In an ideal world, you would have a native beside you every time you spoke or wrote something, so that they could help and correct you. This is not possible for many of us! Luckily, thanks to modern technology and the Internet, you can have your grammar and spelling corrected immediately and automatically, in any language!
I have only been learning Czech for 7 weeks and this week I was writing lots of emails entirely in that language to natives and have been told that there are very few mistakes in them! Rather than this being a reflection on how great my Czech is (trust me, I have a long way to go still!!), it is actually due to applying the methods described below. As well as improving my writing skills in learning my mistakes as I go, I am also improving my grasp on the language and will be less likely to repeat these mistakes once I have been corrected a couple of times. All of these correction methods are free and instant!
Google phrase search for great grammar
Is the word masculine, feminine or neuter? What case ending (genetive, dative etc.) goes with that word after a particular preposition? Does this word require a preposition after it? You could look all of this up in a grammar book or even a (good) dictionary, but these and many other grammar issues can be answered indirectly by a basic Google search! The best part is that the process is very quick – you don't even need to carry out the search a lot of the time thanks to the suggestions that come up in the search bar on Google's main page. Unlike with most searches, we aren't actually interested in the pages that it provides us with. We want to know how many results come from the search and compare it to other possibilities.
For example, if you forget if the Spanish word coche is masculine or feminine then just attach any -o or -a ending adjective after it and see how many results come up! Like I said on my post about using Google Image as a dictionary, it is best to start from Google's site for that language. So at google.es I will simply say “small car” – is it coche pequeño or coche pequeña? Just type coche peque (not even needing to finish the word) and it will suggest 2,620,000 results for the masculine version!
In French it can be hard to remember which preposition follows a verb acting on another verb. If you simply want to say “start doing”, is it commencer faire, commencer à faire, or commencer de faire? Just search for each one! When you group words together in Google for this purpose, always enclose them in quotation marks ” ” to make sure that exact phrase is being searched for. “commencer faire” gives 3,450 results, “commencer de faire” gives 1,020 results and “commencer à faire” gives 333,000 results! We have a winner!! (The other results may never be zero, because the words may come together in other less common ways, or may simply be written wrong on some sites).
Czech's 7 cases (genetive, date, locative etc.) makes it hard to remember how some nouns decline in certain situations. Simply saying “in the city” has the problem of remembering if you should say město, města, městu, městě or městem for the singular translation of city! Process of elimination gives me “ve města” with just 1,350 results but “ve městě” with 2,970,000 results. No need to go further!
You can imagine how many different ways you can use this. If you think that a set of words can go together, but want to check, just ask Google! There are so many sites out there and people have written so much that you will be provided with excellent statistics on how something should be written. I've used this method for all languages that I know, including Esperanto and even Irish Gaelic, and Google has almost always provided me with the correct way of saying something. Note that this is obviously not a foolproof method, but only a basic good indicator. There's no good number to look for, just comparisons, but usually hundreds of thousands or millions of results is a pretty good indicator! If possible read the summary of the first few pages to make sure that the words are indeed appearing in a natural sentence (instead of a new sentence starting half way through your phrase for example).
Firefox and Open Office spell-checker
Google has a spell-checker too of course, with its “Did you mean…” suggestion. But this can be tediuous if you want to be sure that every word you are writing is spelt correctly. That's were the excellent dictionaries included in Firefox and Open Office come in! Anyone who has used MS Word may be familiar with the red squiggly lines that are put under words, with a right-click option to correct it. This is fine when you are writing in English, but (at least in the versions that I've used) it's been quite hard or impossible to use it with particular foreign languages. Of course MS Office is quite expensive anyway!
And that's where Open Office comes in. It's a completely free equivalent to the Microsoft Suite that works just as well (and even better in some cases), and can be installed on Windows, Mac and Linux systems. It's free not because it “isn't as good”, but because it is Open Source and written by the community for the community. This has given it a lot of extra features, and a widely covered language range is one of them. You can add any language option you like, which includes a spell-checker, thesaurus and hyphenation check. This will automatically indicate when you have written something incorrectly as you type, and suggest a replacement. If you keep making the same mistakes you will soon get the idea!
BONUS TIP: I have occasionally used Open Office to keep a journal in the language I happen to be learning, to encourage me to write something and think of ways of expressing myself every day. I have started doing this in Czech to force me to “use” the language even on days when I am not being social, and its automatic corrections have taught me plenty!
Of course, you don't even need to leave your browser! I'm glad to see that according to my site analytics, 52% of you use Mozilla Firefox! Google Chrome, Safari and Opera are also excellent browsers. If you use Microsoft Internet Explorer, please consider clicking one of these links for a much-improved browsing experience. I will be coming back to advantages that I have found in Firefox for language learning another time. For spell-checking purposes Firefox has been excellent! (Feel free to share other-browser spell-checking experiences in the comments). In my current version of the ‘fox, right clicking any text input field (in an email for example) with “check spelling” enabled, includes a “Languages” option and “Add dictionaries”. Add your dictionary of choice (or several!!) and select it when you are writing in that language. This also works live for in-browser chatting, such as in Gmail and for facebook chat. It's is ideal for someone who likes switching between two or more languages in their Internet communication.
Yahoo Answers: Ask a native and get a response immediately!
Yahoo! Answers is an interesting site: you can ask a question about a wide range of topics and get an answer within a very short time from someone interested in that topic. There are plenty of other sites equivalent to it, but the problem is that most of those using the (non-paid) sites, including Y! Answers, are amateurs just there to pass the time, so the answers they give sometimes may not be that useful.
However, Yahoo! Answers has equivalents in many major languages! Looking at the links at the bottom of Y! Answers shows the International equivalents, which includes Y! Answers in Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, German, Japanese, and a few others. (No Czech version unfortunately 😛 ) If you are still in the very early stages of learning a language and would be more comfortable asking in English, it's best to use the English version of the site and ask in the Society and Culture, Languages section. But be careful because a lot of lazy people will just use automatic translation sites if you want something translated. It's best to write down your attempt and ask people to correct it and someone who is fluent in the language will come along (usually very quickly!)
Ideally, you would ask in the language itself, on the equivalent site in that language (again, in the Society and Culture, Languages section). These will be read and answered by natives. Even though most people using this site are teenagers there to kill time, most questions that we may have are very easy for natives, so they are happy to help. If possible wait until you get a few answers (many answers may be provided even within 5 minutes of posting) to be sure. A free Yahoo account is required for this. Since the methods I mentioned above work fine for basic grammar and spelling, you only need the forums when you have a more complicated question that a native really has to answer, or if you want a short (non-confidential) text proofread by a native.
So many other ways!
There are plenty of other online forums, and the best ones to ask questions on are those specifically for language learners or language lovers. I focussed on Yahoo! Answers simply because the responses are always given extremely quickly, but there are loads of more. The forums at wordreference.com are excellent for the best explanations from other language learners and natives and it has a very wide range of languages (including Czech). For Irish Gaelic you can use the forums on irishgaelictranslator.com and for Esperanto, the forums on lernu.net and for other major languages there are a lot of forums out there! Almost all are free and have plenty of helpful and intelligent people on them!
If you know of good websites for this purpose, please share links with us in the comments! I'll be discussing good online dictionaries another day, but what other ways does your computer and the Internet help you learn languages? Do share all of your favourite (free) programs and links with us in comments!
And finally... One of the best ways to learn a new language is with podcasts. Read more about how to use podcasts to learn a language.