The start of the new year is the perfect time to re-evaluate our goals, and, along with travel plans, high on my list was my foreign language study for multiple languages, or polyglot journey, both to help facilitate my travel and for the sheer pleasure since language learning is a hobby of mine. One of the greatest feelings I encounter in my travels is when I can communicate with a local in their native language, and their face lights up in delight because it is so unexpected that I have taken the time and effort to learn it. In this article I seek to answer some questions I am commonly asked and provide suggestions of my favorite learning resources that can be used with a variety of different languages, whether you are focusing one or several at once. Bear in mind, my priority is travel – and being able to communicate effectively as a visitor to a foreign country. This differs from common school curriculum priorities (at least in my experience taking 3 languages in high school and 4 in college!)
Do I need to learn foreign languages to travel? No, not necessarily. English is widely spoken, particularly in heavily touristy areas, not even just among English speakers but between native speakers of two different languages for whom the only common language of understanding is English, since it is so widely taught and learned. However, that should not deter you from learning. Particularly in more exotic locations, understanding the language helps take away some of the culture shock, makes you feel more secure, and facilitates far more engagement with the locals.
Can you learn more than one language at at time? Of course! In a lot of parts of the world not only are people learning more than one language, it is part of the required school curriculum to study multiple foreign languages. Is it more difficult? That depends. I have found that studying very similar languages simultaneously, for example Spanish and Italian, can get confusing. But languages are easy for your mind to compartmentalize when they are very different, and I have found that studying a variety of languages provides for more variety in my learning sessions than focusing on one, making it easier to stave off boredom and keep the commitment!
Should I learn more than one language at a time? That depends on your goals. My primary goal is to study for travel, so I prefer to be able to engage in basic conversation with locals in a lot of different places. Learning multiple languages may also work better for you if you have a short attention span, because it offers more variety to help keep you interested. If your goal is to move to a country, or converse in an ethnic neighborhood that is close to you, you may prefer to work on gaining fluency in one to start with.
But I’m “bad” at languages…! It is not likely you are “bad” at languages. It is more likely that you just haven’t found a learning method that suits you. I hate classroom learning, while others thrive in that environment. When you find a method you can enjoy and that “makes sense” to you, you will want to learn…. and it’s all about practice.
But I don’t have time…! I’m in college full-time, working, blogging, vlogging on YouTube, traveling, and working on languages a couple of hours a day. How? There are 24 hours in a day, 7 days a week. When you subtract your sleep hours and required work or school hours, how many do you have left? But, you may say, “I need to relax, watch TV, unwind!” I have the perfect solution that I will explain in greater detail under my learning methods: foreign language shows, music, and movies. It’s all a matter of priorities, and keeping the time spent on those “time-sink” activities like Netflix (English!) binges, long video game sessions, over-sleeping, and social media engagement to a reasonable level.
Do you have a set routine? No. I find that “forcing” things, by having a schedule of set languages at set times of set days, doesn’t work. If I’m not in the mood for a language, I won’t learn anything and it will be a waste of my time. I just plan to put in a couple of hours at some point during the day, and study what I feel like studying that day. I try not to ignore any of the languages I’m working on for too long though, because then extra time is required for review. I created this chart with the goal of checking off each language at least twice a week, minimum, if possible. Obviously, I don’t have time every single day – particularly if I am traveling (unless I am practicing with locals!), but I make an effort when it is practical. (the “I” indicates intermediate level and the “B” indicates beginner level. Four is my limit for “B” level languages at a time.)
So, are you ready to get started? Here are my favorite tools for learning!
- Fluenz (fluenz.com)
I have been using Fluenz for years, and it is by far my favorite resource for learning languages, for several reasons. For one, it focuses on what you are most likely to need to know when you travel, right from lesson one, unlike many other programs and classroom instruction which may give you irrelevant vocabulary and grammar structures that will be useless when it comes to basic conversation, asking for directions, ordering in restaurants, and the like. Another great thing about Fluenz is the wide variety of activities you engage in during each lesson, so that you never have a chance to become bored and the lesson never feels stale. The lessons range from dialogues, to teacher instruction, to repeating words and phrases, to listening and typing, to typing translations, to matching pictures with words, to matching English phrases with their foreign language counterparts, to microphone activities.
