Learning a Language on a Budget: Week One – Getting Ready

Atlas, it's time for your bath
photo credit: woodleywonderworks

For a few weeks now, Judie has been writing about her experiences learning Spanish using the Rosetta Stone system.  It’s a wonderful language learning system used by diplomats and business leaders the world over.  But it has one big drawback – it’s really, really expensive!

In these times especially, many of us are living on a budget and need more cost-effective options.  So, I decided to pull-together some things I had already been working on and go on a mission to learn Spanish as well, but I’m going to try to do it on a more modest budget.  Along the way, I’m going to look at some moderate and even low-cost options for helping you learn a new language.  I’m going to focus on using the computer, the Internet, and even my mobile devices to get the job done.  Who knows?  We may even uncover some valuable tools and resources you may not know about!  I’ll also be reviewing some the products I’m using along the way!

This week, I want to start by looking at a really basic tool you should probably have, no matter what language you want to learn, or how much you plan to spend – your bi-lingual dictionary.

So, the first thing I recommend, no matter what else you do, is that you get yourself a good bi-lingual dictionary.  You can get a good paper dictionary or an electronic one.  You can generally get a paperback one for somewhere between $5 and $15, or an electronic one for under $30.   Paper has the benefit of being less expensive and highly cost effective, but electronic versions, computer-based or mobile device-based have the benefit of convenience and searchability.  Whichever you choose, you’re going to be happy you have a dictionary on hand as you proceed.


If you are working with a moderate budget, you might want to take a look at the Merriam-Webster dictionary or the Vox Spanish-English dictionaries.  The folks at the Paragon group were nice enough to let me work with their electronic versions of these for the iPhone, each of which is available for $24.99 at the AppStore.   Both are really nice, in-depth dictionaries and even support wildcard searches.


The Merriam-Webster dictionary  is a pure, traditional dictionary featuring 80,000 entries.  It is very much like the Merriam-Webster paper dictionary, but in a more convenient, searchable form.  Be warned, however, it is primarily focused on Latin-American Spanish.  It does show the pronunciations and some of the variant spellings.  The key words are linked for easy cross referencing.  The Merriam-Webster is a pure dictionary.



The Vox dictionary has fewer entries than the Merriam-Webster dictionary, but it is geared a little more toward learners and features audio examples of many words, idiomatic expressions (slang) and phrasal verbs.  Vox also has a thing they call their “Morphology” module that lets you translate words into any grammatical form.  I like this program because it will break down verbs into the tenses, and show the various forms of other words (it can show singular/plural forms of  nouns including possessive forms).  The downside for English speakers is that the controls are en español, which take a little getting used to (I wish they’d allow you to choose English controls or make an English Users manual), but once you do, it is very useful as a learner’s dictionary – it even has a flash card quiz built in!

Larousse and Collins, and Ultralingua, and Oxford are also nice dictionaries in the $20-$25 price range.

I should point out that most of  these same products are also available for the Windows Mobile, and other platform, albeit usually at slightly higher prices.  Some of these titles and others are also available for your computer, if you prefer to work exclusively there.

There are also less-expensive electronic dictionaries available for the iPhone from the AppStore.  For under $10 (on the iPhone) you can also get nice dictionaries from PlanetDrives, BitKnights,  Ascendo,  LoopTek and Accio (among others).  I prefer to stick with the “name” brands, but on a really tight budget these would also fit the bill.  The really important thing to watch out for is to make sure you get yourself a full dictionary – NOT a phrase book!  Read the software descriptions very carefully before you purchase,  You want something with a LOT of words and definitions in it.  Dictionaries should probably have in excess of 50,000 entries.  Phrasebooks are likely to have only a few hundred.

If you are really trying to be frugal, or you just want another source for checking things out, there are also online dictionaries.  There are sites like SpanishDict, freedict, and Reverso (among others).  These dictionaries are free, but you may be subject to advertisements for other services in the process.   You can also use some of the translators on the web like Babelfish(Yahoo) and Google, but those are more geared toward phrase, sentence, and website translations.  We’ll be talking more about translations sites in another post.

Oh, and by the way, after you have your dictionary, I also recommend that you get yourself a notebook for making notes as you go along, and one of those expandable folders to hold stuff in as you come across it.  Neither of these needs to be fancy.  Once I got started, I found myself wanting to make notes or keep things you find on the Internet.  It’s better to have all that stuff in one place!

Next time I’ll talk about some of the free (or nearly free) resources that are out there and look at some of my first steps to learning Spanish!

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About the Author

Christopher Gavula
Chris has been a COBOL programmer, a desktop support technician, network engineer, telecommunications manager, and even a professional musician. Currently, he is focused on deploying Voice over IP technologies in a large, corporate setting. He started working full-time at the tender age of 14, even before there were PCs, and will probably be working and trying to finish “just one more project” as he’s lowered into the grave.

3 Comments on "Learning a Language on a Budget: Week One – Getting Ready"

  1. http://www.bbc.co.uk/languages/ has seven free language courses and phrase books in even more.

  2. Chris, it’s going to be fun to follow you on this journey! Thanks for starting this series! 🙂

  3. Which works better, the electronic dictionary or the paper book? I tried the electronic dictionary and it seemed a little clunky. Plus, the person with whom I was speaking seemed more patient with me when I used the phrase book. Is that a common experience?
    I got a great deal at my school at http://www.cbcwebcollege.com to do an online Spanish language program which uses RosettaStone in the online classroom. It’s cool but I can’t wait to try out my new Spanish on a native speaker. What’s neat about this program is I can switch over to Mandarin Chinese if I can master Spanish and I can jump around in 30 languages for the whole year. It’s lots of fun but I have to remind myself not to get distracted. The price is only $180 for the whole year so it beats the big drawback you mentioned in your post.
    I like the idea of the notebook. I use a Tungsten E 2 handheld and set up a document to try keeping track of new words I encounter.

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