Continuing our look at free online language courses, this week we’re going to look at Spanish, which is spoken not only in Spain, but across vast tracts of Central and South America. The total number of speakers worldwide is estimated to be between 400-500 million.

There’s plenty of free Spanish courses available on the web, but unfortunately, few of them really make the cut. Most of what I could find were riddled with bad web design, very little content, and extremely hard to follow.

Possibly the best grammar lessons to be found were at 123teachme.combeginner and intermediate, and MIT has some very comprehensive courses in their OpenCourseware section: Spanish 1, Spanish 2, Spanish 3 and Spanish 4.

Finally, top marks again to the BBC for their multimedia course, one of the better interactive courses available.

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As part of our series of online language courses, this week, we’re looking at French.

Spoken by anywhere from 100 million to 500 million people (estimates vary) worldwide, knowledge of French is invaluable to a traveler. In Europe, it is spoken in France (obviously), as well as Luxembourg, and parts of Belgium and Switzerland. It is also spoken in Canada, parts of Central and South America, huge swathes of Africa, and parts of the South Pacific.

  • BBC Languages – Learn French: some excellent audio-visual material, with a focus on conversational French. There’s little grammar instruction, although a later course provides some quiz material on it.
  • Jacques Leons’ French Language Course: a heavily grammar-based course, with a bit of audio. Makes a good complement for the above BBC course.
  • Wikibooks’ French Course: extensive lessons, with a good range of vocabulary presented. Also has a separate guide detailing grammar.
  • The French Tutorial: Another heavily grammar based course, this tutorial is very extensive, but suffers from having every individual section on a separate web page, making it rather cumbersome to use.

Next week: Spanish

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Continuing on from the series we started last week on online language courses, this week we’ll be looking at German.

For European travellers, German is probably the second-most useful language one could learn, after English. It’s spoken by approximately 100 million native speakers worldwide, and is spoken in Germany, Austria, a large part of Switzerland, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, parts of Belgium, and pockets of Denmark, Poland, Italy and Hungary. It’s also well known as a second language in eastern Europe, particularly by older people.

  • Deutsch – warum nicht. Germany’s international radio broadcaster, Deutsche Welle, has been broadcasting this course to the world on shortwave radio for years. It’s now available for free as a podcast, with accompanying literature and is a great way to learn the language if you don’t have time to undertake a univesity course.
  • BBC Language: German. The BBC’s online course is fairly basic, concentrating mostly on learning to deal with common situations like meeting people and buying food. I’d recommend it for anyone who needs to quickly pick up a few phrases before they jet off.
  • Exeter University Beginner’s German. A fairly comprehensive course, with a focus on picking up a good vocabulary.
  • Advanced Learning’s German for Beginners. Covers quite a bit of ground, but the website design makes it hard to learn.
  • Babelnation’s German for Beginners. Seems quite comprehensive, but the layout makes it difficult to follow.

Next week: French

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One of the hardest aspects to travel is having to negotiate your way around countries where you don’t speak the language. While knowledge of English is becoming very widespread, you’ll get a much better reaction from locals if you try to learn a bit of the local language before you go and are willing to try it out.

Of course, you don’t always have the time to attend a face-to-face course before you leave; preparing for your trip is going to be difficult enough as it is. Fortunately, the internet has come to our rescue – there’s plenty of online courses for many languages out there, it’s just a matter of finding them.

This is the first article in a new weekly series, looking at what’s available. This week, we’ll begin with Swedish, purely for the reason that it’s a favourite of mine.

Swedish is spoken by 9.3 million people, predominantly in Sweden, but also in Finland (on the west-coast and the Ã…land islands). It’s a northern Germanic language, and is very closely related to Danish and Norwegian (and is considered to be mutally intelligible with these two languages) – and more distantly, is related to German, Dutch and English.

  • Björn Engdahl’s Swedish Course is a web-veteran; it’s been around for a very long time. It’s highly grammar oriented, although each section has vocabulary table at the beginning, which can help you pick up some handy phrases. One nice feature is that many of the chapters are accompanied by audio files, so you can get a good handle on pronunciation.
  • Aaron Rubin’s “A Swedish Language Course” is another long-time web survivor. There’s no audio, and it’s not as in-depth as Björn Engdahl’s course, but it might be easier for beginners to get their teeth into.
  • Introduction to Swedish, from the Stockholm School of Economics, starts off by getting the reader familiar with a number of common phrases, and then launches into the grammar lessons. It makes good use of audio, with recordings not only of single words, but full sentences, which is very handy. Strangely, Chapter 8 is missing.

Next week: German

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English speaking travellers often assume that the rest of the world also speaks English. While it’s true that English is much more widely spoken as a second language than it was a few decades ago, it’s still rude to approach someone in a non-English speaking country and just assume that they’ll understand you.

It’s worthwhile investing in a phrase-book; while the phrases themselves aren’t necessarily going to be relevent to your situation, the pronunciation guides and tables of weekdays, months, and numbers are invaluable.

Here’s some tips for getting by:

  • At the very least, if you absolutely must approach someone in English, it’s worth asking first if they mind if you speak it and apologise that you don’t speak their language. I’ve seen, for example, Dutch people react badly to German speakers who just assume that they know German (and some of them were even quite fluent in German!) and generally it just came down to being approached in the wrong way. A little bit of politeness can go a long way to starting off on the right foot.
  • Learn how to say good morning, good-evening, please, thank-you and goodbye in the language of the country in which you’re travelling. Even if you can’t speak the language, this will leave people with a good impression of you.
  • If you have to book a ticket on a bus or train somewhere, write down the name of the destination, the time and also the day on which you wish to travel on a piece of paper to hand to the person on the desk. Obviously, you’ll need a phrasebook to learn what the days-of-the-week are in the required language.
  • Practice counting from one to ten in the country’s language; this really helps when you want to buy fruit or vegetables – you can walk up to the counter, point at what you want and say “two, please!”.
  • Attempt as much as you can in the country’s native language … this generally puts people at ease, and if they know English, it will increase the likelihood that they will switch to it to help you out. I’ve used this method to get by in Paris regularly.
  • If you do know a few foreign languages, it can’t hurt to at least try those out, if relevent in the area where you’re travelling, so that you at least demonstrate that you’re not an ignorant, monolingual English speaker :)
  • If you’re in a foreign country for an extended period of time, it can really help to watch their local television a bit – especially the ads. I learnt quite a few Dutch phrases just by doing this.
  • You’d be surprised just how similar some languages are. English is a Germanic language, so you’re likely to find that you know or can guess many of the words used in German, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian and Icelandic. Similarly, knowing French will help you in Romanian, Spanish, Italian or Portuguese. And knowing Russian can help all over eastern Europe, as it is related to Ukrainian, Belorussian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Slovenian, Bulgarian, Macedonian and Croatian/Serbian.

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