How to Learn a Second Language Without Taking a Class or Breaking the Bank with Expensive Software
The author of this post has not been endorsed or sponsored by any of the brands or platforms mentioned below.
I felt totally at a loss for how to keep up my language learning, aside from moving to Germany, after graduating in December 2019. I’d had access to German classes for my entire college career, and now I had no way to structure my learning, no learning materials, and no system of accountability outside myself. Furthermore, I knew I wanted to continue to build my German skills, but was at a loss as to how to make that happen.
The phrase “use it or lose it” applies to learning a second (or third or fourth) language perhaps more than most else. If you are not actively practicing your reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills every day, your brain is moving your knowledge of the secondary language(s) into long-term memory, which takes longer to retrieve, as to make space for more pertinent knowledge. This process happened, it felt, before my eyes. By March of 2020, my German skills were so weak I could not carry a basic conversation with a study group at the coffee shop I worked at, when just the summer before I had carried full-fledged conversations with native speakers in Berlin!
With COVID-19 came the closure of my coffee shop and more time to focus on building German as a habit. Since my goal is to be able to translate German texts into English, and to study interactions between Medieval German and Anglophone literature, I could not bear to lose any more of what I’d worked so hard to learn. I threw myself into researching the best tools and methods to regain my knowledge and make everyday practice a habit. I’ll share each of these tools and platforms below, so they can possibly help you with your language-learning journey!
I will start by acknowledging Duolingo is a controversial tool. Critics (often backed by other pricier language learning software) have argued it’s a waste of time and that it does not work. While I use Duolingo every day, I understand one app definitely will not be for everybody. If you’re in this boat, I recommend going ahead and scrolling down to the next section.
In my experience, though, Duolingo has been the most effective tool in maintaining my language learning habit. I appreciate that new features are constantly being added, how all four core skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking) are hit in a short 5-minute lesson, and that it integrates social media to encourage your friends and family who also use the app to hold you accountable. The streak feature has been most addictive for me — I just reached a 200-day streak two days ago, and I’m so excited to reach the 365 milestone!
I also am drawn to how it gamifies language learning. The developers created a leaderboard which ranks you against other users in leagues such as Ruby, Obsidian, and Diamond, encouraging you to compete against yourself and others. Duolingo is the largest free language learning tool in the world, and this is for a reason!
I will disclose I have paid for DuolingoPLUS, at $79.99 a year or $12.99 a month, because with this feature you can take a mastery test at any time that assists you with tracking your improvement in the course.
If you need to build your language learning habit, and you struggle to stick with learning your language due to lack of time, accountability/community, or it just being plain boring sometimes, I recommend you download Duolingo today.
I always suggest Memrise as an alternative to Duolingo when my friends express skepticism of using an app to learn language, often paired with criticism of Duolingo’s efficacy. One of the biggest downsides of Duolingo is that a computer voice speaks instead of a real human voice.
Software like RosettaStone or Babbel tends to be on the more expensive side, but offers the voice of a native speaker to assist you with learning. I had assumed I would have to eventually pay this price to learn how to speak German more fluently. Then, my partner, who is learning Japanese, showed me Memrise.
Like Duolingo, Memrise offers fun interactive games and activities to supercharge your language learning. Unlike Duolingo, the activities are speaking + listening focused, and teach common phrases in the language in lieu of grammatical concepts.
The app is totally free to work through, though you will encounter aggressive advertising for their premium membership, which I have not yet tried. However, if I decide it’s necessary I spend money to become a more fluent speaker and listener, Memrise will be my first choice!
This next suggestion is a little off the wall, but it’s easy, fun, and it works. Watching TV in your target language has been proven to help you learn the language. Although, in the US, it can obviously be difficult to find programming in German on cable. Luckily, American Netflix offers German dubs over many Netflix Original shows along with German subtitles. These were good for the first few months I attempted to learn this way — I could just sit back on the couch and pick up on new and nearly forgotten vocabulary, and recognize grammatical structures, by watching and reading the subtitles.
Within about a month, however, I ran out of shows that interested me and that were available with the German dub. Then, in November, I learned about a tool called NordVPN, which runs about $59 per year, and allows you to browse the web as if you were from any country in the world. This made it so I could watch German Netflix as if I were sitting in a living room in Berlin or Heidelberg!
4. Podcasts + Radio
Listening to podcasts in your target language has been shown to improve listening skills, vocabulary, and cultural knowledge. I personally enjoy listening to the news in German, not only because the vocabulary overlaps with that I hear on my English newscasts, but because I get to analyze how the German mainstream media interprets current events differently than the American media.
You can use the “Podcasts” app on your iPhone, or apps like Stitcher or Spotify, to search for shows in your target language. Then, you can listen while you cook, clean, work out, or before you go to sleep to go the extra mile in improving your fluency.
There also are many apps in the App Store or Google Play store that compile radio stations from all over the world. I have Radio Germany, which is simply designed but has a list of hundreds of German radio stations 100% for free, available and playing music or talk radio 24/7!
italki is the platform I suggest which is the most “school” like. If you’re the type of person who needs a teacher to guide your learning, asses your strengths, and explain the areas in which you need support, italki may be the best platform for you to jumpstart and sustain your language learning habit.
This is how it works: You can browse teachers for your target language who will have uploaded a short introduction video and written about their background and teaching style. Newer teachers will typically be more affordable, while more experienced teachers will be a little more expensive. Then, you pay a discounted rate to take a trial lesson with them through a video-chatting platform. Once you find the teacher you think will be the best fit, you use italki’s scheduling tool to book future sessions.
I’ve considered teaching English on italki, though have not yet had the time. I will likely work with a tutor on the platform during the school year to help me stay accountable and to streamline the process of researching grammar/definition questions, and I’m excited that it will be simple but hopefully effective!
6. Teaching a Young Person or ESL Student English
Lastly, I want to suggest that teaching English, or your native language, to a young person or somebody attempting to learn at a later point in life, may be one of the best ways to encourage your own language learning. By teaching English, you come to realize some of the rules and patterns that feel like a “natural” given to you are actually difficult to understand, integrate, and master to somebody who is not a fluent and/or native speaker. This allows you not only to differentiate the types of English grammar that do not actually make sense through the lens of another language, but also to understand the types of questions one must to ask and skills one must practice to reach fluency.
I found when I started tutoring and teaching English full time, I felt more inspired to work on building my German skills, and also found it much easier to laugh off mistakes and stay more open to “curveballs” in my lessons. I found myself asking better questions and working harder to uncover the answers.
Teaching certainly isn’t for everyone, but if you are a teacher, I highly recommend paying attention to how your students are acquiring language, and taking that knowledge into your practice of learning a new language!
I will begin graduate study for my Masters in English Literature in August. The school offers a MWF 8:30 AM German class, for a high fee, and I’ve ultimately decided against it. I have confidence that I’ve built a good structure for myself to continue my German habit, and that I will eventually reach fluency through self-study using all of these resources plus a Grammar workbook from my local bookstore. Plus, I can fit my habit into any point of my day that I have 30–45 minutes, and I can split up that block if necessary into 15 minutes of Duolingo in the morning, 15 minutes of podcasts during an afternoon job, and 15 minutes with my workbook before bed, for example.
I wish everybody learning a new language, or just thinking about trying to, the best of luck with building this habit! Please share any other resources, or your opinions on the six resources I discussed, in the comments!