Tips on Learning Languages Frugally

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Learning Languages

The following is a contribution from my good blogging friend, Pauline, from Reach Financial Independence. If you’re interested in contributing to Frugal Rules please consult our guidelines and contact us.

While English is widely spread, learning languages is always useful. If you are traveling, the experience you will have from being able to share with locals in their native language can be much more interesting than a basic English dialog. At school (in France), we had to take English and a second language all the way through high school. I enjoyed the lessons greatly, but some of my classmates, with the same teachers and classes, didn’t graduate with any English. Some regret it bitterly to this day, now that they have come to realize how it can affect their relationships with foreigners, and their businesses. Here are a few ideas to help you pick up a language if you would like to learn one. This is an important point – you need to be motivated, or your efforts will not pay.

Go Online

There are plenty of websites with tutorials for every language. has beginners-themed courses that offer instruction in how to count, conjugate verbs and start a basic conversation. I like the ones where you can click on the word and hear the pronunciation. Freerice is another great resource, you learn new words in a foreign language, and every time you get the answer right, 10 grains of rice are donated to fight hunger!

Check your Community Center

Many offer very cheap language classes for adults. The local community college can also have courses available. Being in a small group can keep you motivated. Since you will usually pay for a whole semester in advance, make sure you can attend the class.

Make Friends

I remember making online friends in the early 2000s when instant messaging was booming and the world suddenly opened to my screen. Even if my English was not perfect, it was a great way to practice my writing, learn a bit of slang, and typical expressions from other countries.

I keep a few of those friendships to this day. The language you start communicating with someone in will be the language you will keep talking to them in. Obviously, do not start in English. I met a guy in Barcelona and we used to speak English together. When I was in El Salvador, I stumbled upon him, and as I was with a Spanish-speaking friend, I talked to him in Spanish. He had, after all, been living for years in Barcelona. Yet he had a hard time picturing me talking to him in Spanish!


Many people say that the moment you know that you mastered a language is when you are able to laugh with natives, understand a joke, or the specific humor related to politics or regional situations. By reading a lot about current events in a language, you will know what people are talking about and be able to follow the buzz. Most magazines have online publications. Start small, or you can lose your motivation if the vocabulary is too hard. Comics, travel magazines, cooking recipes are a great place to start. I studied business so I knew most of the financial lingo in English, and started to read personal finance blogs around 2007. I believe they have helped me a great deal with my English.

Many libraries have a foreign books section. Some even have audio books. I am not a big fan of those because I have a hard time dedicating a special slot of my day to focus on them. I have heard of people having great results playing it in their cars while driving, or on their MP3 players when running.

Meet up

I am a big fan of Couchsurfing and for years I have received people from all over the world at my place. Since they get to stay for free, they are always happy to talk to me in their mother tongue, be patient when I struggle back to answer, and teach me a thing or two.

I also attended language meetings organized by Couchsurfing members. Every table gathers to speak a different language over drinks, you meet new people and it is a really fun experience. All for the price of a beer.

You can also try craigslist for language exchange. You give a foreign student one hour of English conversation, and then he returns the favor in his language.

Get an E-Teacher

A private tutor is usually very expensive. Just like virtual assistants, a new business for online languages tutors has boomed. The costs to learn Spanish over Skype with a tutor from Ecuador or Colombia will be about half the price of a US-based tutor.


Ok, traveling is maybe not the most frugal thing in the world. But say you are about to pay a private teacher $25 per week for a one-hour lesson, that is $1300 a year. I have been a language tutor, and for many students, learning French was like going to the gym. They started super motivated and dropped it after two months. Chances are you will not learn much. A ticket to Mexico is way cheaper, and if you really immerse yourself, by doing some volunteering in a small community (not Cancún), or Couchsurf and stay with locals, you will learn a lot and come back even more motivated to keep learning some more. This is how I picked up most of my language skills.

