10 Helpful Tips for Learning Languages on a Budget!
We all know how ridiculously expensive tutors and language courses are, and in my opinion they’re not always the most effective. You need self discipline to learn a language and endless perseverance because you cannot put a clear mark on fluency and that’s where many people get discouraged. Learning a language is never ending. To most people, I speak fluent German, yet I still feel like I have so much to learn! In a world of instant gratification, we find ourselves impatient if we cannot succeed or get what we want from a course or a tutor. We think that by enrolling in a B2 Language course, that means we’ll be conversationally fluent at the end. But no teacher is magic and it’s really up to you to put yourself out there to converse with the locals and learn from your mistakes.
Through the last few years of trial and error, I have compiled a list of 10 tips/methods I found to be most useful in helping me learn German and more recently, Spanish. I am by no means an expert, this is just me sharing some of the things I learnt with the hope that by referencing my own experiences and struggles, it’ll make you feel more comfortable about putting yourself out there and giving things a go.
1. Find a Buddy or Tandem Partner
This is something you can do wherever you are. Some universities provide this Tandem partner or buddy system where you can ask for someone who speaks the language you’re wanting to learn and in return you help them with your native language. Alternatively, if you are past that uni stage, then do some stalking, ask around maybe you’ll find a friend of a friend who fits that category. I had several language buddies when I first started learning and they weren’t all students - some were working and in their middle ages, others were backpackers I encountered along my travels.
The point of having a tandem buddy is that you learn by doing and conversing in real life situations - not sitting in the library glossing over horrific grammar tables and vocabulary that makes you want to throw books at them. It’s a good idea to try meet up regularly, over coffee, a walk in the park, anything you want. Try set out some ground rules or goals to keep you from falling into that comfort trap of speaking your native language.
I had a tandem partner who, when we started, only spoke english to me because that’s what he wanted to improve. But his english was far better than my German, so I ended up falling back into the comfort of English 90% of the time as I wasn’t very confident in my German. Further on, as my German got better, I’d speak to him in slightly broken German, but we still fell back on English 60-70% of the time to clarify things. Towards the end, we were having a few conversations solely in German and that was a game changer. However, I certainly wouldn’t rely on this as the only method of learning, but rather use it as a way of measuring your progress. You don’t even have to ‘meet up’ if you don’t have time. Simply messaging each other in a bilingual way helps you a lot, especially in your written grammar - correct and critique the other person as much as you can, no offence should be taken because you would both rather learn the correct version than to be laughed at down the track because your buddy didn’t have the courage to tell you it was wrong.
2. Write down scenarios and role play with the locals
This is one of my favourite learning methods! It’s so much fun and you learn so much from simply acting out your pre-written scenarios. Basically, what you do is come up with a scenario (like going to the train station or ordering at a cafe) and with the help of a native speaker, write down all the questions you could possibly ask and all the responses you could possibly get. Store these on your phones under notes so you can keep adding to it as you come up with more.
The only drawback, which I actually see as an advantage, is that people (especially with different dialects) will often respond in a way you hadn’t anticipated, they’ll probably use some new words you’ve never heard of and that will throw you off a lot. If you didn’t understand what they said, rephrase and ask your questions differently, they’ll probably pick up that you’re still learning and speak a little slower and clearer. Only resort to english as your last option. I would occasionally pretend I couldn’t speak english just because I wanted to stick it out and challenge myself.
Really take the time to focus on your accent here because these will be the most common phrases you use, so if you get it right from the start, it makes life so much easier further down the track. Since you’re basically just rote learning and memorising phrases, you might feel that you don’t actually ‘get it’ just yet. I felt like somewhat of a fraud because people thought I spoke their language when really, I was just reciting what was on my phone. BUT… keep at it because the more you repeat and hear certain phrases, the more it will make sense to you. Soon you’ll find yourself super pro at dealing with scenarios at train stations and cafes, but not so much say, at the bank because you don’t go there often. So work on that next. Repetition is key.
