The Postcard
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The Postcard

4 Free Ways to Improve Your Language Skills Without Apps

Duolingo is not the only option

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

I studied French for 5 years in school. Then I graduated and promptly forgot nearly all of it.

When I restarted my language journey, I thought apps were going to be the key to my success. I was the biggest Duolingo fan and enjoyed the gamification aspect of learning a language. I enjoyed completing translation exercises, passing the multiple-choice “exams,” and earning virtual coins/gems (that were pretty useless, to be honest).

However, about two years ago I completed my first Duolingo language “tree,” which is basically the complete course set, and realized I was nowhere near fluency. I couldn’t understand native speakers very well at all, and I had very little confidence in my own speaking ability.

So I tried out some other apps: Memrise, Drops, etc.

The results were more or less the same. My ability to translate simple sentences and correctly read flashcards was skyrocketing. But I was making little progress when it came to the part of language study that actually matters: communicating with people.

It was time to try out some different methods.

Here’s what’s been working for me.


Podcasts are the highlight of my commute. Listening comprehension has always been my weakest skill set, no matter what language I’m studying. With a 20–30 minute commute, I average nearly an hour a day, five days a week of active listening and learning. That’s more frequent than some actual language classes I’ve taken!

My favorite podcasts are the Coffee Break series from the Radio Lingua Network. The mini-lessons and listening activities are perfect for learning conversational skills. They always include episodes geared towards phrases you would need to know when traveling, like how to describe a problem with your hotel room, or getting to know new people. With these lessons, I feel more confident that I’ll be ready when the world opens back up for travel.

Free Language Classes at the Library

I found out that my local library offers free Spanish and Chinese classes. In fact, free language classes are fairly common at public libraries. Most of them focus on introductory lessons for beginners, and will typically be in languages that are more common or relevant to the local area. It’s an excellent way to start learning with more structure and routine than just teaching yourself.

(Also, for non-native English speakers, ESL classes are also pretty common!)

Reading Foreign Books

I credit my solid command of English with the fact that I was a notorious bookworm growing up. Needless to say, reading is a great way to bolster your grammar and comprehension skills, increase your vocabulary, and appreciate the language more than you would do with regular grammar exercises.

Pro-tip: Comic books are excellent for language learners. The images add some much-needed context that can help visual learners quite a lot. The dialogue is also typically more colloquial and less formal than what you might get reading a novel.

Local Language Groups

Did you know Duolingo does events now? I guess I wasn’t the only one who needed more than ten minutes of flashcards. Other websites like Meetup and even Facebook groups are also good resources for finding and connecting with other language learners.

The nice thing about language meetups is that they alleviate a lot of the pressure to speak perfectly that comes with trying to converse with natives. It’s less embarrassing to make mistakes when you know that everyone around you is also learning and fumbling their way through as well. I’ve been to a couple of Zoom meetups and had a great time exercising my speech muscles and meeting new people.

I haven’t sworn off language apps completely, but they’re definitely not the Holy Grail I thought they were. In the meantime, I’ll keep working on my conjugations in these more practical ways.

What language are you learning? Any tips to add?



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