Language Learning and Libraries

Language Learning and Libraries

Do you have an exciting trip on the horizon and need to learn a new language — or is there a New Years Resolution you need to make good on — but don’t know where do you turn? If the library isn’t your first answer, it should be! From free apps to books and CDs to conversation groups, the public library will get you set to speak, understand, and even read a new language.

Public libraries offer a huge array of language learning resources including free subscriptions to online resources, books and CDs for checkout, in-person classes and conversation groups, and more!

Forget the travel agent and the luggage store — your first stop to plan your language-learning trip is your local library.

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Subscriptions to Online Resources

In the mid-2000s I would regularly empty my meager bank account to pay for (probably bootlegged) second-hand copies of expensive language learning software that I found on classified sites. Now, thanks to libraries, anyone with a library card can avoid the back-alley quests for knowledge of my youth. Subscriptions to online language learning resources, which are free with a library card but which would cost a lot of money if you registered on your own, are one of the most valuable library resources available today.

Mango Languages

Mango Languages is the most popular language program that public libraries offer. By creating an account online, you can track your progress in learning any of their 71 languages through fun activities and always pick up wherever you left off.

Along with all the languages you’d expect to find on a similar website, you will also find surprises like Legal Spanish, French Wine and Cheese, and (my favorite) ! When you enroll in the Pirate track, will learn proper use of sea-marauding linguistics with grammar goals including: “Calling Someone Names” and “Using the 2nd Person Pronoun Ye”.

If your goal is to learn a language spoken by modern-day inhabitants of a real country (sorry, Pirates), Mango helps learners progress through “structure, grammar, and vocabulary” with increasing expertise. Mango is in hundreds of libraries around the country. If yours doesn’t have Mango, please ask. It’s an amazing program.

Rosetta Stone

Rosetta Stone was the first popular intensive language learning software of its time. A handful of libraries offer this program which analyzes users’ voices and improves pronunciation.

Transparent Language Online

Some libraries’ language learning option is Transparent Language Online, the same software used by the US military in linguistic trainings, meaning results are consistently very impressive.

Books and CDs

Books and CDs are the tried-and-true methods of learning through reading and listening remains an excellent option for beginning and even advanced language learners.

Many people are familiar with and swear by the Pimsleur method which relies on book and CD sets. This is an excellent option for auditory learners or those whose needs mainly focus on listening and speaking skills — likely those taking a short vacation to a new country.

Living Languages is another well-regarded audio CD company. Libraries carry many of their 20+ languages, including Dothraki, the fictional language made famous by the HBO fantasy series .

For those who didn’t know, most libraries participate in what is called “Interlibrary Loan” in which patrons of one library may borrow items from libraries where they are not a member. So, if you have your heart set on a Spanish-learning book that your small-town library doesn’t have, Interlibrary Loan might be able to borrow it for you from one of the 700+ “learn Spanish” books available at the Los Angeles Library, or maybe even from Australia!

In-Person Classes and Conversation Groups

Many people learn language best in social situations. For folks who want to complement their book study with conversation or put their pronunciation practice on Mango into practice, many libraries offer in-person classes and conversation groups.


Learning languages in a classroom setting for free is a great deal. Some classes have specific course dates and curriculum, like those at San José Public Library’s Arabic or Vietnamese class, while others are meant for drop-in and will often tailor the lesson to what that particular day’s attendees want to know like at Chicago Public Library’s Spanish or American Sign Language classes.

Conversation Groups

Conversation groups are a wonderful way to focus on speaking — the most ignored foundational language skill — and make new friends. Attendees range from absolute beginners to occasional native speakers. All participants enjoy learning from each other and sometimes strengthening knowledge through teaching others.

Book Discussions

Challenge yourself by attending a book discussion in another language! In Chicago, you can attend a Polish or Korean book talk, and in Minneapolis or SE Indiana, you can work on your Spanish with other book-minded linguists.

Even More Language Resources!

Resources for Children

Parents who want their child to learn a second language can take advantage of the libraries who offer the Little Pim computer language-learning program which has entertaining and instructional games for even preliterate children.

Additionally, many libraries offer storytimes or Play & Learn Groups in different languages where children will absorb meanings of new words by connecting them with pictures in books or through fun and interactive songs and activities.

Ebooks and Audio Ebooks

As ebooks and audio ebooks continue to increase in popularity, why not incorporate them into your language learning adventures? Listen to your library’s Spanish translation of your favorite book while you drive, or download a short novel in the language you’re studying. Since you’ll be on your phone anyway, use a dictionary app to help you learn new and interesting words!

Interactive online books

Tumblebooks and Bookflix are interactive online book programs which have stories in many different languages. While they are created for children, they can also be a great tool for adults who need short, simple texts to get started in a new tongue.

Helpful Web Pages

Be sure to ask your local librarians about any other surprise language learning resources that they offer. You might find gems like Denver Public Library’s amazing compilation of external Spanish-learning resources or Chicago Public Library’s list of every useful Spanish-language database or program they provide.

¿Prêt to Use These Resources?

If you’re  — or “ready” in French- to start planning for your trip (or a develop a new job skill or have a way to make new friends), then all these resources at the library will be incredibly useful to you on your language learning journey. Visit your library today to see what they have to offer, and !