3. Sometimes Google Translate is your best friend
Your tandem buddies can’t always be there with you 24/7 and sometimes your scenario phrases aren’t extensive enough. So when I’m travelling, either on my own or with people, I make sure to have Google Translate along with multiple languages downloaded so that even if I’m out of reception, I have a way of communicating in the local language. Currently I have: German, Spanish, Italian, French and Greek. This is SO handy, not just for learning languages but for travelling foreign countries in general! In Italy, Spain and France for example, I found that the older generation and locals in the countryside couldn’t speak much English at all, so to avoid miscommunication, I’ll try speak their language. If it’s a complicated or too long a phrase to recite, then I just swivel my phone around for them to read - yes I cheat sometimes!
A good tip for using Google Translate is to be concise with your input and avoid using slang, as there are many phrases you simply cannot translate into another language and if you put in too much, google gets a bit overwhelmed and produces very incoherent sentences.
So instead of saying: Do you happen to know where the train station is? / Would I be able to have one coffee with sugar and milk on the side, please?
Simplify it into: Where is the train station? / One coffee with sugar and milk please.
This might sound a bit rude, but at least it’s to the point and people will get what it is you’re after.
4. Utilise the huge amount of free stuff online!!
Guys, there is SO much free stuff online! I know a lot of people who use Duolingo and yes it does help with vocab learning, but I still felt like I was mindlessly rote learning words with pretty pictures and not applying it to real life, so it just wasn’t practical enough for me. My tip here would be to pick your apps wisely or use it as support, but don’t rely on it to become fluent because that only happens by speaking to real people and not learning from a screen.
If you need quick clarification for grammar rules, just google away. There is an overload of information out there which can help you immensely. Videos are also becoming popular and you can find a lot of tutorials for free on YouTube. There is one channel in particular I would like to mention and that is: Easy Languages. I found it to be indispensable in helping me wrap my head around how the language sounds and differs between local people. This would be especially useful for those who don’t live in the country of the language they want to learn, as it brings the language and culture to you. I started with Easy German, where they roam the streets of German cities and villages, interviewing local people about a particular question or topic. There is no acting behind the responses, so it’s very genuine and authentic. On top of that, they subtitle the entire video in both German and English so you can follow along and learn as you watch. Sometimes, they even bring in German learning students and let them take the lead, which I think is really cool. German is the most extensive language on their channel with categories for Beginners, Intermediate and Advanced. But they have a huge selection of languages all with the same concept, so if you’re interested, I’ve linked their Youtube Channel below!
EASY LANGUAGES - YOUTUBE
EASY GERMAN - YOUTUBE
5. Immerse yourself - Go live in that country!
Okay, so this one isn’t exactly ‘free’, but you can certainly do this on a budget or find a job in that country to help subsidise your living costs. Seriously, there is no better way to learn a language than to live in that country. Most people learn English rather quickly because it’s so easy to immerse yourself in what is the international language. Resources are everywhere: movies, tv shows, books etc. But the downside is that for native English speakers, it’s rather hard to learn another language because it’s so easy to fall into that comfort of just speaking English for clarity and ease. So the trick is to throw yourself in the deep end and surround yourself with people who can’t speak english very well! Basically, don’t give yourself a choice and you’ll be surprised how much you’re capable of when you’re outside your comfort zone and rely on learning asap to survive in this new foreign country.
More specifically, you should choose a region with the dialect you actually want to learn - and I cannot stress this enough. My naiive self once thought, it didn’t matter where I lived: Austria, Switzerland, Germany… they all speak German! That’s great! Little did I know, there are dozens of dialects across each of those countries, so suddenly German broke down into Austrian German and Swiss German, then I realised within Austria, each region had it’s own dialect, some vastly distinct from ‘high german’ and it took my ears a while to adjust and comprehend. Same goes for Swiss German, except I still have trouble understanding the 10+ different dialects in Switzerland and my throat is simply incapable of replicating their dialects… Same goes for Spanish (Catalunya, Basque, Andalusia, Galicia, all have their own dialect, as well the different countries in South America like Mexico, Colombia etc.); French (south of France speaks somewhat differently to the north, as does Quebec French, Swiss French, all the French colonised islands etc.); Italian (Sicily dialect is so different to Milan, you also have Sardinia dialect, Swiss Italian, northern Tirol dialect etc.) - the list goes on!
