I spent this afternoon chatting with a travel writer about how we first allowed ourselves to start learning foreign languages. That notion may sound a bit odd, especially to those of you living in countries where everyone grows up trilingual. But Americans — even American travelers — have struggled with the concept of mastering languages other than English. Sometimes it has seemed merely unnecessary; at other times, downright impossible. But no matter our nationality, our increasingly globalized 21st-century lives have put to rest any and all excuses in which we might dress up our linguistic parochialism. Technology has also done more than its share, given the ever-growing abundance of free and effective language-learning resources on the internet. Take for example, our pretty massive list of Free Foreign Language Lessons. Or discover this trove of language learning resources from the U.S. Foreign Service Institute, a government agency long tasked with teaching the widest possible variety of tongues to diplomats and other officials stationed abroad. Though produced several decades ago, the lessons are still relevant .... and, more importantly, they're in the public domain.
Most of the downloadables available for each of the over 40 languages on the site include include text lessons in PDF form and audio lessons, suitable for loading onto your mobile audio device of choice, in MP3 form. Naturally, you'll find a more robust store of FSI resources for the much-spoken Chinese, Spanish, and French than you will for, say, Chinyanja, Lingala, and Sinhala — but how often do you run across means of learning that latter class of languages at all? I've found Japanese and Korean, my own East Asian languages of choice, decently represented; in fact, preparation for an extended trip to South Korea this week has seen me go into studying overdrive, making use of every online resource available. You can find more of them in our full list of free language lessons, where, if you'd like to learn any of the languages mentioned here — or maybe Arabic, Finnish, Swahili, or many tongues besides — you can get a painless start. We live in too big (and too interesting) a world not to take advantage of it.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.