The season of giving is upon us! Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Festivus, Yule, Saturnalia, The Gregorian New Year, The Lunar New Year, or just TGIF, here are some gift ideas to help spread some love to those you know trying to learn a foreign language. And don’t forget to pamper yourself a bit, too: if you’ve diligently put in the study hours this year, reward yourself with a little something something. Here now are ten gift ideas for the language lovers in your life.
I have said it many times before, but I will say it again given its importance: you cannot learn to speak a foreign language unless you actually practice speaking it! It sounds obvious, I know, but so many would-be language learners spend all their time reading and listening, and rarely if ever apply what they’ve learned in real, human-to-human interaction. I know it can be really scary to speak with a native speaker, especially in the early stages when you hardly know any words or structures, but you must overcome this fear to succeed. There are many ways to find native speakers to practice with online, including hundreds of different language exchange sites, but my favorite by far is iTalki. They have a much larger collection of high-quality tutors than most similar sites, include tutor rankings so you can figure out if someone is likely to be a good fit for you before committing to a tutor session, and probably best of all, they have a really good scheduling tool that automatically factors in your time zone and that of your teacher so you will both be online at the right time (I have been stood up, and sadly, stood up other learners, many times because one of us got the time conversion wrong).
Membership to a Premium Online Course
Though language learners can find gobs of free language learning materials online, many of the best materials are hidden behind paywalls. This is especially true for those wanting to go past the beginner level in a language, and for those wanting to use a single solution instead of cobbling together a piecemeal collection of tools. Here are a few excellent membership sites that offer high quality language content, a variety of study tools to make the most of your time and money, and at least some content for free so you can “try before you buy” to see if these tools are a good fit.
FluentU creates “online immersion” by bringing you authentic foreign language videos (YouTube, TV shows, movies, music videos, commercials, etc.). Video can be a great way to pick up new vocabulary, phrases, and structures within fun, meaningful, engaging contexts, but there there is just one problem: most videos created for native speakers are beyond the reach of beginning learners. FluentU solves this problem by providing interactive subtitles that allow you to look up words on the fly using their built-in dictionary (which includes contexual defintions and links to other videos that use the word or phrase). You can then save new words to your personal vocab list and practice them using FluentU’s multimedia flashcards complete with video clips, audio, and images.
Fluent in 3 Months Courses
Benny Lewis’ Fluent in 3 Months courses provide ample doses of encouragement, language hacking tricks to learn more efficiently, and a loving push to get you speaking right away instead of procrastinating out of fear. His courses include:
- Fluent in 3 Months Premium
- Conversation Countdown: Have Your First Conversation in a New Language Exactly One Week From Now
- The Language Gym: Build a Daily Language Habit…For Good!
- Why Spanish is Easy: Learning Spanish is Far Easier Than You Imagine
- Why French is Easy: Learning French is Far Easier Than You Imagine
- Why German is Easy: Here’s How German Can Be Easier Than You Think
- Why Chinese is Easy: Language Hacks That Make Chinese Easy
- Why Italian is Easy: Language Hacks That Make Italian Easy
- Why English is Easy: Language Hacks That Make English Easy
JapanesePod101 produces some of the highest quality Japanese learner podcasts and tools available. Each episode includes show notes with a complete transcription in kanji, kana, and roumaji, and an English translation. While you can get some episodes for free via iTunes, a membership gives you unlimited access to all previous seasons (1,700+ audio and video episodes). Use their lesson checklist to keep track of which episodes you’ve already listened to, and create a custom feed with content for only your level. They also have spaced repetition flashcards, kanji tools, pronunciation and accent review tools, a grammar bank, and more.
ChineseClass101 produces some of the highest quality Mandarin learner podcasts and tools available. Each episode includes show notes with a complete transcription in Chinese characters, Hanyu Pinyin, and an English translation. While you can get some episodes for free via iTunes, a membership gives you unlimited access to all previous seasons. Use their lesson checklist to keep track of which episodes you’ve already listened to, and create a custom feed with content for only your level. They also have spaced repetition flashcards, Chinese character tools, pronunciation and accent review tools, a grammar bank, and more.
SpanishPod101 provides over 1800 audio and video lessons that make learning more fun and effective. Instead of reading bland textbooks, you can pop in your headphones, and learn anywhere, anytime. Their site and app includes vocabulary learning tools, spaced repetition flashcards, detailed PDF lesson notes, and a lively community forum.
