Home The Web as a Foreign Language: Free Language-Learning Resources Online

The Web as a Foreign Language: Free Language-Learning Resources Online

The only activity that boasts more “fool-proof” and “easy” ways to reach goals than weight loss has to be learning a foreign language. The web is a jungle of ridiculous short-cuts to Mandarin and Italian proficiency.

As a corrective to that tendency, we have found half a dozen legitimate tools to facilitate language learning using online. They’re all free and we’re focusing on resources that offer a choice of languages.

As someone who speaks three languages badly and a few more execrably, I would give only one piece of advice regarding the use of these resources: If you don’t immerse yourself into an environment that requires you to rely on your new-found language skills, they are unlikely to take root. And if you do, they almost certainly will. Language acquisition doesn’t just open doors to people and cultures that are difficult to enter in English, they also speed the development of cognitive skills and problem-solving.

So, get down on it. Vamos. Laß uns gehen. Iesim.


Touted as a “learning platform,” Tokyo-based Smart.fm uses an algorithm to determine your skill level and learning schedule. Although the platform teaches a number of subjects, languages are well-represented. They include Chinese, German, Japanese (with a separate course on “Raunchy & Slangy Japanese Words”) and English. There is a community element, which adds a nice Chinese menu element to the interactions and some material

Yamada Language Center’s Virtual Language Lab

Headquartered at, and focused on, the University of Oregon, the state-of-the-art language center offers a number of courses via online video. They include Arabic, Chinese, French and a dozen others. Much of it is full-on instructional video, but the more adventurous offerings include courses on Brazilian, French and Hebrew-language film, French music and other cultural offerings.

The Mixxer

The Mixxer is a very interesting experiment by Dickinson College. Users sign up to the Mixxer platform, then search on their language of interest. The search identifies native speakers of that language who are willing to talk, then the emails or IMs, independently or within the platform. The learner and the teacher, as it were, then talk in real-time viia Skype. The immersion so necessary to learning foreign languages, not to mention one of the compelling reasons to (talking to humans), make this an intriguing tool.

MIT OpenCourseWare

MIT has brought online courses to new heights. Their language offerings are no different. Featuring online text books and multimedia, the courses are based on top-notch scholarship. MIT also offers cultural coursework to augment the language learning. Plus, when people ask you where you studied Chinese, you get to sniff and say, “MIT.” (And then they can sniff and say “MIT? Harvard’s right around the corner.”)


Billing itself as “the world’s largest online language learning community,” Livemocha does offer online courses in 35 languages. They claim over 6 million members from over 200 countries. Most of the courses cost, but some are free and the community allows for a native speaker experience.


MyHappyPlanet is probably the most egalitarian of the language community teaching sites. You sign up both as a speaker and a learner. You can send in-system messages to find the partner you want, then use Skype, MSN or Yahoo to message or speak. In addition to peer-to-peer conversation, you can also examine free coursework and videos. The drawback to the tool? Given the frequency of sexy profile photos (though I didn’t see any Chatroulettesque photos) and the constant advertising of a singles site, I’m not sure if it isn’t more the language of love that is on offer.

Online Translation: GoogleTranslate & Babelfish

The idea of learning languages in any meaningful way from a translation site or tool is pretty sketchy. But you can use them to catch glimpses of a language’s character, double-check your own attempts and communicate a bit while traveling.

What’s your favorite online site for learning language? Have you found any of those above particularly effective or problematic? Let us know in the comments.

Thank you image from Woodley Wonderworks

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