I learnt half my German in Austria with a Viennese dialect and the other half in Germany with ‘High German’ - the result was a hilarious mish mash whereby I got laughed at in Germany for being so Austrian and coincidentally ripped out by my Austrian friends for speaking such ‘High German’. The word mushroom for example, is “Pilz” in High German but I prefer the Austrian version “Schwammerl”. I still get laughed at to this day when I use random Austrian words in Germany, but hey, at least they’re laughing and not offended!
6. Understand the culture
This isn’t exactly a language learning tip, but one that’s very important to take note of. Even if your fluency is zero (like mine was at the start), I would ask them about their culture because so much of it is embedded in the language and the language in return also heavily influences the culture. For example, Germans are direct and to the point - many people take it as rude, but when you realise that the German language itself is direct and precise, then when you’re translating from English to German, you can forget about all the fluffy words that have no real importance in the sentence. For example:
English: Hey, just wondering if you might be keen to go out for a coffee or something later this week?
German: Hast du diese Woche Zeit dich auf einen Kaffee zu treffen? (Literally: Have you this week time yourself over a coffee to meet? )
It still cracks me up to this day, how direct and efficient the German language is - I think it’s fantastic!! It’s also not surprising when they have such complicated grammar rules, for example: when you add an extra word like ‘because’ or ‘so that’, you literally have to rearrange the whole sentence structure!! So keeping it concise and to the point just makes life a whole lot easier. Also, Germans are very good listeners not because they are necessarily taught that, but because in German, the most important verb is usually placed at the end, so you literally have to wait till someone is finished speaking to actually find out what they are talking about or intending to do.
There are countless podcasts out there, which you can download and listen to when on the move. I sometimes listen to podcasts when I’m on public transport, out for a walk or just doing mindless tasks - it’s a great way of utilising your time! Whilst learning Spanish, I came across a particularly helpful language learning podcast called Coffee Break Spanish by Radio Lingua. They also offer German, French and Italian ranging from 2-4 seasons. The podcasts themselves are free and can be found on Spotify as well as other Podcast apps. In addition to their free podcasts, they also offer paid courses with entire podcast scripts so you can follow along, extra notes and grammar tips to help you understand and added bonus materials.
I postponed purchasing their paid courses for the longest time because I didn’t want to fork out that extra money as I was determined to learn it on my own. But given my current circumstances, not being in a Spanish speaking country, my progress and motivation was lacking hard. So when their Black Friday sale came along, I decided to take the plunge and purchase Season 3 & 4 of Coffee Break Spanish. Each season is about 40 episodes and it’s all online (though you have the option of saving it to your device and/or printing it out). There’s no expiry date and I find the online interface really simple to navigate. The material is fantastically done and easy to follow - I very rarely fork out money to learn languages, but this is something very worthwhile looking into - highly recommend (and no, I have no affiliation with Radio Lingua, just my honest opinion)
If you’re interested in checking it out, here’s the link to their website:
RADIO LINGUA - Home Page
COFFEE BREAK ACADEMY - Courses and Prices
8. READING - Bilingual Books and Blogs
Whether you use iBooks, PlayBooks, Scribd, or Kindle - Bilingual Books can be found on most platforms, or just type what you’re looking for into google. They are usually relatively cheap (2-5 euros) and very helpful in terms of understanding grammar and increasing your vocab. I used bilingual books a lot when I was learning German and would occasionally read it out loud to a German speaker/buddy and ask them to correct my pronunciation. So if you’re on the lookout for German-English bilingual books, André Klein has published some excellent books, which I used myself. Here is the link below:
LEARN OUT LIVE - BILINGUAL BOOKS
Another great way to learn is to read things you’re actually passionate about. For me - it was travel! So I searched up travel blogs in German and came across this awesome blog by an Austrian couple from Vienna (SOMMERTAGE BLOG by Kathi and Romeo). Most of their blog is in German, but they also have an English interface where they have translated some of their German articles to English - so I used this to judge how well I understood each section. When I was in Vienna for my exchange, I had the chance to meet up with this lovely couple and we have kept in touch ever since :) Recently, they approached me and asked if I’d be interested in being a freelance translator to interpret their articles from German into English! Hell yes!! Such a privilege to have this opportunity and, believe it or not, I’m still learning new words and phrases whilst translating! Learning never stops guys! So if you’re interested in reading some of my German - English interpretations, I’ve attached the German and English links below. Keep in mind that it’s not feasible to translate word for word, hence why I prefer the term ‘interpretation’ as I wanted it to sound authentic English and not Google translated. For those intermediate learners, this is certainly a great way to increase your comprehension.
