Last of four posts on language learning for free. This one on writing. Plus, a list of apps and Web sites.
Afraid people will read your diary? Write your entries in another language. Daily practice, like daily exercise, makes you stronger. I like to write a weekly language learning log on italki.com. I just go for it. No aids. People will correct me. And they're nice about it when they do. Not like on YouTube when you make a mistake.
You can also write a travel blog in your target language. Going to Spain? Document your time there (the language difficulties your currently experiencing, your current level, the culture, the people) in a series of posts in Spanish with the translation in English (if you want to make it public and, you know, have people read it).
Typing in languages that don't use the Roman alphabet isn't as hard as it may seem. Languages like Chinese and Japanese, for example, can be typed out using the Roman alphabet (pinyin for Chinese and romaji for Japanese) and they automatically turn into Chinese or Japanese characters when you press a number or the space bar. So, if you can speak it, you can type it. On a Mac go to System Preferences, then Language and Text, and then Input Sources to set up the extra keyboard. If you're using Windows, good luck. Kidding. I believe you go to Control Panel, then your language options and then somehow you get to Input Language. When using the Cyrillic alphabet, the more you use the keyboard, the more you will memorize the positions and won't have to think about it so much. (A helpful tip to to associate the Cyrillic letter with the Roman letter for that key. So when you think of "я," for instance, think "q.")
Alternatively, you can ask a question on a forum on a regular basis. I've already mentioned italki. Well, they have a dedicated section on their site for this. Just click on the "Ask a question" tab under the thingie that looks like a pad and pen. Or again you can use Benny's forum at fi3m.com/forum or the many forums of LingQ. You don't learn if you don't ask questions. Benjamin Franklin once quipped: "He who teaches himself has a fool for a master."
Online you can use social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and italki.com to more easily find native speakers to message. Because their social networking sites, it's less weird to be openly friendly with strangers and communicate with them. Write to them in their language to catch their interest. Show them you're interested in their culture. Or email people you do know who speak your target language but can't meet up with for whatever reason. It's a good way to stay connected.
I haven't actually done this yet but have thought about a bit. That is, to write something (a story, poem) in another language. You may think this is easy. If you do, you're probably not a very good writer because you don't understand what goes into good writing. If I try to write a story or poem in Spanish, which actually I began speaking before English, I will have less tools, so to speak, in my toolbox. (I'm actually paraphrasing Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vasquez, author of El ruido de las cosas as caer [The Sound of Things Falling].) Translation works much the same way. It is perhaps easier because you have a work of art there in front of you. You just have to replicate that in your language. I've taken a translation workshop during my MFA, and it was a lot harder than expected. Much respect to the diligent translators out there. Whether you're creating your own work of art or translating, it's hard. But if you take small steps, maybe start out with a small poem and have some native speaker of your target language look at it, then you will learn a lot over time, which I think is how it should be. I don't think we can really teach anyone anything. We can only help others to learn for themselves through doing.
Apps and Web sites
The following is a list of applications and Web sites that provide lessons, instruction, or just an environment in language learning.
- BBC Languages - A few dedicated courses (French, German, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Portuguese, and Chinese), essential phrases in over 40 languages, and links to other courses.
- Human Japanese Lite - App for iOS and Android. Text-based, like a very long article, but with audio and games. Really good for beginners. Highly informative. I haven't bought the paid version. This thing is pretty long, so I haven't finished.
- Innovative Language - Has a series of apps (many for free) for iOS in a series of languages. WordPower provides you with courses. Pod101 provides podcasts with phrases and vocab.
- italki.com - Language learning community, plus paid lessons from qualified teachers.
- Japanese Phrases - App for iOS. There's a free version and a paid version. I paid $10 for the paid app, a lot, but I use it every day. The free app, like the paid one, has flash cards, quizzes, and lessons. Good quality. There's also an advanced version. Yes, I bought that, too. Not as rich in content as the original.
- Livemocha - Was very much like italki.com, a language learning community, then got corporate and now mostly provides a few mundane online courses.
- Ma France - A great interactive video-based French language learning course with quizzes and games, also found on the BBC Web site.
- NHK World Japanese Lessons - Lots of free podcasts for Japanese language learning.
- Speak in a Week - Crash course in language learning by Benny the Irish Polyglot.
I hope these posts have given you lots of ideas of your own. We must live with the language to learn the language - make it a part of our lives. If you think about how we came to learn our mother tongue, it's because we were immersed in the language. Everyone, at least those important to us, spoke it. It takes a long time for babies. Think about all the schooling and life experience you've had learning it. Well, you need to put in some time for the new language as well. Hopefully, not as much.