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The Best Language Learning Program? 7 Courses To Rock Your Travels

Companies that won't charge a single supplement usually

23 January 2018 - If you love travel but stumble over your merci beaucoups, why not study a new language? It doesn't have to be for long and you don't have to become fluent but sometimes, even a simple "Bonjour" will break the ice if you're facing a grumpy Parisian. 

the best way to learn a foreign language is to... practice - as in ordering foodReally?? I was so sure I'd ordered a cheese sandwich...

If you're already convinced you want to learn a language and just need to decide how, jump to the comparison chart, which is followed by reviews of 7 of the best language courses in existence.

If you still have doubts about why would ever need another language, keep reading. You'll get some insight about the importance of learning foreign languages along with tips on how to do it well.

Why learn a language? Here are 11 good reasons

You've probably thought of some of these, but read on - one or two might surprise you.

1. Learning foreign languages will demystify new cultures and enhance your openness to them

The fact that you're traveling already opens your mind, but knowing a bit of the language sends out a powerful message: that you care enough about where you are to try to communicate according to their rules and customs, not yours.

Have you ever noticed how eyes light up when you try to speak to someone in their own language? If you're not fluent you'll likely be put out of your misery with an answer in English but you tried and that's what counts.

When you do succeed, the rewards are huge. That feeling of breaking out of your bubble and establishing that initial grain of understanding can explode your world and instantly make you feel "part of".

2. Speaking foreign languages helps promote understanding

Conflict and disagreement usually happen when we focus on our differences rather than our similarities. By learning someone's language you're focusing on things that bring you together - even if in the end they want to practice their English rather than your Spanish.

I never understood the intricacies of Colombia's half-century of conflict until I went there - and spoke to everyday people, to victims of the armed struggle, to perpetrators and former soldiers. Had I not spoken Spanish, our conversations would have stayed superficial.

3. Learning a language will amplify your travel experience

Of course you can get your information from a guidebook or from Wikipedia, but by studying a language you'll be learning about what underlies a culture. A bit of the language will open up the world of cinema (imagine, Bollywood in Hindi or Almodovar in Spanish?) Increase your fluency and soon you'll be reading Cervantes and Victor Hugo in the original - and even if you don't catch everything, language has a cadence you'll learn to recognize. You'll also be opening doors into families and festivities that might otherwise remain closed to you. Sure, you'll get plenty of invitations if you don't speak the language but if you do, even scratchily, you'll be the belle of the ball!

The fact that I learned to speak basic Thai when I lived in Bangkok changed the country for me: I made Thai friends, was invited to ceremonies and gatherings and welcomed into homes because I wasn't a 'total foreigner'. Well, I was, but I didn't sound like one and I was making the effort. I was passed around family members with a single gleeful sentence: "She speaks Thai!" I didn't, not really, but no one cared. They were thrilled I'd taken the time and made the effort.

4. The whole world does not speak English, contrary to popular belief

This is a good excuse to avoid learning a language - except that it's not true. Of course you'll get by in English in touristy areas but if you want to head off the beaten path and visit less travelled countries or regions, your English might be as useful as a ruble note in Kansas. A few local words, on the other hand, could open all sorts of doors - and help keep you safe if you're on your own.

5. Learn any language and build your self-confidence

Imagine how you'll feel after struggling through a sentence and actually being understood...

Learning a language is not easy and overcoming linguistic barriers is reason to rejoice and feel awfully good about yourself. Like a child getting her first word out, you'll feel elated when you finally say a few words others can understand and respond to. And if you can manage asking for your train platform in Italian, who knows what else you can accomplish?

6. Speaking a foreign language can turn your trip into experiential travel

Seeing the world is a wonderful thing but sometimes, we want to push it a bit further, whether through volunteering or going on a pilgrimage or retreat. Why not do something culturally adventurous like take some foreign language classes? Spanish in Antigua? French in Tours? Arabic in Marrakesh?

7. Learning a second language (or a third) can boost your brainpower - and it gets easier

Absolutely true! Read this BBC article if you don't believe me. Not only does studying a second language boost your brainpower but it apparently delays dementia. I don't know about you but this reason alone works for me.

