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.
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 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 U.S. stores, and a second volume is in the works. You can also learn by visiting the Chineasy Facebook page, which offers daily lessons. Information: chineasy.org.
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. You can also acquire virtual currency that allows you to buy extra hearts or bonus skills like French pickup lines. 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. Information: duolingo.com.
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. The site provided an audible pronunciation, and the word was added to a master vocabulary list that could be studied later. In April, Lingua.ly introduced an Android app and plans to introduce an iOS app in the fall. Information: lingua.ly.
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. 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. Information: mangolanguages.com/mango-premiere.
Free, supplementary study tools
To help build your vocabulary, Anki (Ankisrs.net) allows you to create your own digital flashcards. You can perfect your language pronunciation with sites such as Forvo.com. 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.