The key is to never revert back to English. Keep going. Make mistakes. Sign, point, draw. Do NOT speak English. Have a small conversation book and point it up if people do not understand your pronunciation. Then repeat what they said. It will come eventually. It has led me to quite a few strange situations, like eating liver for breakfast when I was pretty sure I would get butter cookies in Morocco, but I can assure you that I learned the word for liver straight after!

Be Realistic

Think again about the gym analogy. How many people buy brand new gear and a one-year membership to attend the gym twice? If you have gone through all the free online resources, made foreign friends, and are still super motivated to learn a language, then hire a tutor, attend a class, and invest some money in yourself and your passion. Until then, you can achieve great results and keep your spending low.


The above is a guest post from Pauline Paquin, a French girl who has recently started to blog over at Reach Financial Independence. Born and raised in Paris, Pauline blogs about how she has been traveling the world for the past 10 years, while trying to build wealth and achieve financial independence, and how you can follow your dreams and reach your goals too. You can follow Pauline on Twitter @RFIndependence.


Editors note: Pauline offers some great ways to learn different languages and frugally at that. Knowing a good bit of German myself, I can attest to the necessity of speaking with others in order to strengthen your grasp of and confidence with whatever language you’re learning.

Photo courtesy of: Andrew C

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I'm the founder of Frugal Rules, a Dad, husband and veteran of the financial services industry. I'm passionate about helping people learn from my mistakes so that they can enjoy the freedom that comes from living frugally. I'm also a freelance writer, and regularly contribute to GoBankingRates, Investopedia, Lending Tree and more.


  • Our local library has a free language program that we are using to try to learn some spanish before our upcoming vacation to a spanish speaking country. They don’t charge for the service and it is totally free! I’m glad I found it because we were about to buy Rosetta Stone.

  • Pauline, you have been busy with these blog swaps lately, great work!

    My wife actually downloaded an app on her phone (for free) that teaches her how to speak french. It displays the word and then speaks it out to you for you to repeat. I think that if you get the paid version it uses the word in a sentence.
    I thought it was a really cool idea for an app.

    • Pauline says:

      That sounds really cool, which app is that? I heard about another app where you speak to your phone in English and then the phone says the sentence back in a chosen language, but don’t remember the name.

  • Good advice. I currently only speak English but took years of Spanish when I was younger. Unfortunately I never really became fluent (or even close to that). I have considered trying to master it but have too many other priorities. If I do ever try again, I definitely will follow some of these tips. I think being committed is the most important thing!

    • Pauline says:

      You do need commitment or you’ll only end up frustrated. Having a holiday planned or a business interest is a great motivation, because in the end, if you want to speak another language, it is to put it in practice.

  • Michelle says:

    These are all great tips. I’ve been really wanting to learn a new language but Rosetta Stone just seems so expensive!

    • Pauline says:

      I remember their prices to be quite high but like Holly said you can find free CDs and methods at the library and probably a few cheap ones on craigslist or garage sales.

  • The breakfast liver sounds so much like something I would do. My problem is that I feel so silly when trying to speak that I usually revert back to English, and most everyone knows that, so they speak back. I did order au pain du fromage at the airport in Paris and got what I wanted but with a strange look. I’ve tried listening to language CD’s in the car, but again feel really stupid going down the road doing vocabulary words. I need to just get over it. Maybe someday we can go spend some real time somewhere and not care to sound and look silly.

    • Pauline says:

      Most people that I have tried speaking to when I was learning a language have been incredibly patient, and no one has dared make fun of me. They would rather have you try and say a few words than just speak straight in English and expect that everyone will understand. You can only get it right if you try. And learn the phrase “please, can you repeat that slowly” before anything!

  • Heather says:

    My husband is in the military and we randomly asked the librarian on post about any language books and/or software programs they might have and she handed us an information sheet directing us to a free language repository for military families with memberships to on post libraries. It has been a huge contributor to homeschooling!

    Always ask!

    • Pauline says:

      What a great resource! When I tutored kids I tried to bring games, pictures to color with the name of the colors, or a map of a city and they had to guide me through it, you can find so many things online.