When you master a language, the next one is easier, and so is the one after that. Learning foreign languages somehow builds synapses and next time you set out to twist your mind around the unfamiliar, it'll happen faster, even if that language has nothing to do with the previous one. I speak several European languages and when I moved to Thailand, I decided to learn Thai, as different as possible from any other language I spoke.

I did it! I wasn't fluent, but I could manage conversations with Thai friends who spoke no English.

8. Languages give you a professional head start

In this globalized world, there's every chance an extra language or two will help you professionally. People think (not necessarily wrongly) that individuals with language skills are smart. "If you speak languages you can probably do other difficult things", the thinking goes.

It happened to me. Fresh out of university I applied for a coveted newspaper internship - there were five spots for 3500 applicants. Why did I make it? Because I spoke languages. Not that I'd ever use them, mind you, but management felt that the mere knowledge of them meant I could think on my feet and find stories more easily in the multicultural city that is Montreal.

These days, many companies are global, or at least transnational. The ability to speak another language or two can't help but weigh in your favor.

9. You'll understand what people around you are saying

I'm not suggesting you should eavesdrop but knowing what people are saying - especially if they're saying it about you - can be a matter of safety (or of making new friends). I somehow feel more included, protected even, when I know what's going on around me.

Now if you're a tourist, no one is going to mistake you for a local. But if you dress the part and speak a few words, you might at least be mistaken for an expat and be treated as "someone who lives here" rather than as a tourist who is here today and gone tomorrow.

10. What if you decide to move to another country or stay for a while?

Many of us 'stop' in a country for a few weeks, months or even years. If you want to settle down somewhere, speaking the language will jumpstart your stay and save you many months of arduous translation and paperwork. It will also help you integrate more quickly, and since new places can be unfamiliar and even lonely, connecting quickly with locals can make a huge difference in how well you settle in.

11. Speaking another language can help you trace your roots

If your ancestors are not from an English-speaking country, tracing your roots might be a bit problematic.

I'm in that situation: I'd love to know more about my Turkish heritage but I've long forgotten the language and even Google Translate can't really help me find my way through genealogy forums. I'm hoping that by learning Turkish (and combining it with Google Translate of course!) I'll be able to find out more about my origins.

Learning a foreign language - connecting with heritage in IstanbulHere I am in Istanbul, unable to communicate in the language of my forefathers - very frustrating!

So why am I telling you all this?

Because I'm one of those people fortunate enough to have been brought up in a multilingual household. I spoke French with my mother, Turkish with my father (until the age of three), Spanish at school (I was raised in Spain), and English came much later.

At university I studied Italian and later learned Portuguese. Then there was a bit of Thai and the Cyrillic alphabet (mostly so I could navigate Moscow's subways).

My own parents spoke many languages, so there's no question - I had an unfair advantage.

Knowing languages changed my life.

I've found jobs and made friends because of language. I traveled more deeply and authentically because of that closer contact.

Even in countries where I don't speak the language, I never feel like a complete outsider, because language itself is my friend rather than my enemy. Even if I don't speak a word, I don't feel completely locked out and know that if I tried, I'd learn.

For me, that's the heart of learning a language - the taming process which allows you to flow with it rather than fight it.

People often have a fear of speaking a language when they don't speak it well. Rather than use the ten words they do know, they refrain in the belief that there's no point in speaking unless it's perfect.

Oh so wrong!

So please, speak up. Use the few words you know. Try not to be shy. I massacre foreign languages all the time, launching into some whose names I can barely pronounce. It doesn't matter. I try. I get corrected. I learn from my mistakes. I try again. And eventually, at some point, I get it right(ish).

Debunking a few foreign language learning myths

You may still be on the fence about learning a new language. I don't blame you: learning another language isn't simple and it's not always fun.

Most people can learn a new language if they really put their minds to it but for a very few, it will be difficult indeed. Difficult, but achievable. 

If you have dyslexia, you may find it hard to read or remember foreign words. If you were terrorized by your fifth-grade French teacher, you may have a blockage that makes you run a mile every time someone says s'il-vous-plait. And if you don't like to study, learning a foreign language will not be a joyful experience.

So let's debunk a few of the language myths that might be holding you back.

