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Sunday, 4 November 2007

Learn a New Language for Free

If you've ever wanted to learn a new language, but didn't want to spend the money on lessons or a teach-yourself program, listen up.

This summer, I moved to a little French-speaking country in West Africa. It's a long story and some day I'll probably get around to posting it, but right now the part that is relevant is that when I arrived, I didn't speak a word of French. I couldn't even count to ten. I've still got a long way to go, but I'm at the point where at the very least people can't talk about me anymore without me noticing.

Because I'm cheap I started looking for free teach-yourself French courses before my big journey. I came across a lot of online courses and programs, some free and others on a subscription basis, but the very best totally free course I found was from FSI. FSI, or the Foreign Service Institute, developed a comprehensive set of language learning courses aimed to prepare American foreign officials for postings abroad. The idea was to create a course that taught students everything they needed to know to have good, conversational level speech and comprehension as fast as possible. The old lessons have been made public now and there's a great website that tracks them down, digitizes them and makes them available to download for free.

Visit FSI Language Courses for free FSI courses in the following languages:


The site is always updating its library, so if the language you're hoping for isn't there yet, keep checking back.

A word of warning: the lessons are old (I think they were created in the 1950's or something) so the sound quality isn't amazing, but when you consider what you've paid for them, you'll be pleasantly surprised. Also, while a lot of the material will be helpful, FSI courses were not designed to be pure teach-yourself courses. Rather, they were designed to have teachers helping the students start the lessons and run the drills. But I think you ought to be able to figure it out yourself. Also, a quick google search will pop up a lot of online "teach yourself a language" courses that are based on the old FSI method. Usually, you can sign up for a free trial and if you do that you might be able to familiarize yourself with the FSI method before the trial ends and then apply the study skills you learned to your use of the free FSI material you downloaded.

A side note about learning languages: While travelling and living abroad, I've heard the following joke, or sentiments quite like it, more than once:

Q: What do you call a person who speaks three languages?
A: Trilingual.

Q: What do you call a person who speaks two languages?
A: Bilingual.

Q: What do you call a person who speaks one language?
A: American.

Like most jokes, this one has its humor because, on some level, it's a little bit true. Now, before you jump on me and start yelling about the growing Spanish speaking population in the United States, please note that I've taken this into consideration. Even still, I think that by and large, far fewer Americans speak a second language than most other nationalities in the world. Or at the very least this is the impression that we give to the rest of the world when we travel.

Not to be making excuses for us, but I think that the reason we don't speak a second or third language is that we've never really had the need. For the most part, we can travel and do business with our mother tongue because everyone else learns English for us. Other native English speaking nations like the UK and Australia are in a similar boat. But the world is changing. People and goods are crossing borders like never before, and companies are becoming multinational and opening up offices around the globe. While I suspect it's unlikely that we'll ever be forced to embrace foreign languages like other countries have embraced English, I think it's a smart move for individuals to try to do so.

Why is it a smart move? Two reasons: first, knowing a second language can help you earn more. Many companies look for language skills when hiring and knowing a second or third language can be that extra thing that pulls you apart from other candidates or makes you more qualified for that promotion. Maybe you could take that position abroad if you were familiar with the local language. It's amazing how much money you can make and save up in just a few years overseas. Or maybe you've got your own small business and gaining additional language skills would help you widen your market or provide better customer service?

Also, knowing a second language, even just a little, can open a whole new (and usually much cheaper) part of the world for travelling. There are truly amazing vacation destinations that aren't yet on the major tourism map because English isn't widely spoken there. For example, a little knowledge of German will open up most of Eastern Europe and these countries have a lot more to offer and at a price that is much cheaper than you'd expect; Poland has got to be one of the most underrated travel destinations I've ever visited. And it's clear that a little Spanish will take you much further through South America and on much less than a tour arranged by a travel agency. Of course you can visit these places with just English, but you'll be more comfortable and more likely to do so if you know a little bit of another language people are likely to speak there. Plus, it's fun to be able to speak another language while you travel. You can talk to the local people and learn more about their culture and the cool things to see and do in the area.

To sum up, learning a language doesn't have to cost you anything more than the time and effort it takes to learn and the pay off for making such an investment is only getting greater everyday.

Give it a try and good luck!

*Five points to anyone reading this post who knows where Yoruba is spoken without Googling it first!

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