Which language do you choose out of 7,000 in the world?

Free for all: language courses from Live Lingua [review]

Language learning can be an expensive business. Course materials can be so expensive. And despite free resources like podcasts, online video and websites, sometimes, nothing beats a good coursebook. If only they were free, right?

Free for all

Well, thanks to the efforts of one online organisation, they can be. Live Lingua is primarily an online language lesson service that connects teachers with students. In that respect, it’s a lot like iTalki and Verbling. But where it is different is in a very special side-project on the website.

The organisation has sourced and catalogued a whole range of free, public domain language learning material – both texts and audio files – which you can download from the site. These materials are chiefly courses that have been used in US overseas projects like the Peace Corps. As such, they’re tried-and-tested learning methods that have been employed in real-world settings to great effect. And they’re just as sound resources as their (often very expensive) commercial counterparts.

Worth digging for treasure

There is a huge amount of material on the website; scores and scores of PDFs and MP3 files from courses across a wealth of languages. Learning Arabic? They have courses in nearly a dozen different varieties of it. Learning off-the-beaten track languages? Try their courses in Ilokano or Q’eqchi’. There is a vast catalogue for more mainstream languages too: linguaphiles can feast on their free offerings in French, German and Spanish.

However, one thing is worth bearing in mind. A fair bit of the material is quite old. The resources have been collected from decades of foreign language teaching in US military institutions. That doesn’t make it any less pedagogically sound, of course; I’ve learnt a huge amount from old texts like Teach Yourself Polish (1948)! But it does mean that the format might be a bit rougher that what you might be used to.

With the texts, this can be quite charming; learning from a PDF course that looks like it’s been drafted on a typewriter is quite an experience! (Incidentally, some commercial resources can be similar – I have used the Greek Basic Course from Hippocrene, which is typeset as if from a vintage Olivetti!) Not all of the PDFs are like this, by any means – some are clearly 80s and 90s texts that are formatted in a much more familiar way.

However, it does become apparent when you start delving into the sound files. Some of the older courses have been ripped to MP3 from cassettes, for example. Because of this, the sound quality can vary from dodgy to excellent. But it’s worth persevering – there are some real treasures to be found by careful digging.

FAST learning

As passionate a linguist as I am, I haven’t had time to try all the courses (yet!). But of the ones I’ve been exploring so far, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) FAST courses are amongst the best. They’re concise but cover lots of vocabulary, structures and grammar. There’s good support for listening with fairly good quality MP3s files. And they’re also quite modern-looking texts – not that the typewriter font bothers me in the older ones anyway!

The organisers have taken care over the scanning of the material, too. Hyperlinks have been added to the PDF contents pages, for example, making the resources much more interactive than simple scans.

I’m currently working slowly but happily through the FSI FAST course in Polish. It has a good communicative approach, focusing on everyday interactions – perfect for preparing for a trip to Poland. Written in the 90s, the cultural information is woefully out-of-date;  “You must still count on spending considerable time queuing up in each store” is probably not the case in modern-day Poland! That said, it’s a fascinating snapshot into a transitional period of contemporary Polish social history.

Go and have a dig at Live Lingua – you might save yourself a fortune. You might even happen upon your next language amongst the huge collection. Anyone fancy learning Sesotho with me? 😃

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