The best way to learn a foreign language is to hear it from infancy. Children’s brains and vocal cords are wired at birth to learn languages. If they hear only one, as most do, they will learn it. If they hear two – for instance, if one parent speaks in English and the other in Spanish – they will learn them both at the same time.
Nobody knows the limit of languages that can young children can learn in this way. A child under the age of about seven can pick up at least four or five languages in this way, if they hear people speaking them. They do not seem to get confused, in general, and understand the different grammar rules intuitively.
By the time a child is around six or seven, it becomes harder to learn a completely new language. This is particularly so if there are sounds which are not present in language(s) they know already. The older they become, the harder it is to learn a language merely by hearing it.
However, there are many structured ways of learning languages: it’s fairly easy to find books, CDs and online tutorials. This site gives links to some of the free foreign language resources which can give a taster. Some of these sites require registration. It should be free, although they may have ‘pro’ versions with extra features.
General foreign language resources
Language Transfer – learn from audio tracks how to think about a new language. Clear explanations about how to form different verb and noun forms, and how to speak simple phrases. Eight languages available at present, some more extensive than others. The method is innovative and the presentation excellent.
Hello World – intended for children, this site has basic lessons, games, worksheets and puzzles in a variety of languages.
DuoLingo – this is an excellent site for beginners in many languages. New courses are added regularly. Learners are introduced to new concepts gradually, and can strengthen previously learned skills alongside learning new ones. Text-based, with typing required; settings can allow for speaking in some cases too.
Memrise – this site is text-based, ideal for those who like mnemonics and who want to increase vocabulary. Worth experimenting with courses as they have different focus. Many other topics are covered as well as a variety of foreign languages.
BBC Languages – no longer updated, but still archived. This site has video lessons for beginners, intermediate or advanced learners of different languages, alongside worksheets and grammar guides.
French phrases – some useful words and phrases in French, to supplement early lessons and to help with communication in French-speaking countries.
Speak Spanish – free lessons and activities, many with audio to help learn Spanish.
Spanish vocabulary – lists of some common words and phrases in Spanish, useful for expanding on beginner lessons.
Learn German online – ten lessons for beginners, and twenty-four for more advanced students of German.
Basic German for beginners – a series of lessons with clear audio clips and text, to help beginners in German grasp basic pronunciation and grammar.
German podcasts – free German lessons, with a free trial of the ‘full’ version which offers more.
Japanese Lessons – a thorough introduction to the Japanese alphabet and grammar
Learn Japanese – extensive lessons in the Japanese language, with reviews to check how much has been learned
Learn Japanese Adventure – beginning Japanese, with pages about simple greetings, useful words, and some grammar. Written from a personal perspective.
Learn Greek – if you want to learn modern Greek, this is an excellent, if rather dated course. You can register free, and there are 105 lessons, from beginner to advanced level. These were originally a Greek by Radio course, but now have transcriptions and discussions forums online.
Greek (ancient and Biblical)
Ancient Greek – set of tutorials with a lot of language/grammar drills. Read the instructions since this site is not intuitive!
Text Kit – Greek – free downloadable textbooks for Greek, both classical and Biblical, in .pdf format
Latinium podcasts – learn Latin by speaking and listening to podcast lessons. Optional small donation, with plenty of free downloads.
Text Kit – Latin – list of downloadable Latin books for various levels. All free, in .pdf format