Got a special someone in your life who wants to take on a new language? Here’s a look at how to give the gift of learning a foreign language — what works best, what is the most fun, and what will be the most motivating as the receiver sets out on their journey.
Why take my advice? I come at this as a pedagogical designer, a writer on language learning, and an avid learner of languages myself. I’ve written in depth about my own language learning strategies and how I went from fluency in just one to eventually seven languages (and a smattering of bits of others). I’ve penned guides to aspects of specific languages for this site (especially Serbian, Catalan, Portuguese, and Sicilian), and been a hired gun for larger language sites (for more popular languages like Spanish and French).
We’ll start with who such a gift is appropriate for and when and why, but just skip down if you want quick links to what’s worth gifting.
Update History of This Article
Who Should — and Shouldn’t — Receive the Gift of language Learning
Again and again, many studies show that the people who best learn languages are those who motivated. Ask yourself if the person you are buying this gift for has at least one of the following motivations:
- Instrumental motivation, such as learning Spanish to get further with specific career adjectives
- Integrative motivation, for example learning English in order to fit in with an English-speaking society
- Intrinsic motivation, like wanting to be able joke and flirt in Galician or talk some bullcrap in Serbian, or just a desire to stay mentally active and challenged (one of my mother’s main motivations for Italian)
- Extrinsic motivation, such as the need to attain C1 level in German as mandated by some silly, oppressive outside power
- Family ties (learning Russian to be able to chat with a sibling’s new spouse) and romance (e.g. wanting to understand your lover’s Spanish) and can involve both the intrinsic and integrative motivations classified above
So ask yourself: Is the receiver of your gift truly motivated, or likely to be? If not, language learning as a gift can be rather unwelcome and in my opinion even a bit manipulative. And it just won’t work. Try instead giving them something they might actually use. For example, maybe a good rolling backpack will get them motivated to travel, and then eventually they’ll want to learn a language?
But if the person is motivated, language learning makes a great gift, as we’ll see just below! The type of motivation will come into play later as we discuss what types of gifts are best for whom.
Why Language Learning Courses and Materials Make Great Gifts
Here are some of the reasons people love to give (and, especially, receive!) language learning as a gift:
- It’s healthy: Among the benefits, knowing more than one language makes young people more adaptable to environmental changes, and older folks to have less cognitive decline, according to an oft-cited roundup of studies.
- It’s fun: Done right, language learning is something that people look forward to — a break from the mundane parts of a day and a chance to stretch the mind in interesting ways. Obviously it’s also a great joy to communicate with people you otherwise would be unable to chat with (often, for me, this particularly includes elderly locals when travelling!).
- There are options any budget: The books I suggest below will not break the bank, and you can be as cheap or as profligate as you like on things like a gift card for language classes. The important thing is that you’re giving your dear language learner a nudge on their way to a great adventure.
- It’s an easy last-minute purchase: All of the learning gifts I suggest are available online, and the gift card for classes can be purchased in less than 30 seconds and available for immediate use.
Gift 1: One-on-One Online Language Classes
We’ll start with the gift that I as a language learner would most want to receive: online language classes.
Note that I’m not talking about language learning apps and programs, I’m talking about live, one-on-one instruction with a professional teacher.
- Convenient: The receiver of this gift can schedule them at any time they like and do them from anywhere that they have a solid internet connection. This makes it much easier to stick with a program then having to physically go somewhere at a certain time, and eliminates transportation cost and inconvenience.
- Efficient: Classes are one-on-one, so the receiver focuses entirely on their personal goals with the language. Plus they aren’t sitting in a classroom of folks and taking in those others’ mistakes; they hear as a model only the teacher’s target version of the language. This makes learning go so much faster.
- Pick your teachers: Good teachers are fun to talk to and adaptable to all sorts of personalities and learning styles, but the nice thing about online learning is you can pick your teachers. Don’t click with one? There are hundreds of others to choose from. And yes, I recommend learning with two-to-three teachers at the same time, to vary the vocabulary and pronunciation that you hear, and also just for the fun of talking to a few different teachers with different personalities and styles.
