The Foreign Services Institute developed their language courses to help diplomats quickly reach professional working proficiency in a language. They would attend 5 hours of language instruction per day, plus homework, for 24-88 weeks (depending on the language). The table at the bottom of this page indicates the average time it would take for a student to reach professional working proficiency.
The FSI program places a strong focus on listening comprehension, in addition to extensive exercises for grammar and vocabulary. If you follow along with the audio and respond to the prompts in each drill, you will also develop confidence in speaking the language.
With hundreds of pages of text, dozens of hours of audio, and several levels in many languages, the FSI courses are still probably the most comprehensive, free courses you can follow. Just remember that they are decades old, so the audio is not very clear and the vocabulary often includes both sexist and obsolete language. Also, some of the topics will not be relevant to your everyday life.
Several sites host these free, open-source courses, but the site linked below is easy to navigate. Beware of any site selling courses “originally made for diplomats,” as these are probably free FSI courses with a price tag. You can also check out the DLI courses, which are equally as comprehensive (and free!).
Easy Languages gets people involved from all around the globe —from Brazil to Mongolia — to film authentic interviews about everyday life with locals on the street.
A typical episode format starts with the interviewer (or interviewers) introducing the topic and location for the day. Then, they will approach various locals to ask their opinion or test their knowledge. Only a handful of languages, like Hindi, and Swahili, don’t follow this format — these are also typically the languages with fewer videos.
Easy Languages invites co-producers to join their channel, which means that anyone can apply to create videos, as long as they are filmed according to the Easy Languages guidelines. These co-producers receive multimedia training if they don’t already have experience in the field, so the videos typically have a baseline quality standard (although sometimes the filming can be a bit shaky).
Most of the interviewers have a bubbly personality, and some of them appear in multiple language interviews within Easy Languages. Overall, the interviews are enjoyable and will train your ear to understand a range of voices and accents. Also, for anyone who uses Seedlang for German, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see Cari’s friendly face in the Easy German episodes!
The DLI and FSI language courses are still some of the most comprehensive resources for language learning today, and probably the most comprehensive free resources you will find.
Although the DLI and FSI courses are comparable in quality, DLI courses focus more on military terminology in the later lessons, while FSI courses focus on everyday communication and communication for diplomats. Another key difference between them is that the DLI courses may go into more depth, and also seem to provide a more comprehensive guide to the study of each language; the FSI courses either have briefer explanations or dive straight into the content. Both of them have outdated content, which is understandable considering that they were developed in the mid-1900s and have scarcely been updated since then.
Often the DLI courses outline clear practice strategies to reproduce your target language’s sounds. Also, depending on the language, literal translations are sometimes used so that you get accustomed to each language’s grammar structure.
All the PDFs and audio files are available for download on various sites, although Live Lingua has made navigating between the material quite intuitive. If you can’t find your desired language in the DLI courses, check out the FSI courses for different options.
[email protected] (Extra)
[email protected] is a beginner French, Spanish, German, and English series that portrays the life of Sam (or Hector, in the English version) arriving in a new country to learn the local language. Programs like Destinos and French in Action will probably help you develop a stronger foundation in your target language than [email protected], but if you are nearing the intermediate level, [email protected] can be an enjoyable watch.
The exaggerated gestures will give context when you don’t understand the dialogue, and the drama will keep you wondering what’s going to happen next. Unfortunately, the characters follow clearly defined gender roles, and some of the script is a bit sexist — make sure you take the cultural information with a grain of salt, as some (or much) of it may be outdated.
Every language’s episodes were filmed in the same apartment with more or less the same script, although the English storyline goes 17 episodes further than the rest. You can find the show with extra comprehension activities with a Yabla subscription. Otherwise, this Youtube channel and this Youtube channel combined have all of the French episodes, this one has most of the English Episodes, and this one has most of the Spanish and German episodes.
Babbel is an online language-learning platform with over 1 million active users. It’s available on the web, for iOS, and for Android. The app aims to get learners to a conversational level as quickly as possible through the use of a variety of exercises and spaced repetition for review. The courses are well put together and relatively inexpensive; there are 14 different languages available.
Grammar Hero is a product from Olly Richards, the creator of I Will Teach You A Language. It follows the story-based method of teaching languages, but this time with a focus on the most difficult grammar points. You start out by reading a story and the grammar point is underlined, later you learn the rules, then you re-read the story with explanations, and finally you’ll practice using the grammar point to express your thoughts and opinions. It’s a comprehensive method that’s meant to help you internalize the grammar.
Ouino is a software program and mobile app with more than 500 lessons and 1,000 exercises in Spanish, French, Italian, and German. It’s curriculum-based with an academic approach (as opposed to relying on gameplay like some other language apps). It covers the basics such as vocab and pronunciation, but can also help you improve your conversation skills and master verb tenses.
Ouino would be great for you if you want to pick a language back up after not using it for a while, if you love structure, or if you want lots of practice. It could also be a good resource for language students who want to keep their skills sharp in between semesters.
Ideal for people who are already at an upper beginner/intermediate level, Clozemaster will help you build your vocabulary and learn new words and sentences in context. While you won’t learn much grammar or improve your speaking and writing much, it is great at what it does and the videogame aspect makes it fun and addictive to work though. Although the exercises are all pretty much identical, there are various ways in which you can increase the difficulty and Clozemaster’s free account is almost as good as the Pro User one.
Lirica is a paid app that focuses on listening comprehension, vocabulary, and grammar through songs in Spanish, German, and English. It also elaborates on important common phrases, explains colloquialisms, and provides interesting facts about the target language. Each song is assigned either Beginner 1, Beginner 2, or Intermediate, in addition to a specific learning goal, such as “Making affirmative sentences negative” or “expressing misunderstanding”. It’s surprisingly effective at supporting comprehension and memorization of various songs.
Lirica continually expands its song library, with new songs added weekly, so a yearly subscription may be worth your time. Also, by purchasing the app you continue to support the artists, as Lirica has entered licensing agreements with each label. Check out their 7 day free trial!
If you are looking for a free version that does not provide any vocabulary or grammar explanations, check out Lyrics Training.
Paul Noble’s audiobook series is for beginners or upper-beginners who want to gain confidence in their target language. There are also crash courses for those who will soon be heading off on a business trip or holiday. The series focuses on cognates (words that are similar in both English and your target language) in order to build your vocabulary more efficiently. It also seems to have been inspired by Michel Thomas’ courses (with a few improvements).
Paul introduces vocabulary and gets you to make new sentences through problem solving. For example, he may introduce a sentence, then ask you to make a new sentence using your current knowledge and the new words you have just learned. Although the narrators move a bit slowly, the consistent interaction between you and the material ensures that you won’t get bored. Because Paul breaks down the rules of each language in such a simple and concise way, you can feel confident in building new sentences by yourself.