#1. I'm too old to learn another language

Um... no. Studies don't bear that out. On the contrary, in some cases being an adult is an advantage. True, children will blurt things out naturally whereas we might hide in embarrassment. That said, as adults, if we are motivated we will learn all the ins and outs of that language.

I notice it with my own Spanish and Italian. I learned Spanish as a child and while I speak it fluently, don't ask me about grammar or anything language-related. On the other hand, I learned Italian at university and I know every rule and every exception (well, most of them because Italian happens to have more exception than rules!)

I should also point out that as I write this, I am starting to learn Turkish... and when I finish that, I'm contemplating German. And maybe Russian. Or or or...

#2. Who needs to study when you can just get a language app?

You can indeed get an app (and I talk about some good ones below). However, if you actually plan on learning the language fluently, you'll need more than an app. An app will get you started by teaching you a few words or phrases. But to really internalize a language requires communication and conversation. You need to talk back, and no amount of questioning from an app will do that, no matter what the programmers claim. Nor will an app tell you each time you use the wrong word in a specific context. The best language teaching apps  might catch a poor pronunciation, but we haven't reached the lofty level of artificial intelligence that makes human interaction indispensable (although it might not be long). 

#3. It takes years to learn a language fluently

It certainly does. Fluently. But why exactly are you studying a foreign language? If it's to travel or to enable you to handle light conversations with people you meet, you do not need to speak anything fluently. A few conversation starters, some vocabulary and a bit of knowledge about your destination are more than enough. In fact, the mistakes you make by NOT being fluent will help you immensely in learning the language. Someone will correct you if you let them and each time that happens, your language skills will improve.

#4. You need to have a gift for languages

I won't lie, it does help. Just like a good memory helps a singer or a dancer. But no, you don't need a special gift at all. I've seen many people who were distinctly unilingual learn a foreign language, and then another, once their self-confidence was boosted. What counts is desire and discipline - going at it regularly and with intensity. If you're motivated, make no mistake about it, your brain WILL eventually retain it all.

#5. Languages are nothing but grammar and rules

True, all languages have grammar and rules but the good news is, you can manage to have conversations without going near a rule, ever. When I first started learning Thai, all I could do was point and say, "What is the word for...?" After two years, I am ashamed to say I still didn't have a clue about grammar or rules, but I was happily chattering away. All the words were in the sentence, willy nilly.

"Chicken green curry want please me spicy" made perfect sense to waiters.

#6. I'll never need to know another language

And how, pray tell, do you know that? Do you never plan to travel? Will you never have a job in a company or organization that has overseas offices? Will your company never do business with a foreign partner? Will you never meet anyone who doesn't speak English?

#7. Learning a language is boring

How do you figure? Perhaps in the 1960s, you had interminable lists of words and sentences to memorize. Moreover, those words and phrases didn't usually have much to do with you - unless you happened to be a middle-aged white man with a briefcase or a fifties housewife. These days, learning language can be fun! Not only are most courses filled with conversation, but many are also highly entertaining, with cards decks and quizzes and videos, not to mention real life situations. Nothing boring here at all. 

Best language learning programs for travelers

This much should be clear by now: being fluent isn't essential. Just getting by is already more than most. And that's much more within your reach than you might think.

True, some people are natural linguists and pick up languages as easily as catching a cold.

But most people struggle with learning a foreign language, and only want to know enough to get their message across... beer, pizza, cramps, no-I-don't-want-to-see-your-etchings...

How will you make yourself understood if something goes wrong? Or even if it goes right?

Knowing just a bit of the language can revolutionize your trip. It can help you meet local people (which is why you're on the road, right?), sample 'real' cuisine in restaurants, feel like you belong, or simply end up in the right place for a change.

Comparison chart: Best language learning programs

Course

Try It Out?

Refund policy

Price (USD)

Method

Free lesson

Refund if you fail the novice test after doing all the work

$119.95

Audio series by a long-time professional linguist. Teaches structure and uses "reverse pronunciation"

Free lesson 

Up to 60 days

Under $100 for Level 1

Audio series with varied online dashboard that includes a quiz, dictation, flashcards and conversational reinforcement. It's varied and comprehensive.

