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Inventive, Cheaper Tools for Learning a Language

Are you looking to shake up your language learning?

Well here are some suggestions, courtesy of NYTimes.


Credit: Giacomo Gambineri

To learn a new language travelers often turn to time-tested solutions like Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur or actual classes with native speakers. Yet a number of new, creative and often more affordable tools are aiming to help you rattle off “table for two” and “how much does this cost?” in no time.

Will they get you through the most complex grammar? Not necessarily. But beginners are likely to appreciate these fresh approaches — especially if you’ve had difficulty sticking with traditional language-learning programs. At the end of this column I’ve also included some free tools to supplement your lessons.

CHINEASY This book by ShaoLan Hsueh, who grew up in Taiwan, the daughter of a calligrapher, aims to help people read Chinese characters by associating them with simple, colorful illustrations. For instance, one meaning of an open square with two little tabs at the bottom is “mouth.” To help you remember that, the book shows the character (a square with tabs) in black with white teeth and a red tongue inside the square, as if a mouth is stretched wide open. You can see how Ms. Hsueh’s system works by watching an excellent instructional video under the “films” tab on the Chineasy website. The Chineasy book ($24.99; available online for less) recently arrived in United States stores (I recommend watching the video before delving into the book), and a second volume is in the works. You can also learn by visiting the Chineasy Facebook page, which offers daily lessons. The basic idea is that once you learn about a dozen “building block” characters, you can begin combining them to create more complex words and, eventually, sentences. As you might expect, learning Chinese characters is not lickety-split. Some of the illustrations easily call to mind the characters; other require more imagination. But if you’re a visual learner, this book — probably one of the prettier language-learning tomes you’ll encounter, with illustrations by Noma Bar — is worth a try. Information:

DUOLINGO This free app and website is among the most effective language-learning methods I’ve tried, because the lessons come in the form of brief challenges — speaking, translating, answering multiple-choice questions — that keep me coming back for more. When you answer incorrectly, you lose a red heart. Lose too many hearts and, like a video game, your lesson will abruptly end and you’ll have to start all over again. If you successfully complete a lesson — available courses include Spanish, French, Italian, German, Portuguese — there’s fanfare and you can proceed to the next lesson. The more lessons you complete, the further you level up. You can also acquire virtual currency that allows you to buy extra hearts or bonus skills like French pick-up lines. Additionally, you can go back and refresh what you’ve learned with beat-the-clock quizzes. There is a lot to soak up in each few-minute lesson, but the gamification aspects encourage practicing. That never happened to me in high school Latin class. The app is particularly helpful because it allows me to study while commuting (too bad Wi-Fi is spotty on subways). Duolingo has been around for a few years, but it recently became one of the first apps compatible with Android Wear, the nascent Google operating system behind smart watches including the Samsung Gear Live and the LG G Watch. Information:

LINGUA.LY This free online program teaches by immersing you in news, sports and entertainment articles written in the language you want to learn. And the list is long: English, Spanish, French, Hebrew, Arabic, Czech, Dutch, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Turkish and Chinese (both simplified and traditional). Let’s say you’re using the desktop version. When you encounter a word you don’t know, double-click on it. For example, the headline of a recent article in French read: “Miley Cyrus a un nouveau chien et cette fois elle compte le garder!” Clicking on the word “cette” brought up a pop-up box with two translations: the pronoun “this” and the adjective “that.” At the same time, the site provided an audible pronunciation, and the word was added to a master vocabulary list that could be studied later. Click the “practice” box over that vocabulary list, and you can test yourself. Along the way, some of the images that appear next to the definitions may make you smile. For instance, when I correctly selected “expensive” as the definition of “cher,” a photo of Cher — as in the “I Got You Babe” Cher — appeared. And it’s hard to beat the “congratulations” videos that appear when you successfully complete a practice session, including one that shows Elaine from “Seinfeld” dancing and waving her arms over her head. You win points for adding words to the vocabulary list, reading articles and successful practices. In April introduced an Android app and plans to introduce an iOS app in the fall. Information:

MANGO PREMIERE Attention movie buffs on a budget: Why not learn a language by watching feature films? This system from Mango Languages is available free on public computers at libraries across the country, including New York public libraries. Introduced last year, Mango Premiere includes films such as the Japanese “Negative Happy Chainsaw Edge” and the Mandarin movie “Kung Fu Dunk.” You can watch an entire film with subtitles in English, the language you’re learning, or both. Alternatively, you can watch the movie in “engage” mode. If you choose this mode you’re given plot highlights, words you might hear and cultural notes before each scene. Then you watch the scene with whatever subtitle option you like. An optional color-coding feature matches words in the English subtitle with the corresponding words in the foreign language subtitle. If you pause the movie, you can hover over the foreign words with your mouse to get phonetic spellings and then click for an audio pronunciation. After watching the scene there is a lesson about it that includes dialogue breakdowns and quizzes. Armed with your new knowledge you can watch the scene again and, if you’re feeling confident, shut off the subtitles. Information:

FREE, SUPPLEMENTARY STUDY TOOLS To help build your vocabulary, Anki ( allows you to create your own digital flashcards. You can perfect your language pronunciation with sites such as And you can learn a little travel vocabulary and some phrases along with their pronunciation with Rosetta Stone’s travel app (available in French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish). The lessons are free for basics like “What time is it?” and “I would like coffee, please”; $1.99 for additional categories including shopping and emergencies. The Rosetta Stone Travel Portuguese Futebol Edition app, released in June for the World Cup (free), includes a phrase book as well as vocabulary and speaking activities about greetings, food, travel and lodging, shopping, cities and landmarks, emergencies, the outdoors and, of course, sports.


If you have used any of these tools, it would be great to get your feedback.

4 replies »

  1. I’m using Duolingo to learn Italian. I’m not sure how a rank beginner would cope with the program, but I keep going back for more. It’s good to hear the correct pronunciation of words. My only quibble is that it is rather rigid with what is accepted for a correct answer, and it uses different constructs than you might encounter elsewhere.

    But, hey, the price is right!


    • Well done. I know a few who use Duolingo. I always think it’s good to use a few methods at the same time and with so many podcast etc around there’s opportunity for that. I’ve been trying to improve my Spanish but work was too busy this year. And I really want to learn Italian too.

      Sent from my iPhone



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