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5 (Cheap) Ways to Learn a Language at Home

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by Cressida Ryan (subscribe)
Classicist and traveller
Published July 22nd 2014
No more stuttering abroad
If you're heading off somewhere exciting or just want to challenge yourself, learning a language can be very rewarding. Not everyone has the time, money or inclination to do a formal course somewhere, and learning at home alone can be demotivating and tough.

language, learning, books, library
Lots of choice at the library, but where to start?

Popping into your local library will reveal masses of materials, but how do you know what might suit you? Here are five suggestions for ways which might help you communicate confidently.

1.) Teach Yourself books

If you like grammar and exercises, then teach yourself books can be a great way to learn. They'll usually come with CDs to help you tune into the sound of the language. They will cover grammar and vocab systematically, with themed chapters, and revision stages built in to help you consolidate your work. There are internationally recognised 'levels' and good books will let you know where they fit in to this scheme.

teach, yourself, language, learning, german, book
Teach yourself kit

Pros: you can learn at your own rate, in private.

Cons: it can feel very much like being back at school. It can be hard to keep motivation up, and you don't get a chance to practise conversation.

2.) Memrise

Designed by a world memory champion, Memrise is a website that uses the idea of 'growing' memories to help you learn things. It works really well for vocab, and reasonably for other kinds of data. You are given batches of five words to learn, with 'memes' to help you remember them ('planting'). You're tested in a variety of ways to help reinforce them, and this is repeated at intervals ('watering'). You'll receive an email to remind you to water your items. If you get things wrong, you're tested on them more frequently, to help consolidate them in your memory. You earn points for all correct answers.

Memrise, language, learning
Memrise screenshot

Pros: it can go on mobile devices and be accessible wherever you go. It's competitive, with leaderboards, which may motivate you. You can work through the courses at your own pace, depending how much time you have and how easy you find it.

Cons: the mobile app version doesn't work very well. You need to be connected to the internet. It only teaches you vocab, not how to use it.

Other websites which are also useful include the BBC's language learning courses.

3.) Cultural pursuits

if you like foreign cultures, then reading books and newspapers, watching films or listening to the radio are great ways to learn through cultural immersion.

italian, books, DVDs, passolini, learn, languages
Books and films - a great cultural way to learn languages

Pros: these are all fun hobbies, which means they can be doubly enjoyable experiences. You're absorbing 'real' materials rather than the rather forced things one finds in textbooks.

Cons: they can be much harder to understand as a beginner. You need a fair amount of time to do something justice.

4.) A study buddy exchange

Newsagent and library noticeboards abound with postcards offering reciprocal language exchange meetings. The idea is that two native speakers in different languages meet up for coffee (or similar) and over a defined period of time practice their language skills on each other. The same principle would apply to having a pen friend.

coffee, study, buddy, language, learning
"Latte art

Pros: you're learning real, colloquial language, in an immersion environment. It might be less intimidating to be corrected by a peer than a teacher.

Cons: you need to find mutually agreeable times, and source a partner in the first place. Conversation might be limited, stilted or unbalanced, particularly in the early days.

5.) Immersion audio courses

Linguists such as Michel Thomas believe that actively striving to learn a language in a cognitively aware way isn't necessarily beneficial. Recreating how children learn their native tongue, he applies a model of learning by aural absorption and oral repetition, without over-thinking things. His courses are entirely audio based, and typically last around 8-10 hours. You can start with basics and progress through different proficiency levels.

michel, thomas, language, learning
Michel Thomas language learning by listening and copying

Pros: you're learning to speak the real language. It requires concentration, but doesn't feel hard.

Cons: you're not covering the whole language systematically. No reading and writing methods are covered.

Using this to supplement a textbook can make a very powerful dual approach though, giving you the full range of skills.
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Why? Plan for holidays, or just expand your mind
Where: In the comfort of your own home
Your Comment
I have the Complete German course - it takes some time to get into it. I've found that I really like Rosetta Stone's German. Not heard of Memrise - sounds useful!
by Erin Connelly (score: 2|522) 1401 days ago
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