Free trial in many languages

30 days for unopened CDs so test before you buy

Either $13.50 or $23 per volume

Uses music in the background. Focuses on repetition and easy to remember.

Free trial

Only for physical books

$30/month or $288/year to access all languages

Learn to speak and listen through repetition.

Free

n/a

Free

Cute and entertaining app.

Brief demo

1 month but only if purchased directly from Rosetta Stone. Refunds for purchases from other retailers must be requested from the retailer.

$199 and up - but prices change with language and prices vary depending on purchase location

CDs, download or online subscription. No English used.

No

30 days no questions asked

$97

Original approach that works well if you are motivated and disciplined. Rather than teach you a language, it teaches a method that can be used with any language PLUS a quick-start guide for a number of languages.

Course

Try It Out?

Free lesson

Refund policy

Refund if you fail the novice test after doing all the work

Price (USD)

$119.95

Method

Audio series by a long-time professional linguist. Teaches structure and uses "reverse pronunciation"

Course

Try It Out?

Free lesson 

Refund policy

Up to 60 days

Price (USD)

Under $100 for Level 1

Method

Audio series with varied online dashboard that includes a quiz, dictation, flashcards and conversational reinforcement. It's varied and comprehensive.

Course

Try It Out?

Free trial in many languages

Refund policy

30 days for unopened CDs so test before you buy

Price (USD)

Either $13.50 or $23 per volume

Method

Uses music in the background. Focuses on repetition and easy to remember.

Course

Try It Out?

Free trial

Refund policy

Only for physical books

Price (USD)

$30/month or $288/year to access all languages

Method

Learn to speak and listen through repetition.

Course

Try It Out?

Free

Refund policy

n/a

Price (USD)

Free

Method

Cute and entertaining app.

Course

Try It Out?

Brief demo

Refund policy

1 month but only if purchased directly from Rosetta Stone. Refunds for purchases from other retailers must be requested from the retailer.

Price (USD)

$199 and up - but prices change with language and prices vary depending on purchase location

Method

CDs, download or online subscription. No English used.

Try It Out?

No

Refund policy

30 days no questions asked

Price (USD)

$97

Method

Original approach that works well if you are motivated and disciplined. Rather than teach you a language, it teaches a method that can be used with any language PLUS a quick-start guide for a number of languages.

Reviews: A closer look at each language course

Quick Pimsleur Review

The Pimsleur Method was developed by a professional linguist, Paul Pimsleur, and is based on his research in the 1960s. It has been the gold standard for home audio language learning for decades - and that's also part of its downside. It was designed for the cassette area, when the only possibility was forward and rewind. The method moved on to CDs and now has downloads and online versions but the approach and methodology haven't changed since then so yes, it's a little old-fashioned.

BUT - old-fashioned doesn't mean you should stay away! It is based on repetition at intervals: you repeat a phrase right after you hear it, then a little later, and a bit later still. It's simple and straightforward but for complex languages, I find the phrases a bit convoluted. That said, I've tried samples but have not tried to learn an entire language with it. Users who dedicate the hour a day it requires do rave about it and believe that it provides an excellent basis for beginners. You can either listen to it online or download the MP3 to practice on your own, and it comes with a free app.

If you have a certain level of discipline, this could be right for you. Try a free lessons and decide.

Quick Rocket Review

Rocket Languages is a web-based conversational set of courses available for 15 languages. It has the same type of conversational audio as does Pimsleur but a lot more as well - including a written version of the audio, something I personally find important. It's quite interactive and its bite-sized lessons make it easy to learn. I was quite taken with this method when I trialed French, Spanish and Italian, languages I already speak.

It's pretty thorough, and fun, with plenty of entry points for language learning - a quiz, dictation, flashcards and a lot more. An interesting feature is the ability to choose easy, medium and hard in a specific conversation. I like it but it didn't have the language I wanted - Turkish. Another query I have is in some of the versions of some of the languages, they did not use native speakers (although the accents were excellent). This is not the case across the board and it's not an impediment to learning the language but... it niggled. Still, a lot more good than bad and this is one course I could put my money into. Try it for free and see for yourself.

