As a TEFL-certified teacher, here are the 12 online courses and apps I recommend for learning English as a new language

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  • English is the world's most common second language, and learning it can open up new career opportunities.
  • Below are 12 online courses, apps, and resources to improve your English listening, reading, writing, and speaking skills.
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While there are more worldwide native Chinese and Spanish speakers, English is the most common second language. Its pervasiveness means that knowing English can often offer new career opportunities for non-native English speakers — a recent study found that learning English boosted the average annual earnings of US workers by $2,600. 

As in any language, the four skills you'll need to learn English as a second language are listening, speaking, reading, and writing. But while they're all intertwined, they are not all equally used. For example, around 45% of communication is simply listening, while 30% is speaking, 16% is reading, and only 9% is written.

Historically, traditional teaching methods focused on learning from a book, understanding grammar rules, and conjugating verbs. Speaking was not deemed as important. But the focus is now shifting towards real-world communication and many online resources are facilitating this change, especially with more learners using their time at home to pick up a new language. 

Working as a TEFL-certified English teacher in Germany over the past few years, a common complaint from my students was "I understand more than I can speak." Some were confident when listening and reading but rarely practiced writing or speaking. I noticed that the students who were happy to speak up in class were the ones also using English outside the classroom: in social clubs, with friends, at work or school, or online messaging.

It's a bit of a Catch-22: the more you jump in and practice English (even if you make some mistakes), the more confident you'll become in the long-run. And while you might not be able to go out and practice speaking English at work or school right now, there are platforms that can pair you up with tutors or test your pronunciation with speech-recognition software. 

So if you're considering learning English as a second language right now, here are some of the best online resources to improve your listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills.

12 free or affordable resources to learn how to speak English online:

Listening

Duolingo

Duolingo is one of the most popular free language apps thanks to its fun, simple layout that lets you learn anytime, anywhere. If you are a true beginner, Duolingo's will expose you to English vocabulary, grammar, and sentence structure. But as a stand-alone language app, it's limited in its ability to encourage practice via speaking. It's best suited for beginner, visual learners who want Duo's daily encouragement to keep up their motivation.

Rosetta Stone

For almost thirty years, Rosetta Stone has been one of the stalwarts of language courses. Its focus is on reproduction — AKA, using what you've just learned. The courses have plenty of listening and speaking exercises, plus an audio companion you can download and listen to at any time to reinforce your listening skills. There's also a class-leading voice recognition software that enables you to practice your pronunciation in private. It's a great way to build up your confidence before you use your skills in public. 

English-language radio and podcasts

If you are living in an English-speaking country, turn the radio on — it's the easiest way to get a grasp on the local language and accent. If not, podcasts can do the same. News in Slow English discusses news stories at a slow pace, No Such Thing as a Fish is a laugh out loud comedy if you love British humor, while Pickle answers big questions in simple ways. There are also plenty of well-produced English-learning podcasts such as Effortless English and Luke's English Podcast.

Speaking

italki

One-on-one practice is a sure fire way to quickly improve your language skills, and italki easily links you up with private language tutors from around the globe. It's completely flexible and virtual, so you can browse the database and find someone who fits your schedule. Plus, with a focus on speaking, you won't be able to shy away from using your language skills. Each tutor sets their own rates, with the average price around $10 per hour. 

Cambly

In a similar vein, Cambly is another online platform focused on conversation. Having worked as a tutor on Cambly, I can attest to its benefits. English learners are randomly matched with English-speaking tutors from all around the world to chat about anything. It's unstructured nature means you're exposed to new topics, accents, and people every time you log in — much like the real world. If you find a tutor you love, you can schedule recurring sessions with them. Equally, if you don't gel with someone, you can end the chat and look for someone new. The lessons are held on Cambly's own video chat service, and monthly memberships start from $64.

Tandem

Finding a conversation partner is much harder when you are stuck at home, which is where Tandem comes in. Boasting over 10 million users from 180 countries, it's the Tinder of language exchange. Once you set up your profile, you'll be matched with potential partners who want to learn your native language, while they help you with English. Text, call and chat within the app for free, or you can upgrade for $9.99 a month to get rid of ads.

Alternatively, a search for 'language exchange + [your city]' on Facebook will pull up groups dedicated to language exchange near you. Simply join a group, write a post with your offer and wait for a bite.

Reading

Babbel

Babbel is a fully online language course, representative of more traditional, classroom-style learning. It often holds the top spot as one of the highest-grossing language learning apps, with millions of paying customers. The courses are focused on ensuring you not only comprehend the language, but learn grammar rules, too. 

Engoo

Daily newspapers can be intimidating. Engoo addresses this problem by breaking down the day's most interesting stories into easily digestible articles. Each post includes vocabulary, reading, and comprehension questions. As a bonus, you'll get to catch up on the latest news along the way. It's a brilliant free resource to stimulate your daily reading habits.

Books and magazines

The simplest way to improve your grammar is by reading. Start with children's books and work your way towards longer works as your skills advance. Highlight words you don't know so you can look them up, and keep a notebook filled with your expanding vocabulary. A membership via a service like Scribd can get you unlimited access to books and magazines, or you can try a subscription service like Book of the Month to get select books delivered to you.

Also, pro-tip: Try the age-old trick of switching your phone's language settings to English!

Writing

Cambridge English's Write & Improve

Writing, whether for work, school, or a test is unavoidable. But, however critical it is, getting feedback on your writing is not easy. To combat this problem, Cambridge English came up with Write & Improve, a free and approachable online resource dedicated to boosting your writing skills. Choose from beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels to be given a question or prompt to respond to. As soon as you reach the word limit, you'll get instant feedback and a score based on your word choice, spelling, and grammar. 

edX courses

With English commonly being the lingua franca — shared language between two speakers with different mother tongues — using English in work settings is almost a given. Learn to send succinct emails, give presentations, or write documents within an Asian business context with this seven-week course offered by edX and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. You can audit the course for free or pay $60 to get a certificate of completion to add to your LinkedIn or resume.

Coursera courses

Coursera has a range of university-grade English courses, including English for Career Development offered by the University of Pennsylvania, which covers job hunting and writing a resume or CV. 

You can also join over one million students who have already enrolled in the highly rated Improve your English Communication Skills specialization from Georgia Tech. In this course, you'll develop skills necessary for working in English, including writing emails, speaking at meetings and interviews, giving presentations, and networking.

The bottom line:

As I say to all my students: practice makes perfect. As much as we'd love it, there's no magic spell to achieving fluency in a new language. It takes persistence and hard work, with a dash of confidence thrown in. But the sense of satisfaction and opportunities that will open up to you are certainly worth it. Hopefully these resources will motivate you to pick up that pen, open that app, or press play on that podcast to take your English to the next level.

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