Perhaps my favorite feature of all in Fluenz is the eye-candy factor. The software is chock-full of beautiful photography, of places specific to the language you are learning, to inspire you even more. I find myself wanting to complete a language drill to see the next picture! It is very motivating, indulgent, and makes me look forward to the lessons.
Fluenz may be purchased on disc for use on your computer, used online through their website, or used on tablets and smartphones (in which case the lessons may be streamed or downloaded). So you can bring it with you on your travels! As for downsides, I can only site two. First, the Mandarin Chinese only offers pinyin, so if you want to learn Chinese characters, you will need to supplement the program with other resources.
Second, as of the time of this writing, the languages available are limited to: Spanish, French, Mandarin (Chinese), German, Italian, and Portuguese. Both Latin American and European Spanish are offered in separate courses. Honestly, if the languages I wanted to study right now were all available on Fluenz, I doubt I would utilize any other software programs.
2. Transparent Language (transparent.com)
This is my second choice, and luckily one that offers a tremendous selection of languages to choose from, everything from your Spanish and French to languages like Pashto, Zulu, Mongolian and even several languages you may have never even heard of.
One of Transparent’s greatest strengths is its ability to teach you unfamiliar alphabets and writing systems, whether it’s Japanese Hiragana, Russian Cyrillic, Arabic script, or Korean Hangul. The drills are very effective in teaching you what ordinarily could be a challenging task. Transparent also offers a variety of activities within each level, keeping you interested and motivated. I also enjoy the cultural spotlights. On the downside, sometimes I feel like I’m being “tossed in the deep end” with long structures that seem out of place for the lesson they appear in. But it’s a very competent program overall, and languages are offered with native forms of writing rather than just romanizations like some books and programs. Be advised: not all languages have the same amount of content! Some are very extensive, and others have very limited content but cost the same. You can find out which are which by trying the free two week trial, which gives you access to all of the languages!
3. Innovative Language (innovativelanguage.com)
Innovative is another company that does teaching foreign alphabets and writing systems very well. The teachers are friendly and the visuals are engaging.
On your dashboard, you can “pin” the lessons that are of particular interest to you, based on your level, content that is relevant to you, and whether you would like to receive visual and/or audio lessons, for easy reference. This company puts a lot of video lessons up on YouTube, if you want to give them a test drive. They offer a free month trial of their premium offering. They offer a very wide selection of languages.
4. Fluent U (fluentu.com)
Fluent U harnesses the power of YouTube to teach by corralling videos in your target language, putting subtitles in the target language and English, and using them to teach you vocabulary and grammar, by training you with interactive tools and quizzes.
The downside to FluentU is that the number of target languages is currently limited, and content for the beginner level, depending on the language, relies on a lot of childish content. FluentU’s strength lies in the more intermediate and advanced content, with interesting adult news, drama, and music videos in your target language.
5. Online foreign language video streaming services: Viki (viki.com) and Arte (arte.tv)
Remember I said you could trade your English TV relaxation time for a time to be immersed in your target language? If you are learning Mainland Chinese, Taiwan Chinese, Korean, or Japanese (or all of the above!) then Viki has lots of video content for you, including TV shows, movies, and more!
Best of all, it’s completely free. An ads-free upgraded membership with bonus content is also available. There is a huge selection of programs to watch!
If your target languages are more of the European persuasion, this is your alternative. With Arte, you can choose which language you want to view the content in, and the videos will show up for that language.
Netflix also has a number of foreign language videos available for streaming.
6. Textbooks and other books
I have to admit, I have a short attention span for textbooks, but as a supplement to software, video, and audio resources they provide a nice change of pace, and you can dive into them without any particular time commitment, so if you have only a few minutes left in your learning session you can stop when you’re ready. I particularly enjoy these Campus notebooks, which feature a grid rather than lined pattern that is perfect for practicing Chinese characters and Japanese Kanji. It is critical to have your own practice notebooks – the act of recording is a great memory tool, and your writing will look better with practice (especially handy if your target language has a different alphabet or writing system!)
7. Other online resources
There are a number of other online resources for language learning targeted to specific languages, like this example: the Chinese Grammar Wiki. I like to use Evernote to save my favorites all in one place, with separate folders for each language. A Google search including your language of choice and the topic you need help with should have you on your way to learning success!
