Language Learning Doesn’t Have to Be Expensive

As you know, learning a language can be really expensive. There are tons of books and courses to help you learn most languages in any way you want. However, you can also find people who have become successful at using a language without spending money.

How do they do it? Well, not by magic!

Want to learn the basics of any language for free? When you live in the same country as native speakers of the language you want to speak, you can.

Tools You Need For The Job

You don’t need to go and buy anything, but there are several things to have in place before we start:

  1. You must be in the country where the language you want to learn is spoken.
  2. You must have something to take notes with + some form of audio recording + playback (your smartphone is good enough).
  3. You need access to a bilingual who speaks the target language (you want to learn) as a native and also your language just enough to explain things clearly to you without confusion.

Learn Only What You Need!

We’ve all been told not to go diving into books to learn high level vocabulary we don’t use. Most people who go to a foreign country to learn the language buy a phrase book first. With this method, the phrase book is actually your enemy.

Why? Because it assumes it knows what you want to know.

Let’s dive in with some examples and explain how to use the method.

The Method

1. Ask yourself “What do I wish I could have said today?” – write that down as a note.

2. Ask your bilingual friend to translate.

3. Record the bilingual saying the phrase.

4. Listen to your audio on repeat and attempt to use the new phrase whenever possible.

5. Use the new phrase in real life. 

The Problem I Need To Solve

Problem: When I go shopping, most of the time I don’t want a plastic bag.

I know how many plastic bags end up in the sea and I don’t want to add to that. What is also important to me is that I don’t want to waive my arms around in an attempt to communicate. I don’t want to be rude to the nice friendly Thai people who are serving me.

The only phrase I want to learn is “I don’t want a plastic bag, thank you”.

I don’t need grammar. I don’t need to count to 10. I just need this phrase so that I can go to the 7-Eleven each day and be polite about my one verbal interaction with Thailand each day.

Learning any more right now would be breaking one of the biggest rules of efficient language learning – don’t learn what you don’t need to use.

If you’re not going to need to use it for either the exam you are preparing for, or the next two weeks of your life in a foreign country, learn it later. If not, you are just filling your head with stuff that you don’t need right now that will fall out again before you need it (think about buying a walking stick in your 20s when you are fully fit and able – there are more efficient ways to spend your money at that time!)

I write down the phrase I want, and then I go to the helpful lady at the reception of my co-working space in Chiang Mai (who speaks okay English) and ask about my phrase. Her English isn’t perfect, but she can tell me the magic phrase I need for this week. Most people in any country are really happy you want to learn their language, so generally you get a good response to this.

However, don’t forget to be sensitive to other people who may be busy. Your language development is welcomed on your travels, but not more important than someone’s important day-to-day business.

Now I have the phrase I want. I don’t need to know any grammar. I don’t need to be able to write the phrase, even. I just need to be able to say it well enough for the people in the supermarket to understand me.

I practice for about 5 minutes, repeating and repeating. Then I have everything I need.

Now it’s time to test my Thai in real life!

I go in, buy my Coca Cola and use my new phrase. Magic! They understand! Then they respond naturally to me as I’m being polite to them in their own language. My day is made perfect!

Here is how it happened:

1.Get your translation.

2. Confirm you are clear about what you need to do!

3. Go to the place you need to use it.

4. Use your new phrase

So What’s The Point Here?

The point is that if you just want to learn short phrases to do something simple, then you don’t need to learn grammar or writing. Your brain learnt your native language by copying sounds when you were young. You can use the same technique to learn the words and phrases you specifically want to know for any day to day situation in another country. All you need is the stuff we mentioned above plus a little motivation.

Another little trick is to plan what you want to say before you go abroad. You can then use HelloTalk to find a native speaker to help you translate the phrases and record them using the voice messaging function. This way you can prepare specific phrases and learn them using an mp3, without even being in the country.

I’m going to try this method next time I go to a new country for a week to see how it goes.

Happy language learning!

Ryan Champion is from Oxford, UK and speaks French, Spanish, and Mandarin. He taught languages and business in companies like LG, Canon, and Standard Chartered Bank. He now runs an IELTS practice service called

Feature image by Jodie DS from Pexels