How to learn a new language in the digital age

Learning a new tongue has never been easier thanks to the wealth of apps and websites out there

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"You live a new life, for every language you speak," goes an old Czech proverb. It seems, then, that many of us are living a double life. According to, 43 per cent of the world's population is bilingual, with equal fluency in both the languages they speak. The world's polyglots (making up 1 per cent, or about 72 million people) speak more than five languages fluently. If these figures inspire you to learn a new tongue, whether it's your second, third or even fourth, know that it has never been never easier.

Digital tools for language learning

Technology has boomed over the last 50 years and communication has increased across the world's most disparate locales, as has our ability and willingness to travel. These factors make acquiring another language both more practical and practicable. Gone are the days when we would flip, flustered through a dictionary, attempting to blurt words at our foreign hosts in the hope that they might grasp what we want to get at. If we don't already know the language of the country we're visiting, all it takes is a Wi-Fi connection and a quick word with Google Translate.

We want to walk up to someone, open our mouths, forget about the rules, and speak automatically

If, however, like me, you would rather those words came a little more naturally, you can look to the huge breadth of resources now out there – most of them easily available online. "We want to walk up to someone, open our mouths, forget the rules, and speak automatically," says polyglot Gabriel Wyner, the man behind the crowdfunded iAnki flashcards app, in his book Fluent Forever. "This goal can seem out of reach because languages seem hard, but they're not. There is no such thing as a 'hard' language; any idiot can speak whatever language his parents spoke when he was a child. The real challenge lies in finding a path that conforms to the demands of a busy life," he insists, having developed a method that focuses on pronunciation and listening in order to turn foreign sounds into familiar ones.

A personal journey

Four years ago, I embarked on my mission to pick up a third language: Spanish (found to be the number one most useful language to learn by online learning facility Cudoo this year). Having studied it at school, I picked it up again before an eight-month stint in South America. Opting to learn “the easy way”, I discovered the Michel Thomas method, listening to 12 CDs that promise no books, no writing things down, no attempting to memorise.

A unique and perfectly brilliant way of teaching languages

A polyglot with the firm belief that “stress is the greatest barrier to learning a language”, Michel Thomas spent 50 years developing his method, which focuses on listening, repeating and building vocabulary slowly through reiteration.

"It's a unique and perfectly brilliant way of teaching languages," says Stephen Fry in his book Rescuing the Spectacled Bear. I would agree. All it took was a dozen discs, which I listened to while eating breakfast one month before heading to Colombia, and I was understanding and making myself understood. These CDs are now available online, with course options that include the Romance languages, Egyptian Arabic, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Hindi and Norwegian.

Other methods

Alternatively, look to websites such as Language Transfer, which follows a similar method, with all the audio tracks you'll need for your chosen language available free on SoundCloud. In a heartening twist, the man behind Language Transfer, Mihalis Eleftheriou, developed his method in order to teach Greek and Turkish in his native Cyprus, to help reunite the two cultures on the divided island. The website now offers courses in many more languages, including Swahili and Italian.

Those who are in the process of learning a new language from scratch may well be familiar with the Duolingo app and its chirpy little owl animation, cheering you on as you earn “lingots” (red little gems) every time you complete a series of simple exercises. The app now has 300 million users worldwide and offers 84 language courses. This, too, is a method I’ve gone back to, especially for picking up basic vocabulary in a new language.

"Duolingo's mission is to make education free and accessible to everyone. Because all of our learning content is 100 per cent free, we make it possible for anyone to learn a language, regardless of their financial circumstances," says Duolingo's Michaela Kron.

If you’d prefer to learn something a little more relevant than “La tortuga bebe leche” (the tortoise drinks milk) or “Il caballo come una manzana” (the horse eats an apple), Babbel might just be the app for you. Having started learning Italian in Sicily last month, I currently favour Babble as the resource to prime the skills I picked up.

Promising a teaching method designed to make you conversational as quickly as possible, Babble takes you through real-life situations, while also teaching grammar rules and repetition techniques to help cement the language as you learn. Yes, it may be paid-for, but I'm learning faster in 15 minutes a day than I was for two hours a morning at a language school.

Once you’ve picked up the basics, test what you know with apps such as ­Coniugazione, which asks that you repeat basic verb conjugations. Or use the Tandem app to chat to people from all over the world using the new language you’re acquiring.

“To become fluent, you’ll need to talk to native speakers in the language you’re learning, as well as watch TV or films or listen to the radio and read newspapers in that language so as to develop fluency,” says linguist Suzane Nunes De Jesus, a native English speaker from Dubai who is learning Arabic and Swedish. She can also speak French, Spanish and Portuguese fluently, and can read Italian and Romanian.

Perhaps another practice trip is in order.