Listening to music in your target language is a great immersion technique. The way that music is packaged in other countries can be very elaborate, and fun to collect. There is also online streaming and digital download, if you do not want to add to your music library right now or just want to sample it.
9. Italki (italki.com)
Italki is a service that allows you to gain one-on-one instruction with a native speaker. Both professional teachers and native tutors are available at varying rates per hour. Packages are available to purchase multiple lessons at a discount. When you receive your lesson, you will have the instructor’s undivided attention for the length of the lesson, and you are able to request what material will be covered based on your own needs. There is a wide range of price points depending on the language, location of the teacher, how many teachers are available, and whether the instructor is a professional teacher or not. They may even have the particular textbook you are using on hand. This is a great way to get feedback on your accent and get specific questions answered that your other language materials may not have provided the answers to.
10. Last but not least: YouTube!
YouTube hosts a wealth of instructional tools for language learning that are usually presented in a fun, short, format. If I finish with my software or textbook chapter early, I like to fill in the time with some of these videos. There are many great videos specifically geared toward language instruction which you can find using the search bar and the language and topic you need guidance with.
The other fun way to use YouTube is as a language immersion tool by watching music videos or drama in your targeted language. Create a playlist for yourself of your favorites! (Here is one from my K-Pop favorites playlist, which I am drawn to quite often!)
Another great way to incorporate YouTube into your language learning is to learn organizational and planning tips from the YouTube polyglot community, which is vast. They have many valuable suggestions to offer for learning materials and schedules, and I find these videos are also inspiring and motivating. It’s psychology – when you see someone else succeeding at something you are more likely to feel as though success is within your own grasp, too. This is “livluvlang,” one of my favorite polyglot YouTube personalities.
(11). And a note about audio lessons…
I have tried a number of audio resources, including Pimsleur, Glossika, and audio content that is included with software packages like the content included in Fluenz. You will notice that I did not choose audio instruction for my top 10, and I wanted to explain why. Obviously, these systems are ideal for “audio learners” and for people who spend a lot of time in their car because of a long commute or driving job. But I find, as someone not falling into either category, that these programs help a little when I do need to drive but are not efficient ways to learn. For one thing, I become bored with no visual stimulation. Second, without seeing the words or writing the words it is harder to retain them in memory. It’s a matter of personal preference – this may work better for you. I prefer to listen to foreign language music in the car!
(12). Low or no cost suggestions for specific languages…
My goal with this post was to cover options that include a wide variety of languages rather than specific ones, to help as many readers as possible. However, there are a few standout options for very low or no cost I wanted to point out in case you are interested in one of these or haven’t decided yet what you want to study:
The Alif Baa textbook, and accompanying Al-Kitaab Arabic Language Program companion website, produced by Georgetown University, is an excellent value, for the cost of the textbook purchase plus about $25 for 18 months of website access. This textbook is used in many universities, but you are able to use the book and website as an independent learner as well. I appreciate that the creators of this program acknowledge that classroom instruction isn’t for everybody. My favorite thing about this book is the way that it covers Modern Standard Arabic and two dialects: Levantine and Egyptian. Modern Standard Arabic is very formal, and while you will hear things like news broadcasts in it, it is not commonly spoken in the streets. So ideally if your objective is travel, learning a dialect with MSA will be very helpful. Both of these dialects are widely understood throughout the area because of cultural and media exchange throughout the Middle East. You can supplement this with other options I highlighted in the Top 10 to give yourself greater variety. NOTE: intermediate and advanced levels are available as well – visit the website for details!
Chinese – Mandarin (www.youtube.com/channel/UC9RHneALOnf29DgQ5PCyNdg):
Integrated Chinese is another textbook popular with universities, and John Wang on YouTube has a video series which covers every lesson in the book. Take your instructor out of the classroom and put them in your living room! Textbooks can sometimes be challenging to use without instructor guidance, but with John’s help you can succeed! This can be used with other methods mentioned above as well, and Chinese is very well represented on YouTube in many other videos. For the cost of the textbook alone you can get a great start into Chinese!
The University of Iceland has put a completely free Icleandic learning program on the web. Icelandic learning materials are some of the hardest to find, so to find one that is free is cause for celebration! There are a few textbooks out there you could supplement the program with.
Best of luck in your language learning journey this year! I hope these resources will help you get the most out of your independent language learning ambitions and, in turn, your travel experiences!