  • This is a great list. There really are lots of avenues where you can learn a second language.. I tried taking French a few years ago but I find it really hard as an adult to pick up. I so wish I did more language learning as a child. I am definitely going to make sure my children get the opportunity.

    • Pauline says:

      It is incredible how fast children pick up languages. I have a friend who makes play dates in English to French kids and in a fun environment they progress very quickly.

  • I have occasionally listened to a couple French lessons via itunes U or podcasts. Totally free!

    • Pauline says:

      Je ne savais pas que tu parlais français! 🙂 I like listening to lessons repeatedly, it’s like a song, after a while you know all by heart. Although I am a more visual person so I still need to read for a longer lasting memory.

  • Catherine says:

    Great post! Learning a new language in today’s world is so much easier than it use to be, I took french immersion in school but since I never use it, I’ve lost it (can still read quite well but speaking is gone!).

  • I LOVE this post! Our library actually offers language classes free of charge. I studied Turkish for a while at a community Turkish Culture center. It was really low cost….like $10/session and our teachers were all native speakers. I’d say friends and long-term travel are the best ways to become fluent in anything, though!

    • Pauline says:

      They are, but the free library language classes sound great to get a kick start! I like going to friends when I already have the bases, in order not to annoy them too much.

  • Mandy @MoneyMasterMom says:

    Hey Pauline, nice meeting you here. I went to Ecuador to learn Spanish in 2004. Clearly i wasn’t committed enough because the only thing I managed to do was completely mash my french and Spanish together. My best advice is to get a good hold on a 2nd language, before you attempt a 3rd. It was a rookie mistake.

    • Pauline says:

      Great tip Mandy, especially if the next language is similar. I speak fluent Spanish and good Catalan now, and was speaking good Italian before but my last trip to Italy was a big mix of SpanItalCat since I had not spoken for years.

  • Jennifer Lynn @ Broke-Ass Mommy says:

    I know I’ve begun to properly absorb a language when I begin dreaming in it. It is also silly how whichever language you start using with someone becomes your default ’emotional’ language together! I learned fluent Danish rapidly by immersing completely in the culture (two weeks and I could comfortably navigate a conversation), and using any English as a crutch actually hindered that rapid learning process.

    • Pauline says:

      Nothing like a full immersion. I think and dream in Spanish now. The weirdest is sometimes I would be with French friends and have trouble expressing myself in my mother tongue!

  • My husband and I were on the verge of buying “Rosetta Stone” to learn Spanish, when one of my closest friends – who is fluent in the language – offered to teach both of us for free (in exchange, I’m going to proof/edit a few of her submissions to medical journals). It’s a win-win, and saving us several hundred bucks!

  • Tackling Our Debt says:

    Excellent post! Couchsurfing sounds very interesting too!

    Knowing at least one other language is important. But I remember in highschool when we studied French and German I didn’t pay a lot of attention because back then I didn’t understand the need to know. I grew up in a German household and though I never spent much time speaking it, my parents and grandparents always did so I did learn to understand quite a bit of German. I found writing it with all of the nouns and verbs very difficult.

    • Pauline says:

      Couchsurfing is great! You don’t have to receive people at your house at first, or stay with someone, they organize meetings, tours of the city, nights out, and anyone is free to join. I have had some wonderful people come stay with me or host me, a few are still friends years later.

  • WorkSaveLive says:

    My wife and I are wanting to learn a 2nd language sometime next year. We’ve though about doing a class simply because we’d both be more likely to follow through with it. I love some of these options though! Not sure I could do the couch surfing thing…just seems a little to scary for my liking. 🙂

    • Pauline says:

      As I was telling Sicorra above, you don’t have to host or go stay with people. You can start by saying “I am free to give you a 2 hours tour of my favorite spots in town after work” or participate in a meeting they organize at a bar. You meet people, have fun, keep in touch if you want. You can also meet other members living close to you, I made friends this way and we organized activities with or without international visitors.