Quick Earworms MBT Review

The only word I can think of when describing Earworms MBT (yes, definitely an unusual name!) is jaunty. The MBT, by the way, stands for Musical Brain Trainer. It has a few bars of upbeat music in the background which you might choose to dismiss, except for the fact that the music is helps the language stick in your mind.

You listen and repeat, and you retain. I only tested the free version and didn't spend the two or three weeks it takes to begin seeing the advantages of this system. The Spanish (European) version was quite well done but too easy for my Spanish-speaking self so I decided to try a language I didn't know: Arabic. Other than the fact that I didn't know which version of Arabic I was learning, I could see that with perseverance, I'd get there. I learned quite a bit in just five minutes. It's sticky!

The course is relatively relaxing, and you're told to relax in any case, so no driving please. I think this is one you have to experience for yourself. It's different, and I can see how those little phrases might cling to your mind and not let go, like a catchy tune you can't get rid of. Try it out for free and see what you think.

Quick Glossika Review

The one thing I liked immediately about Glossika is the range of languages, especially less commonly taught ones like Mongolian, Finnish or Belarusian so if your language isn't on offer anywhere else, you may well find it here.

The system is audio-based and quite straightforward: it takes the most common sentences and ideas in English and has you repeating them in your language of study.

To me, it's not a solution for total beginners. I feel you need some sense of the language before attempting Glossika but if you have that, then this will get you talking quickly. A good idea might be to combine a language learning text with Glossika thrown in for pronunciation and practice.

You can choose your topics of conversation (good), the teachers have realistic accents (good), and you get a ton of material (good and bad, depending on what you like). It's great if you're steadfast in your learning but if you get easily overwhelmed, you might want to try something lighter. It's not the most exciting language program out there, but if you're the kind of person who learns well from repetition, you'll be fluent quickly with this one. Have a look at some of the less common languages they offer.

Quick Duolingo Review

Duolingo is an app. It's modern, and it's cute. If those words give you the shivers, then move on. But if you're at ease on your phone and love spending time tapping around your apps, you might like this approach.

The app tests your level and provides sentences based on your competence. If you're a rank beginner, it's a great way to build a foundation. But if you're advanced, you might have a few surprises. For example, French is my mother tongue yet it only deemed me 63% fluent. (Who knows, maybe it's right!)

Also, because it's basically a computer, you have to be perfect. I tried a few advanced Spanish and French sentence structures and while I was absolutely correct, it graded me wrongly because I hadn't written my sentence the way they wanted me to. So no, I wouldn't recommend it for anyone who is already doing well in a language but I would tell you to go for it if you're a beginner, hate being bored, and want something that is simple, effective and fun.

Quick Rosetta Stone Review

Rosetta Stone gets many raves but also has its critics. Still, there's no denying it's a powerhouse in the language learning world.

First, some of the criticisms: it's expensive! (Amazon occasionally has cheaper versions so check.) If you choose Rosetta Stone (and there are good reasons to), make sure you get the actual product rather than the online course. I got the online version and after a year was locked out unless I paid for another year (the software or CDs. at least, are yours to keep). Another is cultural relevance - it gives the impression that the world's cultures are similar and homogenous. And finally, there is no real free trial - the demo is pathetic, a corporate promo that shows off a few of the features but basically does a lousy job.

That said, there are some strong advantages to Rosetta Stone. I used it to learn German for a few months and while I never became fluent, I spoke and understood enough to take a trip with a group of Germans and Austrians and at least understand what they were talking about, even if details escaped me. It's an immersion method, and I believe in that approach. No English, only the foreign language, backed by images and audio, and some personal classes after each unit. Speech recognition is another feature but I didn't have it back when I took the German course.

It's a high price to pay but it does force you to stay in the language, with no easy English out. I do recommend it - but see if you can find a second-hand copy somewhere!

Quick Fluent in 3 Months Review

If you're looking for a completely different approach, try Fluent in 3 Months. Rather than teach you a specific language, like Spanish or French, it's a system that teaches you HOW to learn a language - any language (but also provides guides to learning the main languages as well).

Benny the Irish Polyglot, who runs the course, is a globetrotter who has learned a bunch of languages himself, all of them as an adult. His course shares his tricks of the trade - he'll tell you everything from what to say in a first conversation to how to set up free language exchanges.