(The first 2-3 pages of the English site down to - Sunset at Golden Rock in Myanmar - are my German to English interpreted articles.)
SOMMERTAGE BLOG - DEUTSCH
SOMMERTAGE BLOG - ENGLISH
9. NETFLIX with subtitles
I only recently discovered how amazing Netflix can be in helping with listening comprehension! Reading and podcasts are great, but movies depict real life scenarios and you take in so much without realising it. The phonetics, which your ears aren’t used to, will slowly pick up more and more over time, until one day that gibberish language suddenly stops becoming gibberish and starts to make some sense to you!! However, the caution here is to watch films made in that language with actors speaking their native language - not English movies with voice-overs because it doesn’t sound as authentic in my opinion and you can’t follow things like mouth movement, which I think is really important. Have you ever noticed how babies tend to watch people’s mouths rather than their eyes when someone is speaking?
For me, I watch German and Spanish movies/tv shows with German and Spanish subtitles because I like being able to associate word with sound. Some of the things I take in are: how their mouths move as they form the words, the rhythm and the pitch, when and where they stress syllables for emphasis, which words or endings they tend to skip or morph into one etc. All these things, I take in passively while I’m watching. The main concept behind this was realising how quickly children learn by watching TV and observing the dialogue around them. If you get frustrated because you don’t understand anything that’s happening, then switch it to English subtitles. But the danger of that, is your eyes get glued to the English words and you completely forget about focusing on the language side of things.
The sole reason why I still have and use Netflix is because they offer so many foreign movies and subtitles! This is unsurprisingly my favourite tip :D
10. Write and think in that language as much as you can
This one requires a lot of diligence and perseverance. For most people, rote learning vocab and grammar doesn’t sink in unless they use it practically one way or another. For example, you could learn the words for: carrot, potato, coffee, milk, egg. But you’ll probably forget that as soon as you learn the other 20+ grocery list items. However, if you start writing your grocery list in that language, then the words will stick much easier because you’re actually applying it to real life. Soon enough, it’ll be effortless to go shopping in a foreign language.
From lists, you can progress to phrases/sentences like writing your To-Do list in the foreign language you’re learning. Don’t worry so much about getting things perfect, just write stuff down, familiarise yourself with the words and sentence structures - use google translate if you have to (I did). Even keep a journal solely in that language to track your progress and don’t worry about having it all perfect because that’s not the point. I look back at my journals and my gosh, did I have a good laugh!! Hah! I remember being so proud of myself for writing my first ever paragraph in German… but it had like 20 mistakes in it and I sounded like a toddler.
Same goes for speaking. Set yourself a challenge like, only speaking that language when you’re out in public. Or ask your language buddies to only speak to you in that language and if you reply in English —> Douchbag jar! When I first arrived in Germany, I remember going to a soccer match and I was totally out of my comfort zone because it was the first time I was surrounded by all German!! I had no choice but to converse in my very broken Deutsch and it was hella awkward. I felt stupid and my lack of diligence in learning the various forms of verb endings, gender articles and the ridiculous amount of ways the Germans say “you”, resulted in many confused faces and stifled laughs. But after even just one month of these seemingly awkward conversations, I became much more fluent, to the point where I could hold mini conversations without resorting to google translate or skilfully making excuses to dash and hide away.
The main point of all this is that you’re writing, speaking and learning from your mistakes. We’ve all been through that awkward incoherent toddler stage and yes it sucks to be right back there, feeling helpless and confused, especially as an adult. But if you let yourself make mistakes and laugh about it, instead of being such a perfectionist, then you will over come that steep learning curve much faster, I promise you.
So embrace this hilarious period of ups and downs, don’t give up so easily and have fun making mistakes!
Good luck learning whichever language you’re learning and I hope you found these tips useful! If you have any questions or some tips of your own, pop them down in the comments below, I’d love to hear! :)