Useful language learning resources

As you may know, I am currently learning Italian, which would be the 7th foreign language I have attempted. Although I’ve failed at Chinese, Japanese and Russian, I can speak the other 4 on at least a conversational level. What I am doing differently this time is that I will learn the language all by myself, without attending any physical class. This way, I hope to a) save some money, b) be in total control of the speed of learning and c) make use of the time in quarantine / social distancing. After 1 month, I already found the results to be much better than with any language class before.

Beside the fact that my understanding of Spanish helped a lot with Italian, there are some tools and concepts that I have just discovered. These have surely boosted my progress considerably:

  1. Busuu

I have tried maaaaaany language learning apps on the market: Duolingo, Babbel, Memrise, Drop, Pinsleur, Rosetta Stone, you name it, but none has come close to Busuu. It’s the only app that I can really recommend. The content is great: the first lessons are short and simple: introducing yourself, ordering coffee, pronunciation, a few key grammar concepts. From there on, the length and complexity increases, so that each lesson is a bit more challenging than the last.

What I appreciate the most about Busuu is the way difficult grammar points are explained. Most of the time, a grammar lesson begins with a conversation or a text. This way, learners have time to figure out how this is used in real life. After that come the explanations: usage, conjugations, exceptions et cetera, exactly how it would happen in a classroom. There are different forms of exercises, so most of the time I was not bored by the format.

Another feature worth mentioning is the conversation exercise. There, you will need to complete the task by writing or recording an answer using your own words and upload it. Other native speakers who are learning your language will then correct your answer or suggest a better version. It is an awesome community, since none of my exercises has gone uncorrected.

That being said, Busuu still has upgrade their vocabulary review section. I believe spaced repetition is not applied there, so “strong” words do not automatically go into the “week” category after a while. It is also not possible to review words by lesson 😦

Busuu refers to the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Language). Lessons go from A1 to B2, with a certification by McGraw-Hill awarded after successful completion of each level. I paid 56€ for a 12-month subscription, but there is also a free version with a more limited number of lessons.

2. Immersion

Immersion is a method of learning languages promoted by many polyglots such as Steve Kaufmann. Basically, learners should surround themselves with the target language: listening to podcast, tv or music as much as possible. Following some other advice, I have further divided my listening materials into 2 groups: active listening and passive listening.

Materials for active listening are videos, podcasts created for language learners according to my level. For this, I used Davide’s Podcast Italiano, Lucrezia’s Youtube Channel and after a while, The Pillow. Their contents are interesting enough for me to follow and feature real-life languages. While watching or listening to these channels, I turn on the subtitle wherever possible as this helps me understand better and remember how certain words are pronounced.

Materials for passive listening are whatever I can find in my target language: news, films, series, et cetera. I play these while cooking, surfing Facebook or anything that doesn’t require attention. The goal of passive listening is to get used to the sound of the target language, the speed at which it is naturally spoken and to “wire” your brain into that language. My problem is that I dislike background noise so much (including background music), so I guess I haven’t practiced passive listening as much as I should have.

In general, it is a good idea to make use of any free learning channel you can find. Just make sure that the material is spoken in your target language and not English or any other one that you already know. In the beginning, it is ok not to understand anything. As you proceed, you will be able to figure out more and it is so satisfying when this happens.

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