Pimsleur or Michele Thomas Audio Course
Getting your ears and mouth used to a new language is one of the new learner’s most challenging obstacles. But as I’ve said before, proper pronunciation is by far the most important skill you can develop. Learning proper grammar and amassing a big vocabulary is great, but it’s all for nothing if people can’t understand the words coming out of your mouth. While just listening and speaking a lot everyday will help you gradually improve your pronunciation, I highly recommend using an audio course from Pimsleur or Michel Thomas to master pronunciation from the very beginning. They are also great tools for internalizing basic language patters and high-frequency vocabulary.
The Pimsleur Approach
Pimsleur is one of the most popular self-study language learning programs on the planet. The system was developed by the late Dr. Paul Pimsleur, an applied linguist and professor of French and foreign language education, and a founding member of the ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages). The Pimsleur Approach promotes three core principles:
- The Power of Anticipation & Active Recall: The extremely passive nature of most language classes, with students simply listening to or repeating after the teacher, is a highly ineffective way to build or strengthen procedural memories. To address this problem, Dr. Pimsleur developed a “challenge and response” approach, which requires students to translate a phrase into the target language when given a prompt in English. He believed that the anticipation strengthens memories and better reflects real-life conversations.
- Spaced Repetition: Paul Pimsleur’s version of spaced repetition is called “Graduated Interval Recall” (G.I.R.). Like other spaced repetition systems, Pimsleur audio courses present the same vocabulary items and phrases in progressively longer intervals, refreshing your memory just when you are about to forget.
- Core Vocabulary: The Pimsleur Approach presents only the most common words first (approximately 500 new words per level). A very small number of words account for the vast majority of spoken and written material in a language, so it makes sense to master these highest-frequency terms first.
The Michel Thomas Method
Much like the Pimsleur Approach, the Michel Thomas Method is completely audio-based. The learner is encouraged not to overtly memorize words and phrases; the brain should automatically internalize them if the teacher (in this case Michel) breaks the language down into sufficiently small chunks and then puts them back together in a sufficiently intuitive, logical, step-by-step approach. And that is exactly what The Michel Thomas Method promises.
Lonely Planet Phrasebooks
While blogs, comics, books, etc. may be more fun to read, phrasebooks are a better way to focus on just the high-frequency, everyday vocabulary and structures you will need to travel, live, and work abroad. They also tend to be small and portable, so you will always have some foreign language material handy when “hidden moments” arise throughout your day for language study. There are many excellent phrasebook publishers to choose from (and the best of the best varies a bit from language to language), but in general, I find Lonely Planet’s phrasebooks to be the best designed, have the most useful vocabulary, and go to the trouble of including phrases in a colloquial English translation, in the local script (e.g. in kanji), and in a phonetic transliteration (e.g. romaji or pinyin).
Books on How to Learn Languages
If you know anyone who is just starting their first foreign language, has been studying for a long time without making any real progress, or who will be moving to a new country soon and needs to reach a functional level in the language in an extremely short amount of time, I highly recommend getting them a copy of one or more of the following books.
Fluent in 3 Months
Benny Lewis speaks over ten languages, all of which he learned as an adult. He runs the largest language-learning blog in the world, Fluent In 3 Months, and is a full-time “language hacker,” someone who devotes all of his time to finding better, faster, and more efficient ways to learn languages. Fluent in 3 Months: How Anyone at Any Age Can Learn to Speak Any Language from Anywhere in the World is a new blueprint for fast language learning. Benny argues that you don’t need a great memory or “the language gene” to learn a language quickly, and debunks a number of long-held beliefs, such as children supposedly being better language learners than adults. The book provides just the right the balance between motivation and practical application to prevent paralysis by analysis and get you learning from day one.
P.S. You may notice a familiar name in the Acknowledgements section: I was honored to be asked by Benny to help out on the Japanese section of the book as he had just started learning the language during the editing stage of the book.
Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language Fast and Never Forget It by Gabriel Wyner shows you how to learn foreign languages in the most efficient and enjoyable way possible, leveraging the latest findings in neuroscience and linguistics (with ample humor thrown in for good measure). Gabriel speaks six languages fluently, but he didn’t learn them school or as a child. Instead, he learned them in his 20s and 30s by practicing on his own while riding the subway. Instead of boring textbooks and tired techniques, he used simple but powerful techniques and free, fun, online resources. In the book, Gabriel walks you through how to:
- Rewire your ears so that foreign sounds become familiar sounds.