- Learn from native speakers: It’s far more useful to learn directly from someone who has the target accent and a truly local, life-long cultural perspective than from a foreign-language speaking teacher from your own neck of the woods. Non-native speakers have little quirks (errors) in vocabulary and grammar, and a less holistic understanding of the culture. And the final goal of language learning, after all, is to be able to communicate with the natives, so why hobble yourself by not starting there?
- Cost-effective: The receiver gets far more bang for your giving buck than they would from language schools, university classes, and the like. Depending on the language and the teacher, you can expect to pay $8-20 per hour class.
- Can support more traditional university, high school, and other classes and other learning methods: Whether someone wants to move faster, actually put into practice what they’re learning, or else is falling behind in such classes, online one-on-one classes are perfect.
My pick for online language classes: Italki
- Choose the right professional teacher for you based on reviews from other students; I recommend trying with several
- More than 10,000 teachers to choose from allowing you to learn the precise accent that you want (Cuban Spanish, anyone?) or even marginalized languages (e.g. Neapolitan)
- Very reasonable prices; heavily discounted trial lessons
- Easy online scheduling
In order to buy a gift card, you’ll first need to sign up for the service yourself. Click that link, then “sign up” at top right. Once you’re signed up, go to “Buy a Gift Card” at the bottom of the page in the footer under “more”.
Gift 2: Language Learning Books
Unless they come from my dear savvy grandma, I’ve always found books to be a rather violent gift, on par with a homework assignment. And so that would go double for language learning books.
That said, language learning books are quite useful in the acquisition process, so if you know someone who definitely wants this, they can make a great gift. But do check with them; they may want to have a hand in choosing the style of book. And their online teachers mentioned above will also likely provide material or at least have suggestions themselves. This is why in many situations those one-on-one online classes mentioned above can make a better gift than books.
But if you do want to gift a language learning book, this is what I recommend looking for:
- The best language learning books generally follow a communicative learning style, one that plops learners into situations where they can hear the language in action and then learn to use it in such ways themselves. Such books include grammar, but it is grammar in the service of communicating something, not for its own sake. They include audio components as well.
- Textbooks and workbooks designed for the classroom are often not so good as they often do not provide the complete grammar explanations (which are provided in-class) nor sometimes the answers for exercises. They can also be tonally stiff and teach unnecessarily stilted versions of the language.
- Dictionaries, verb conjugation books, and phrasebooks are no longer useful. Thanks internet. We have WordReference (multilingual dictionaries), Google Translate, online verb conjugators, Forvo (for pronunciations), Wiktionary, and other resources that serve better for most languages than what you would buy in book form.
- Books focused specifically on grammar can be useful references and hands to hold during the language learning process. But they need to be accompanied by classes, books, videos, and more that put the grammar into actual context.
Other Gifts for Language Learners
There are, of course, tons of apps and online courses. I’ve outlined my own strategy that uses a free flashcard app, and thus forgoes the paid apps. In any case the app options are not great gifts as they generally start out free and then offer paid options as you get further in; they could make a good gift if the language learner in your life is already immersed in one of these learning universes and looking to upgrade their subscription.
You can also think outside the box about ancillary things that could offer practice and help motivate further use of the language. Here are a smattering of ideas.
- For Spanish: Tickets to a Cuban son concert in your area, or other event where their might be Spanish speakers
- For Japanese: A flight to Tokyo, or a trip to the neighborhood Japanese dive bar or sushi joint
- For Chinese: A Sichuan cooking class in your area (Airbnb now offers such “experiences”)
- For Portuguese: A Spotify or Amazon Music subscription where they can listen to the world’s best language for music, from bossa to samba rock, and look up the lyrics as they go, and this excellent guide in Portuguese to the sexy history of Brazilian pop
- For French: A Netflix subscription where they can watch the funny and cool Parisian comedy Plan Coeur (The Hook Up Plan) with subtitles, and tons of other French movies and shows.
And so on, you get the idea. What really makes language learning work and something that a person can stick to is making it fun and applicable; gifts that help a person do this will be doubly appreciated.
This is just a start; I’ll be adding to this article as I go further in depth reviewing language learning materials for the various languages that I speak — and that I’m learning. Suggestions are welcome in the comments.