The thing that made my jaw drop was the sheer quantity of... stuff. Everything you could possibly need - interviews with language experts, worksheets, schedules, and a dose of confidence-building. BUT - and this is really stellar - unparalleled resources, most of them free. I've included a few of the more striking in the resource section at the end of this page but mine are a tiny taste of what's provided in Benny's course. If you're not ready for a course, at least buy the book.

I recommend this course for someone who hasn't started their language training yet but who wants to do it right and learn quickly.

So many ways to learn a foreign languageMy first Thai language word - pineapple

9 tips on how to learn a language effectively (without taking a class)

What if you're about to travel but not ready for an actual language course?

There's plenty you can do to get yourself language-ready before you go.

  1. Find someone at home - a waitress, a colleague, a hotel clerk, check your local meetups or couchsurfing - who speaks the language. Ask for a few basic pronunciation rules - because the letters you'll read aren't necessarily pronounced the way you think. In Russian, for example, M is pronounced T and U is pronounced I, not to mention the strange squiggles and accents you'll find in French or Turkish or Spanish. Languages are full of these differences - it'll make your life a lot easier if you know what they are.

  2. Download some free language podcasts. I did incredibly well with a Brazilian Portuguese series from a university in Texas.

  3. Buy a phrasebook and start reading it.

  4. However you do it, learn a few basic words like please and thank you, of course, but also bank, restaurant, right, left, straight, up, down, slower, 1-2-3... These basics will help you with shopping, with directions and with meals. If I'm going somewhere for a week or two these words will be more than enough. Go for it, even if it's a word a day

  5. Learn just one phrase. And that phrase is... "What is the word for...?" Then point. It's a great way to build your vocabulary. You'll probably only point to things that interest you, so there's a good chance the word might stick.In Thailand my first word was 'pineapple'. Then I learned 'please'. Then 'one'. Before I knew it, I had a sentence! And a lot of smiles from pineapple street vendors. One phrase isn't enough? Learn a few more.

  6. Learn words you already know - cognates. Here are some great Spanish cognates - words that are close enough in both languages to easily recognize.

  7. Lucky you if you have access to global television, often in languages you didn't even know existed. Listen to a few programs just get used to the sound. Don't even try to understand. No world TV in your neighborhood? Then try radio broadcasts online. Half the battle is getting used to the sound so that a language is less 'foreign' and intimidating. Before I went to Brazil for six months, I watched plenty of Portuguese television (especially Brazilian soap operas) so the language wouldn't sound so foreign. I also learned a lot about society as a result... If you don't have international TV, head for YouTube.

  8. My mother, who spoke upward of 20 languages (really!) taught me this one: Read out loud. It will make you more comfortable with actually using the language. Get a celebrity magazine - the pictures will tell you what it's about. That's right - even if you don't understand a word you're reading. It'll make the language more approachable and less bewildering.

  9. Find a conversation buddy and talk on Skype. I had a great Brazilian conversation buddy in Rio and we Skyped every Monday night for months. My spoken Portuguese improved hugely and I made a new friend. You can find your own buddy through the online conversation sites listed below.

My amazon.com picks for language aids

Or go straight to your national Amazon shop

Best language learning resources

If you're not ready for a major time investment in learning a complete language, you might be fine with some of these resources - most of them free - to get started.

  • EdX - FREE (yep!) self-paced language courses from some of the world's best universities (I haven't tried this but it comes highly recommended)
  • Omniglot - the online encyclopedia of writing systems and languages
  • BBC Languages - handy phrases and news in 27 languages
  • Livelingua project of the Foreign Service Institute - old-fashioned but extremely thorough - and free
  • Forvo - a fun resource that tells you how to pronounce a word (and if you disagree, you can upload your own pronunciation!)
  • Rhinospike - more like linguistic social media - write or record a phrase and get feedback from natives (I could get hooked on this one)
  • iTalki - fabulous global site for finding teachers - amateurs for conversation or qualified instructors - for just about any language
  • MyLanguageExchange - I perfected my Brazilian Portuguese Skyping with a language buddy I found through this website
  • Google Translate - but you know this one already!

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