network has a series of free podcasts for language learning, broken down into 15-20 minute episodes. There is the teacher, Mark, and Katie, the student, who learns with you. Having a genuine student on the podcast is really useful, because you hear her pronunciation (often similar to my own) and then you hear it corrected by Mark, so you have a better chance at learning the nuances of the pronunciation.

At the moment I’m using Coffee Break Italian, but I’ve used the Spanish and French editions in the past. They also have shorter episodes for a number of other languages, such as Japanese and Swedish.

3. Michel Thomas (Paid)

My boyfriend’s father learns Spanish too, so he leant me his Michel Thomas CDs for a while over the Christmas break. I listened to a few and was really impressed by how quickly I was able to learn (and remember!) Spanish phrases. Almost immediately, I felt the phrases rolling effortlessly out of my mouth – in fact, if I slowed down to think it through I often made a mistake! Michel Thomas dedicated his life to studying the human mind and built a language learning system that does not rely on homework or memorisation – simply listen to the CDs, and what you learn will stick in your mind.

The CD sets are quite pricey, at around $120 for Total Spanish (or other languages), so this is something to invest in if you are serious about learning a language and know you will commit to using it. If you have the spare cash, I think it’s a great investment. I haven’t purchased any of the CDs yet, but might in the future if I feel I need the extra learning support or am planning to spend an extended amount of time overseas.

Sunsets in Levanto, Italy.

4. Learning Books

I’ve bought a few books over the years, from more basic workbooks in Spanish, Spanish learning by association books and books for fine tuning my French. I can’t deny that the books have been a really good way to learn properly, but I don’t think I could learn only from books, purely because it is a lot easier to lose interest if you aren’t hearing or speaking the language. I think books are a great supplement to learning a language, in conjunction with a podcast, app or conversations.

5. Read foreign magazines

When I travel, I try to bring home a few tiny magazines – they’re only A5 sized and cost 1 or 2 euro, so it’s an easy way to get learning materials. Occasionally, I splurge on Vogue Paris or Vogue Espanol, but they’re pretty pricey (around $18) when the hit our newsstands. Magazines are a great way to get a feel for everyday language and the number of pictures makes it easier to help you understand what you’re reading.

When I’m more fluent, I could try getting books (preferably books I already know in English) in my target languages, but for now I find even translating one page of a magazine very tiring.

Montparnasse, Paris |

6. Watch foreign movies 

I have a few foreign movies, but I’ll admit that if there are subtitles in English, I don’t pick up much of the language at all. I have a few favourites, such as Amelie, that I will try re-watching without subtitles. Palace Cinemas holds a number of foreign film festivals throughout the year. I’m going to the French Film Festival soon, and even though it is subtitled, I will try and brush up on my French before I go so that it is easier to concentrate on listening to the French rather than relying exclusively on subtitles.

Like magazines, movies are really good for learning everyday phrases. Hearing phrases spoken in context also makes it easier to remember them.

7. Try to think in your target language (Free)

Even if it’s as simple as telling my boyfriend that “I am making breakfast” in Italian while making eggs this morning, or wondering “Donde esta la mantequilla?” while I’m looking for the butter, converting your everyday thoughts into your target language is a really important way to learn. It strengthens your confidence in your abilities and lets you road test your skills, for free!

After studying diligently for a few weeks, I find myself beginning to think in my target language – a very promising sign.

8. Busuu (Free)

Busuu is a website for language learning with free & paid packages. A few years ago, I learned French and Spanish using the free packages and found it pretty useful, but these days I prefer DuoLingo. One major perk of Busuu is that it connects you chat-room-style to native speakers of your target language who are learning your native language. You’re encouraged to chat even for a few minutes, using both languages. This was a pretty good way to see what I’d learned and highlighted when I couldn’t say really useful conversational phrases.

Montmartre, Paris |

9. A local class

This is a more expensive option, but sometimes if you are struggling it can help to do a foundational course in your target language. When I studied in France, my skill level was between two classes. Having not had French lessons since Grade 8 ( of which I remember little), I opted to go for the lower course and focus on perfecting my language at that level, and ensuring my pronunciation and sentence structure was right. I can always learn more advanced French later, but a good foundation is really important.

Having a teacher and learning in the classroom was so much more useful than I expected it to be. I usually prefer to learn on my own, but my speaking confidence improved dramatically during the class.

I want to take a class with Alliance Francaise here in Melbourne, but I will wait till I have more travel savings before I invest in a language course.

10. Foreign Language MeetUps (Free)

I’ve mentioned MeetUp before, as a great way to meet people based on different interests. Check out the website and see if there are any foreign language meet ups in your city. For example, there are Spanish meet ups where native speakers go to practice their English with native English speakers for half the time, and then everyone swaps into Spanish.

Have you tried any of these tools? How have you learned a new language? What’s worked for you?

14 thoughts on “My top 10 tools I use to learn a language

  1. These are some great tips! When we lived in South Korea I had a 40 minute commute to and from work on the bus each day. I passed the time by listening to a Korean Language podcast called I would listen to a new episode in the morning on the way to work, then review it on the way home. I also practiced speaking Korean and testing out my new grammar skills on my coworkers as much as possible.

  2. I already use a few of these like coffee break podcasts and duolingo, but I’m definitely going to try some of the others! Learning a new language can just be so hard! I’m in the process of mastering Spanish and sometimes I just think I’ll never get it! Thanks for all the advice 😀

  3. It’s fascinating that you would post this today. Just this morning, no kid, I downloaded DuoLingo to start learning French again. I took a class about 5 years ago when I thought I was going to study there, and I did use it France, but have forgotten a lot. Can’t wait to pick it up again and one day use it again.

  4. These are some great practical tips :)) but I think that sometimes students underestimate themselves by taking a lower level class. You might strengthten your base in the language, but it makes you get stuck on a certain point/level. In my opinion, its always better to aim a bit higher. It stimulates your brain and it will also make you try harder :))

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