I was lucky: I moved to a country where everyone speaks the same language I do. Granted, some of the slang in Australia is decidedly foreign to me. It was a huge relief walking off the plane for the first time and being able to communicate with people around me, to find out where services were, or where I could find a good restaurant.
Duolingo is a completely free language-learning service. Right now English-speakers can only learn Spanish, German, French, and Portguese. And Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese speakers can only learn English. I took it for a test drive, practicing Spanish (which I studied for five years but haven’t used in about ten so you can guess my skill level). It starts with the basics and builds from there — showing the word (and including an image if the word is a noun), asking you to pronounce the word, and asking you to write the word. From there you move on to basic sentences. It’s got some very cool voice recognition software to test your pronunciation. If you think you know your stuff you can skip ahead by passing a test at each level.
I found it to be intuitive to use and slightly addictive. It makes you want to keep going, which is definitely critical when learning a language. At each level you get a score. Eventually, you can try your hand at translating real text. You can ask questions to the community, look up vocabulary you’ve been taught in case you need to refresh your memory, and follow other site members — be they Facebook friends or just other people studying the same language. It broke everything down into bite-sized chunks that I found very accessible. It also sends you a daily reminder email, which is a great way to keep you on track.
Livemocha has a wide range of languages: in addition to the usual suspects like English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian, they offer everything from Hindi to Hebrew to Arabic to Urdu. Some languages only have a basic level course meant to teach you vocabulary and simple grammar. Others have advanced level courses meant to give you conversational fluency.
When you get started you can indicate whether you want to become proficient in the language or are just dabbling, whether you need to learn urgently or are have a more long term horizon, and whether you prefer learning through conversation or study alone. Livemocha offers lessons in different formats: video dialog, grammar lessons, vocabulary lessons, reading, and role play. You can also arrange for a personal tutor through the site.
You start off with 200 “tokens” which are spent on various lessons. You can also earn more tokens by helping others learn your native language. Otherwise you can purchase a month-by-month membership for $9.95 a month or an annual membership for $99.95 a year.
Brainscape is not just about learning languages — they have courses on test preparation, music theory, sports trivia, and technology, among other things. Among the available languages, they offer Chinese, English, French, French Creole, German, Latin, and Spanish. Spanish, as an example, has four products: a sentence builder, Spanish vocabulary, Spanish verbs, and Business Spanish for those who already know the basics. With the exception of the Business Spanish module, which is free, the others cost either $5.99 or $7.99.
Brainscape uses a flashcard model based on research of how the brain actually learns. I tried out the Spanish language course. The flip card style of learning took a little getting used to, but I liked it once I got more comfortable with it. You rate on a scale of 1-5 how well you knew a certain flash card, and this determines how often Brainscape shows it to you. Brainscape lets you trial each lesson for free so you can check it out and decide for yourself.