- Retrain your tongue so you can produce foreign language sounds more accurately (using tricks he learned as an opera singer).
- Connect foreign language sounds and spellings to images (instead of using direct translations), which helps you start thinking in a foreign language.
- Use sophisticated spaced-repetition technique so you can memorize hundreds of words a month with just a few minutes of effort a day.
Gabriel is also the creator of the Fluent Forever App, the most crowd-funded app of all time.
How to Speak Any Language Fluently
Alex Rawlings is an English polyglot, author, and language teacher who speaks 15 languages (English, Greek, German, Russian, Afrikaans, Catalan, Dutch, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Hebrew, Hungarian, Serbian, and Yiddish). In university, he was crowned “Britain’s most multilingual student.” Since graduating in 2014, he has gone on to teach languages worldwide, organize polyglot conferences, and write a book that shares the secrets to his linguistic success: How to Speak Any Language Fluently: Fun, Stimulating and Effective Methods to Help Anyone Learn Languages Faster.
The book shows you:
- How to speak with greater confidence and accuracy.
- How to learn vocabulary and grammar more effectively.
- How to use your time on the internet and social media to learn languages.
- How to read real books, websites, and articles in your target languages.
- How to pass exams that certify your language skills.
Master Japanese shows you how to learn Japanese through my Anywhere Immersion™ approach, a much more enjoyable, effective, and efficient way to learn. I’ve been learning and teaching languages for over two decades, and have poured everything I’ve learned (and everything I wish I had known when starting out) into the guide:
- How to create a Japanese immersion environment no matter where you live.
- How to choose resources that fit your unique interests, learning style, and needs.
- How to learn use brain-friendly methods and work with—not against—psychology.
- How to learn all four language skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing).
- How to save time, save money, and learn on your own terms.
- How to have a damn good time along the way!
Amazon Gift Cards
While books can be wonderful gifts, finding the right book (one they haven’t read, one that fits their part interests and learning style, etc.) can be quite hard to do.
Skip the guesswork and let people buy the language books they really want.
While giving cash can seem a little tacky (though probably appreciated!), an Amazon gift card is a good middle ground that gives your loved ones freedom to choose without giving the option to waste the money on beer instead of books!
If you know someone without a smartphone, one of the best tools you can give them for language learning is an iPod Touch. With this single multipurpose device, they will be able to download foreign language dictionaries, use the free Skype app to speak with tutors, listen to podcasts, watch foreign language films and videos, and much more. Best of all, an iPod touch (as opposed to an iPhone) doesn’t require a data contract. The cheapest option is looking for previous model year devices on Amazon.
A good pair of headphones can make a huge difference in language learning. Not only do they make it that much easier to enjoy foreign language listening input as one goes about their day, waiting in line, doing chores, etc., but they also make it much easier to hear one’s language learning tutor when speaking on Skype. Trying to communicate in a new language is hard enough; don’t let poor sound quality make matters worse. I also recommend getting headphones that include a good microphone: this makes voice quality that much better, and also allows folks to discretely record conversations they have in a foreign language for later review. My favorite are the Apple AirPods since they fit nicely in your ears without being too tight, have good noise cancelling abilities, charge in the included case, and don’t have annoying cables that get tangled or yanked out of your ears.
A Plane Ticket
This may be a big ticket item (ha ha, see what I did there?), but if you have the means, there is no better gift for a language learner than a chance to go visit a country where the language is spoken. There are oodles of sites out there that sell cheap airline tickets, but I recommend JetRadar as it searches multiple low-cost airfare sites at once.
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Great list! Tons of really practical items too. I know I’d love italki credits for Christmas – I’ve become a bit tooooo obsessed with it, but that’s perfectly fine 🙂
I have recently grown overly obsessed with iTalki as well!
Haha yeah, it’s SUCH a great concept, I adore it 🙂 Makes finding a speaking partner just that much easier.
Tis a healthy obsession to have, Shannon!
Thank you, Lou! Yah, iTalki credits are at the top of my list. Just hope Santa still reads wish lists from 34-year-old men…
Awesome ideas, John! I’ve not read those books yet so I’ll leave some hints for my friends haha Merry Christmas in Japan!
Thank you, Jordan. They are all great reads; hope that your friends get the hint. Merry Christmas to you, too!