Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?
Language learning can and should be free, and there are many ways to do it without spending a penny, which I discuss regularly on this site.
However, there is one time when spending a bit of bob can certainly be justifiable – when giving in to the consumerist frenzy that we celebrate just after the annual upcoming Winter Solstice every year! It's time to buy presents!
For those of you who still haven't bought something, since there is still time left, I thought I'd offer some suggestions if a member of your family, partner, or good friend is into learning languages! (Any link to Amazon.com in this article is an affiliate one)
The first idea is of course language courses. This depends entirely on the level that person has. The first thing I must absolutely insist is no overly-expensive yellow boxes!! Many books have much more information, presented in a fun way, and are way better value.
For the sake of simplicity, I'm linking to the Amazon page with the Spanish search results, so please replace the word “Spanish” on this search page with the language your loved one or friend is interested in, and you'll see relevant options. Check the reviews to confirm that version is good, and go for it!
If they have an upcoming trip, then the Lonely Planet phrasebook gives them a good start with things they'd genuinely need to say on arrival.
These 3 books are so popular that you may even find them in your local bookshop, depending on the language.
A less-serious book idea to give them a laugh when they open it, but still something they can genuinely learn from, is one of the Dirty series books, (again switch “Spanish” in search for language you are buying), with slangs and curses in many languages (even including ASL here!) The great thing is that this can be appreciated by people across many levels.
Otherwise: Focus on native content!
There are a host of other excellent courses you can get, depending on the language, but why not be the one to truly nudge your friend or loved one and get them to use their language for real?
For this, get them a real book written in that language (and a dictionary if they don't have one yet).
For beginner learners, one I love to start off with is The little prince, as it's short enough to finish, has a charming story, and you can be guaranteed that there is likely to be a translation in the language you are interested in. (I even saw one available while I was learning Quechua in the mountains of Peru!)
This list gives a translation of the titles used in alternative published versions. Copy and paste the title of the language you are interested in, to Amazon.
For intermediate learners and up, it's time to get real content in that language. For instance, I'm a huge fan of Jules Verne's books written in original French, especially as I'm into science fiction and the like.
It would be impossible to give a useful list of native-level language books, especially when considering all levels and all interests… and all languages. So I highly recommend you join the Fluent in 3 months forum, give some details on what your giftee is into, their level, and the language, and someone could offer a really good suggestion!
Otherwise, hop on Verbling or italki to talk to a native speaker for free in exchange for simply letting them chat in English for a few minutes, even if you aren't learning the language yourself, and ask that native speaker for book recommendations!
Non-book native suggestions
For beginner learners, word-a-day calendars can be a nice little pressie, but to add a twist to it, why not get something that is made FOR NATIVES of that language?
One way to do this is to search “French edition” or similar in Amazon, and you can get a lot of cool ideas, which Amazon.com could send to you.
A much more interesting idea which can give you TONNES of great stuff to look through, is if you skip Amazon.com and go straight to Amazon.de (for German), Amazon.fr (for French), Amazon.es (for Spanish), Amazon.cn (for Chinese), Amazon.it (for Italian), and Amazon.co.jo (for Japanese). There are of course alternatives for other languages, and you would have to ask the native for what they use in their country.
In this case, you will be met with the challenge that you can't navigate the website if you don't understand the language (Google translate won't help you here to a useful degree). If you don't have any native speakers you know who can help you, set up a chat via italki on Skype you can use Skype's screenshare feature and have the native talk you through it.
As before, tell them that you will correct their English and be happy to help them practise – in this case they'll be very eager to use their English in this imaginative different way, and they will get to practise English more than they usually would in an exchange.
In this case, think of what your friend or loved one really likes, something they might already own, or something you'd buy them anyway that would have normally had English on it, and search for that. Use a site like wordreference to find a translation of the word you are looking for and search for it.
For instance, let's say I wanted to buy my friend a “20 Questions” toy, which is a fun little gadget to play around with over the holidays, as these things always seem to guess right – it's pretty cool! For most people, this will lose it's appeal after a few days, but what if you could get one to genuinely help them learn and practise their language?
Well, look up “questions” on Wordreference in French and you'll see it's the same as in English, search for it on Amazon.fr, and what do we find, but the equivalent toy that will guess what you're thinking of and get you to practise vocabulary… in French! (Actually called 20Q – I couldn't find this in other language stores, so it's just one example for you)
It can be tricky to do the searching alone, so definitely get some help if you can, and you may have to pay extra for shipping, especially if you want to receive it on time (or in some cases, they may not ship to where you are), but if you are imaginative, you can buy a really cool present that is also one that helps the person you care about use their target language!
21st century books
There are so many digital books coming out, that you can be guaranteed to find a few in their target language (if it has an Amazon store as listed above – since many languages aren't covered yet). I've read Le tour du monde en 80 jours for free from the Kindle store, and 100 años de soledad for just a couple of dollars.
I travel with the Amazon Kindle myself, and reviewed it in detail here, as a definite replacement for dead-tree books for many people. Since my review, Amazon's latest version has a built-in backlight, better clarity and speed and a touch screen and is cheaper (although only the older keyboard version I have has unlimited 3G to check email, browse the web, save your ass in travels etc. – so if you're not getting that, definitely go for the wifi (not 3G) version of the later models).
Obviously this present that costs more than $100 is more than most of us spend on presents, so maybe consider joining forces with other family members if you think the giftee would really appreciate it.
Go digital with gift giving!
Now, I know what you're thinking. You can't buy an entirely digital present for xmas, because you can't wrap it!
Well, one way I've found around this, is to grab a cereal box, put anything that weighs something inside it. Hell, even dog-food for the laugh! And then put a piece of paper or an envelope inside about what you got them in with it, and then wrap it up. They still get that unwrapping the present joy, but you can expand on the kind of stuff to get them 😉
So, if they already have an Amazon Kindle, or if you know they would want to get a book for themselves and would be way more likely to pick the precise book they want, get them an Amazon Gift card.
If they have an iPhone or iPad, consider getting them $25 of iTunes credit so they can buy themselves Anki for iPhone which can be a huge help for flashcarding their language using a spaced repetition system ideal for making sure they won't forget the words, with pre-made decks.
If they are learning Chinese, then Pleco (for both Android and iPhone) can be a wonderful tool to help them. And, once again, you can get apps in other languages that have nothing to do with language learning, if they change their store location for more native content, although in some cases Apple doesn't seem to want your money if you switch country so check that in advance.
And once again, make sure to ask native speakers or those in forums for ideas, and they can give you suggestions of programs, apps and many other options that would work for that person when you tell them about their interests.
By the way, if you'd like to get them a Speak from day 1 package to share my thoughts on language learning with them, after buying it, write me an email that it was a gift and I'll send them a personalized email on Christmas day with their sign up details. Just make sure you wrap up the note about it in a Cornflakes box! 🙂