Knowing just one language doesn't seem to be enough nowadays. To improve their college acceptance options, your kids may study foreign languages in high school or even well before that. Folks in your family may want to learn basic conversational skills in another language before going on vacation abroad—or they may want to communicate easily with people who've moved nearby from other parts of the world.
These days it's easier than ever to learn Spanish, French, Russian, Chinese, or just about any other major language. You and your children can find a wide range of language sites, each with its own style. Some sites focus on language "immersion," or on five-minute vocabulary lessons; others offer a more comprehensive classic textbook-style approach. Features available at some sites include games, videos, chat, social networking, and even discussion forums for specific languages.
Here are five of the handiest language learning sites around. Most also have related iOS and Android apps. To use these sites by themselves, kids need good reading skills. But preschoolers can follow along, with help from a parent, grandparent, or older sib.
Duolingo concentrates on teaching vocabulary words—and letters, too, if a language requires knowledge of a different alphabet. You can set a daily practice goal of anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes.
Like the other sites included here, Duolingo covers lots of languages. So if your child is in fourth-year French, but wants to play around with Vietnamese or Russian a little, well, why not? In Duolingo, kids can test out from the beginner level to the advanced level for languages they already know a lot about.
Cool features designed to speed up learning include practice reminders, an option to slow down the audio, and the ability to hover over words to view their English equivalents.
The moderated discussion forums on Duolingo are quite active. In some discussions, for instance, users have helped each other out with tips about how to convert a keyboard for use with Greek letters. Free Duolingo apps are available for Android and iOS.
Like Duolingo, Memrise is a free site oriented toward quick vocabulary building—but it takes a more game-inspired approach. Unlike Duolingo, Memrise requires you or your child to register. But you can come in at intermediate or advanced level without first testing out of beginner. If the material seems either too hard or too easy, you can easily switch levels.
In Memrise, you set goals and then earn points by achieving them. You can also follow high-earning members of the Memrise community. For many kids, the site's competitive element makes learning more fun.
This website also provides special tools, such as cartoonlike "mems" for helping to remember words and phrases. See why they call the site Memrise? Andoid and iOS apps for Memrise are available at no charge.
Mondly follows a traditional textbook approach to language learning, complete with full practice conversations and verb conjugation drills. As with all of these sites, recorded voices take the place of a teacher. Even a young child will find it easy to repeat dialogue while mimicking the correct accent.
Nicely supported with slick accompanying graphics, Mondly seems to have produced a very effective teaching model...but unfortunately, the site isn't entirely free.
What you and your family get for free are a one-time tutorial per language (amounting to a brief "conversation in a restaurant") plus one "daily lesson" each day. Many other goodies are available, including special material to learn if you'll be traveling. But you'll need to pay for that extra stuff through in-app purchases priced at from $5 to $60 per item. You can get the app in Android and iOS flavors.
FluentU is a video-based language learning site that adopts a "language immersion" slant. Essentially, this means that you dive into being surrounded by the new language.
FluentU isn't free. Despite what you might think from reading the somewhat misleading information on the home page, you need to sign up for a trial offer to use any of the site's content, which consists of YouTube videos that you could otherwise access free of charge.
Still, to its credit, FluentU has curated these foreign language videos into various difficulty levels. The site has also added such useful tools as English captions and the ability to obtain more information about a word in a foreign language by hovering over it.
You'll find a huge number of videos on FluentU, including TV shows that are entertaining enough to make any kid happy. An associated app is available for iOS, and a similar app for Android is in the works.
Hellolingo is a new and decidedly social networking-oriented language learning site, established by the original founder of Share Talk (a similar site shut down by its new owner). Hellolingo seeks to attract former members of both Share Talk and the recently closed LiveMocha.
The site seems to be doing a great job of that so far. After signing up for the site, you fill out a quick profile and then you can join in on either a public or private chat with anyone on the site—basing your decision on where they live, what their native languages are, and what languages they are trying to learn.
This can be a really enjoyable and engaging way to learn languages and meet people from different cultures. The site wouldn't be appropriate kids younger than college age, however, because it involves unmoderated, live conversations with strangers from around the world. The Hellolingo app is available for Android, with in-app purchases ranging from $1 to $5 per item.