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  1. Computer Skills
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How to Use a Mac or iPhone to Learn Another Language

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Difficulty:BeginnerLength:ShortLanguages:

Learning a new language requires dedication and a lot of practice. The best way to get that is to immerse yourself in a new culture where you have to speak the language. Unfortunately, not many people are able to do that every time they want to pick up a new language. Instead they need to work with what they have to hand.

A Mac or iOS device can be a great tool to help you learn a new language. Not only are there a number of great apps like Duolingo or Anki that can help you practice, but you can also use them to immerse yourself in foreign radio and films. Let’s look at how to use a Mac to learn another language.

Duolingo

Duolingo is a web and iOS app that offers free language training. The project started off as a crowdsourced translation platform but has focussed more on language teaching in the last few years.

Duolingo offers 16 language courses:

  • Spanish
  • French
  • German
  • Italian
  • Brazilian Portuguese
  • Dutch
  • Swedish
  • Irish
  • Turkish
  • Danish
  • Norwegian
  • Esperanto
  • Ukrainian
  • Polish
  • Welsh
languages duolingo
The languages offered by Duolingo.

Each course is roughly equivalent to a first year college language course—although studies have shown Duolingo is more effective. The app won’t get you fluent but you’ll come away with a decent understanding of the language’s structure and enough vocabulary to get you through everyday situations.

If you’re just starting to learn a language or need a refresher for a language you studied in school a few years ago, Duolingo is the app to use. If you’re already able to order food in restaurants, exchange pleasantries with native speakers, and otherwise get by on a day to day basis, Duolingo’s course will probably be too basic.

duolingo in action
Duolingo in action.

Sign up for free account at Duolingo and pick the language you want to learn. You have two options: you can either start with the basics or take a quick five minute test that assess your ability.

Each Level is divided into different skills which you need to master before progressing. For example, the first level covers simple things like how to say hello or order food while later levels go into more complex topics like scientific terms and different tenses.

Work your way through the course and you’ll be speaking another language in no time.

Anki Flashcards

AnkiApp is a memorisation app based on the Anki memorisation principle. It uses Decks of Cards, each with a single piece of information you want to learn on them. For most language learning set ups, the front of the Card has the target word while on the back of the card is the correct translation. 

You work through each Deck and rate how well you knew each Card. Anki uses a spaced repetition algorithm so that the Cards you struggle with are presented most frequently.

ankiapp
Using AnkiApp to learn French.

Anki has a lot more flexibility than Duolingo, however, it’s a lot more hands on. You can download thousands of Decks (of varying quality) that other people have built but the best way to use the app is to create your own with the words and phrases you want to learn. If you’re not planning on visiting a zoo, knowing the name of every animal isn't going to help you very much.

One really nice feature of AnkiApp is that you can sync Decks between devices. This means you can learn any time you want. Once you've finished with Duolingo, spending a few minutes every day using AnkiApp is a great way to keep your language learning up.

Listen to Foreign Radio

Although Duolingo and Anki are great apps, they don’t give you the experience of really immersing in a culture. There’s nothing like actually hearing native speakers talk to each other.

One of the best ways I’ve found to do that when you’re not there, is listen to radio stations from a country that speaks the language you’re trying to learn. Most radio stations now broadcast live over the Internet as well as through their old aerials.

nrj website
The website of NRJ, the French radio station I listened to.

Find a radio station where the hosts speak the language you are trying to learn but also plays the music you like to listen to. For example, I moved to France for the winter. Before I went I listened to NRJ, a French pop music station. It plays a mix of international hits as well as some popular French music. 

You don’t need to understand every word the hosts speak for it to be useful. Listening to the language you are trying to learn spoken is an important part of training your ear. Another nice bonus of listening to a foreign radio station is it shows you what music is popular around the world.

If you use a Mac, the easiest way to listen to Internet radio is through the web browser. If you’re using an iPhone or iPad, TuneIn Radio is a great app that has a database of countless radio stations from around the world. When you’d normally be listening to Spotify or iTunes, turn on a foreign language station instead.

Watch Foreign Films

Similar to listening to international radio, watching films in the language you want to learn is a great way to train your ear. One advantage that watching films has is that you can watch the film with subtitles on so you can see the English translation of what’s being said, or even better, watch one of your favourite films that’s been dubbed into your language of choice. 

You’ll be familiar enough with the plot and dialogue that you can follow along even if you don’t follow every word.

french films
Some of the many French films available on YouTube.

Netflix is a great place to find foreign language films. As well as big hits like Amélie there are plenty of smaller indie films. YouTube is also a great place to find films although many of them will be older. I found a great playlist of French films with English subtitles and just watched a few that took my fancy.

The Tuts+ Translation Project

As a Tuts+ reader, there’s a good chance you’re interested in technology, design, and computer programming. All these topics have their own unique words that can be hard to learn through Duolingo or watching movies. For some reason, French people don’t say “concatenate” very often.

tuts language project
The Translations sections shows the tutorial is also available in French.

At Tuts+ we’re here to help. For the last two years we’ve been running a translation project where native speakers take a tutorial and translate it into their language. 

Not every tutorial is translated but enough are that you can find one you like and work through the two versions side by side. It should give you a leg up on the technical vocabulary. 

At the top of every tutorial there’s a dropdown with the languages it’s available in. For example, this tutorial on optimising your workflow is available in English and French.

Wrapping Up

Learning a new language is never easy but it doesn't have to be hard. There are some great ways you can use a Mac or iOS device to help you along the way. Whether it’s using something like Duolingo or just watching foreign language films on YouTube, the right tools are there.

If you have any recommendations for great Mac or iOS tools that help learn another language, please share them in the comments. Similarly, if you've any questions about the tools I've mentioned, I'm happy to answer any questions.

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