  • Mike says:

    So true about foreign book sections at the library. Ours has an excellent assortment to pick from.

  • Great post Pauline. I’ve travelled to many places around the world and the one thing I did was read a book of basic communication and bring it with me. The one thing I did do that I am thankful for was that I hung out with the locals. When you mingle with the locales you learn words, hand signals and the best part is they learn from you. Never heard of couchsurfing before.. interesting concept but hey, why not its a win-win situation. Mr.CBB

    • Pauline says:

      Thank you Mr CBB. Bringing a book is great, especially in a country where the pronunciation or alphabet is different. There is a great little book called Point It with many common life pictures, for example one picture is a table with all kinds of vegetables and foods. You can point and the person will understand what you want to buy. Not the best way to learn but a great way to get by.

  • John says:

    I did some studying of Japanese and I would use the News to test my understanding of the language. TV for listening and newspaper for reading. This in addition to jokes and being able to laugh with the natives helps really test ones ability.

    • Pauline says:

      I have always struggled with the news, because people speak fast, although if you read them first in English you can understand what it is about. I started smaller, with children books or learning the lyrics of a song, then moved on to news and movies.

  • Veronica @ Pelican on Money says:

    2 words: Total Immersion. Best way? Yep. Frugal? Not so sure. But like you say, its more effective to walk across the border (if your’e in U.S.) and learn Spanish that way instead of spending hours in front of Rosetta Stone 🙂

    • Pauline says:

      Frugal depends on where you go. You can live here in Guatemala on $15 a day, that is less that a tutor charges for one hour and certainly more effective. If you study a bit before you go, it can be a great motivation to have a trip as a reward at the end.

  • justin@thefrugalpath says:

    Learning languages can be one of the most powerful tools you can learn to help your career. I only wish that I had taken Spanish in school instead of French, no offense Pauline.
    Another “free” way to learn a language is to marry into it like I did. My wife’s parents both immigrated here from Europe and speak Romanian. Although they started speaking a great deal more English since their two children married “Americans” I can still follow a conversation and get the gist of what they’re talking about.

    • Pauline says:

      None taken, Spanish is much more useful! My mum wanted to sign me for German instead of Spanish because it was more prestigious, I had to fight not to! Marrying into is a great way to learn quickly, love is a powerful motivator!

  • Wow. This is a great list. I can honestly say I have never even thought about taking a second language. Seeing the comments above makes me wonder why it has never crossed my mind, because in the finance community it seems as though everyone is looking to expand their language skill set.

    • Pauline says:

      If you are not traveling or having a business interest, it is normal not to think about it, until the opportunity arises. Even for a short holiday it is fun to order a meal in the local language and your interactions with locals will improve.

  • Jason Clayton | frugal habits says:

    I remember when I was in high school and thought learning a second language was dumb. In reality, I was dumb for not trying to learn a new language at the time. (I was in Spanish class, but didn’t learn anything).

    Now I’m in my 30s and wish I knew another language like French or Spanish. I plan to rectify this though one day by living in another country. This is my plan for learning a new language. Great tips!

    • Pauline says:

      Immersion is a great plan! Many of my friends wish they had listened more in language class, but what does a teenager know. Spanish and French are pretty easy to pick up.

  • Your post is an eye opener. There are opportunities to learn a language or two with the emergence of technology. It can help a lot when you travel to other countries. Great way to make new friends as well. You are simply right. Nothing is too late.

  • I’ve always wanted to learn French more (I know basic but not fluent) and I have always heard that it’s easiest to learn when you have somebody who knows it well. Plus, if you can convince them to ONLY speak to you in that language, that’s apparently helpful too. So I think the best tips are making friends that speak the language and meet up with people!

  • Mary Rhodes says:

    Learning a new language is one of my aims in life, I already know French and Afrikaans but really want to learn Chinese one day!!

  • I’ve been debating “Rosetta Stone” to learn Spanish, so your post just saved me a lot of money! I’m going to check out our local library like some of your commenters mentioned to see if they have free or low-cost classes.

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