The language of the World Wide Web
- 09 May, 2002 15:17
Travellers and would-be linguists - make the Net your first destination. You'll find a wealth of resources for learning a new language online.
Learning a new language can be a thoroughly rewarding undertaking. Whether you plan to travel to the country where the language is spoken or you have an interest in learning about other cultures, building your communications skills will more than repay the effort.
If you've ever tried learning a language from a book, you'll know how difficult it is to set about this type of study on your own. Languages are, after all, about communication, and you won't be able to perfect your accent and intonation or learn to interact without dealing with other people. While cassettes may help when it comes to getting sounds right, you still miss out on important interaction. Tutors and classes offer the opportunity to ask questions and have your mistakes corrected along the way, but classes are generally more expensive.
Online language lessons aim to bridge the divide between self-study and classes. Most structured online lessons can be completed in your own time, like a book, but offer interaction with tutors (e-mail conversations, for example) as well as integrated sound files and the ability to check answers with a click.
Fees depend on the level of help, but are generally less than a class-based program. You're probably likely to get more out of a class, but if you're short on time or want to brush up on the skills you already have, this option is worth a look. Be sure to take advantage of free trials and scrutinise the site (particularly the terms and conditions) before paying any fees.
More help (and a warning)
Along with the obvious destinations on the Web for language students, there are useful places to visit to build on what you know (and keep from getting rusty). To practise your comprehension you can visit the sites of newspapers in the language you are studying. A good place to start is The Guardian's World News Guide (www.guardian.co.uk/worldnewsguide). You'll find links to various media sites in the country of your choice as well as a brief description. You can also watch TV reports online. Language Box (www.languagebox.com) has links to many stations around the world, including some that stream news bulletins (perhaps more useful for those with broadband connections). Check out French station TV5 (www.tv5.org/info) for an example of how well executed this concept can be.
As an interesting aside, directories of language sites and resources seem to host more dead links than just about any other topic we've covered in Web and You stories. Of course, this conclusion has been reached by entirely unscientific means, but be prepared to find dead links within even the most useful portal site.
Another issue to consider is the validity of tools like chat rooms. Sure you get to test your ability to communicate in the language you're learning, but will you also pick up bad habits? If you're a regular at chat rooms conducted in English you'll know that people aren't always careful with spelling and grammar. However, this may be a small price to pay if your aim is efficient communication rather than letter-perfect mastery.
An alternative is to find a pen pal to send e-mails - this may feel less pressured than a chat room, making it a good method for beginners. Generally, you'll write to your new friend in the language you're learning and they'll e-mail you back in English.
This interesting site gives a glimpse into the world of phonetics. Mouse over a variety of sounds to hear how they are spoken in your choice of language. There are also links to dictionaries and other useful online resources.
Foreign Languages for Travellers
This somewhat ugly site has a useful free tool for travellers - lists of common words and phrases you can practise before you board the plane. There are sound files to help with pronunciation but some of the less-widely spoken languages (Basque, for example) don't feature them. If you just want to work on basic communication for an upcoming trip, this site is useful despite the plague of pop-up ads.yourDictionarywww.yourdictionary.com.
As well as a valuable resource for English speakers (there's a thesaurus and etymology information, amongst other useful content), yourDictionary hosts a large number of language and specialist dictionaries. So, if you need to look up an IT term in German, for example, yourDictionary will have the tool.
This site run by the Languages Made Clear Project has links to several grammar guides.
Loads of guides
About.com's vast collection of links and pages includes several sections on learning languages. The number of resources vary depending on the language, but many have lesson plans with sound files and links to other sites. About.com also has links to information on studying abroad (http://adulted.about.com/cs/languagesabroad/index.htm).
University of Sussex Language Institute
This site run by an English university has links to language resources online as well as a database of language learning software - some of which is free. There are also links to resources for less commonly taught languages (for example, Tibetan and Swahili).
This well-designed site has great tools for learning Korean, including sections that aim to teach the language through pop songs and animated fairy tales.
This well-structured site covers the basics of Russian grammar, including information on the Cyrillic alphabet and sound files. Dictionaries and other resources - like texts to practise your comprehension - round out the site. Some of the design is a little troubling (white text on a mid-pink background?) but otherwise it's well worth a visit.
Online Chinese Tools
This site has loads of useful resources for learning Mandarin, including character flash cards and a Chinese/English dictionary.
This straightforward site includes basic Arabic lessons (with sound files) and a section on learning the alphabet and writing in Arabic.
My Language Exchange
Practise your new-found communication skills with a native speaker of the language you're learning. My Language Exchange hosts text and voice chat and offers a pen pal search. You need to register but the process is free and pretty painless.
LearnPlus offers beginner courses in Spanish and German. Prices vary, but as an example the beginner Spanish course costs around $20 and tutorial services around $55 (for interaction with a tutor, such as having your quiz answers corrected). Courses for other languages are in development and the site offers a free trial.
This company sells both CDs and online courses for a large number of languages. The programs use a technique called Dynamic Immersion that aims to mirror how children learn rather than focusing on memorising or translation. The online classes use Shockwave and there's a free online demo. Prices range from around $40 for a one-month subscription to around $100 for three months.
Parlo offers online courses in French, Spanish, Italian and English (German courses are in development). The site has a fairly comprehensive test to make sure you choose the course appropriate for your level of understanding of the target language and lists the course syllabus so you know what you'll be learning. Course prices range, but as an indication the travellers courses in Spanish and Italian are $US39, the level one course in French is $US49 and the business English basics course is $US69. You can also sign up for a pen pal at Parlo and learn basic phrases for travel for free.
This company focuses on in-country Spanish courses, but has recently begun to offer a beginners online course. There's a free demo (three beginners lessons) but you do need to register. The online course is priced at $87 (around $141) for four month's access. Even if you don't take up the online course, the site hosts a pen pal service and stories and items to improve your Spanish - such as daily jokes and horoscopes!
Speak and Learn
Lessons at Speak And Learn mirror those in the real world - using real-time sessions. You need a headset with microphone to take part and the company says if sound quality deteriorates badly due to Net congestion, they'll give you a free lesson or a refund. You can pay per lesson (around $34) or for five lessons (around $160).
These sites are designed to help people learning English as a second language, but even native English speakers may find tools like grammar guides helpful at times!
Guide to grammar and writing
This guide, written by an American university lecturer, is easy to understand and navigate.
BBC World Service
Learn the Queen's English with the Beeb's Learning English site.
This directory of links includes dictionaries and grammar guides as well as sections on culture, media and language schools.englishinsidewww.englishinside.com.
Another portal for English as a second language learning, this site let you change the interface language. Much of the material is designed for teachers, but students can also search for articles (select Students Articles in the Search Topics drop-down menu).
Dave's ESL Cafe
This casual site has lots to offer both students and teachers of English as a second language, including slang guides, quizzes and chat rooms.