Not everyone has the money to take a language course, or the time.
Arriving in Bologna in 1998 with a pregnant wife, a few thousand pounds in savings and a handful of CVs ready to distribute, signing up for a language course was far from being priority number 1. Getting a job (I’m a teacher of English as a Foreign Language by profession) was.
Then, along came the kids: three in less than four years, and of course we wanted them to grow up bilingual, meaning that we had to speak English at home.
So I spoke English with my clients, English with my family, worked all the hours I could get and spent what I earnt on baby stuff and rent. Not the ideal way to learn a foreign language, even if you do live in the country.
But I had a trick up my sleeve!
My first job abroad had been in Ankara, capital city of Turkey, and that had been a very different experience. I’d been single, lavishly paid, and had had lots of friends, as well as girlfriends who spoke little or no English. The perfect situation for language learning. There was only one problem: I never learnt to read or write in Turkish, because I read exclusively in English, and as a consequence I remained more isolated than I would have wished – unable to read a newspaper or an employment contract, despite being communicately very able.
I was determined to avoid making the same mistake when I came to Italy, and so vowed to myself never to buy an English langauge book or newspaper. And, more or less, I never did, and still don’t.
The result? While I never took a language course, and for many years worked exclusively in my own language, my knowledge of Italian grew and grew, as did my level of confidence with text.
Starting with simplified books, then detective fiction, then news magazines and newspapers, I gradually increased my vocabulary, improved my knowledge of grammar, and developed strong reading skills. In fact, while my spoken Italian is still weak, when it comes to reading anything complex or legal, my Italian university graduate wife usually calls me to help!
So, how to learn a foreign language for free? Simple – make reading that language part of your daily routine, and in time (a LOT of time) you will learn. It might be slow, painful, and frustrating, but now with the Internet, it’s a technique available to all of you reading this, and one that won’t cost you anything.
Where to start? Set your browser’s homepage to the website of an Italian newspaper or TV station rather than your e-mail or Facebook log-in page. Then, every time you switch on your computer, you’ll see the headlines, even if you don’t read them. Get into the habit of spending just a few minutes a day on your reading and in time, you’ll notice the difference.
Or make a point of reading what others write in our forums each day, and maybe write something yourself! There’s a fascinating explanation of why Italians drink beer with pizza, for example…