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 Beware of any site selling courses “originally made for diplomats,” as these are probably free FSI courses with a price tag.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.
Coursera has several paid and free online language courses developed by accredited universities. The quality of the courses varies, but the following recommendations have been well received — these courses are primarily for beginners who want an introduction to a new language.
École Polytechnique offers the only French course on Coursera; it’s technically for B1-B2 learners, although B2 learners may find it too easy.
If you are starting a language and enjoy structured courses with a (flexible) weekly schedule, Coursera is a great option — especially since Coursera offers financial aid for those who can’t afford to pay the course fees. Pair your studies with a tutor from italki or Verbling for speaking practice and you’ll be good to go!
[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.
From the producers as the French video series, French in Action, Destinos is an award-winning beginner Spanish video course from the 1990s that will train your listening comprehension and speaking abilities. Each of the fifty-two 30-minute episodes follows a dramatic storyline of a lawyer investigating a family secret. Throughout the course, you will learn about Spanish-speaking cultures and accents in Spain, Argentina, Puerto Rico, and Mexico.
Destinos seems to follow the Capretz Theory for language learning, throwing you into full immersion from day one. You shouldn’t worry if you have difficulty following the conversations between the characters; the context and body language of each episode should be enough to help you understand what’s happening. You will gradually be able to understand more as you listen, respond to the lawyer, Raquel’s, comprehension questions at the end of each episode, and complete the accompanying exercises that are linked below each video (be careful you don’t miss them — the text is quite small). Also, the Spanish-speaking narrators speak at a slower pace, so you will gradually be able to pick up new words through them as well. Nevertheless, if you’re struggling to keep up, try watching BBC’s series, Mi Vida Loca first, then dive into Destinos.
Although the videos themselves are outdated, the developers seem to have kept up with current resources. The additional vocabulary, grammar, dictation, and multiple-choice activities contain external links at the end for supplement practice.
Overall, Destinos provides an excellent introduction to Spanish. Please note that the original website may not be available in all countries, but you can find the episodes on YouTube and KET Education without the supplementary exercises.
Read It! has published a handful of graded Spanish readers for A1 and A2 learners. These readers are more advanced than the A1 and A2 readers by Paco Ardit or Juan Fernandez, so you may want to have a basic understanding of the imperfect and past perfect tense before diving in.
You can be sure that Read It! has engaging storylines, as they are all simplified versions of famous novels, including Sherlock Holmes, El Quijote, Moby Dick, and Journey to the Center of the Earth. For the most part, the writing seems to flow naturally — you will probably forget that you are reading to learn Spanish as you become immersed in the story.
Read It! does not have a vocabulary list or reading comprehension questions at any point during the books. If you are looking for these tools to accompany your studies, check out the Spanish books by ESLC, Olly Richards, Juan Fernandez, and María Danader.
Overall, Read It! is an enjoyable series with which you can confidently begin your Spanish reading journey.
1001 Reasons to Learn Spanish
Juan Fernández used to teach Spanish at University College London and has since developed his blog, 1001 Reasons to Learn Spanish. This website offers activities, courses, additional material for his graded reader series, and his podcast, Español con Juan. You will also find videos from his YouTube channel incorporated into various grammar and vocabulary activities. All of his resources are entirely in Spanish, but they support beginner to advanced learners.
Juan is an animated teacher who uses props and gestures in his YouTube videos to increase understanding. In his podcasts, he speaks at a relatively natural speed and includes a full transcript of each episode. His recordings from his home have a better sound quality and are more structured than those that are recorded while he is out walking.
His free course on improving Spanish in 30 days supports upper A2 learners to improve their Spanish and prepare for the B1 level. It is designed to encourage 20-30 minutes of study per day and provides vocabulary and grammar in context. There are videos, grammar explanations, and quizzes, and the content difficulty increases weekly.
Overall, Juan seems dedicated to improving his viewer’s Spanish, and his years of experience as a Spanish teacher shows in the quality of his material.
Juan Fernández Graded Readers
Juan Fernández used to teach Spanish at University College London and has written a series of graded Spanish readers for A1 – B2 learners. He is also the author of the podcast, Español con Juan.
Unlike other graded readers, the A1 book doesn’t throw you directly into a story. Instead, it starts out with a list of basic sentences that gradually repeat with increased complexity until they turn into a story in the later chapters. Although this may seem repetitive at first, it seems like an effective way to incrementally expand and reinforce your vocabulary. This technique sets you up for success in future reading endeavours by helping you master the basics through repetition. The A2 – B2 books maintain the same level of repetition to reinforce new, level-appropriate words. You can find extra material for these books on his website here.
Overall, Juan Fernández’s books are one of the few series that has a book for true A1 learners. If you have little background in Spanish, you can still follow along and gradually move onto the more advanced books in the series. Nevertheless, the graded reader series by ESLC or Read It! may be a better option for upper beginners who want something that resembles a book that you might read in your native language.
Speechling is a website and app that makes it easy to improve your speaking skills in several languages. The free version is an incredbily valuable resource that makes it easy to practice mimicking native speakers. The Unlimited Plan provides unlimited corrections of your recordings by a teacher.