Cool Language Resources

In addition to the ubiquitous Wikipedia, whose quality of data is (I think) rising but still spotty, there are a number of awesome linguistic freebees on the ‘Net. Here’s a short list.

New 2013 Tuttle Academic Catalog

2013 Tuttle Academic CatalogOur new 36-pp 2012-13 Asian Studies & Languages Catalog is going into the mail this morning. In it, we present virtually all of our language learning books, dictionaries, and kits and a selection of our Asian Studies and children’s books. In the interest of conserving paper, we mail fewer copies of the catalog than we used to, but if you’d like to receive one, just email me your address and I’ll send you one. You can also download a low-res PDF of the catalog by clicking on the cover image at the left. Everything in the catalog is available to Language Omnivore readers for 35% off!

World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS)

Among the coolest free resources for armchair and professional linguists is the World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS) an online database of phonological, grammatical, and lexical information for hundreds of foreign languages and dialects.

Compiled by a team of 55 professional linguists, the material can be very specialized. I had no idea, for example, that English has a low consonant-vowel ratio or that Japanese has a medium one. I had to read the notes to find out what it was. But there’s that and much much, things like “Suppletion in Imperatives and Hortatives”.

It has some cool interactive maps, and you can also search on different kinds of languages, so that, for example, if you’d like to know who’s got a high consonant-vowel ratio, WALS will tell you that Russian and Malagasy do.


Ethnologue is another excellent free language resource. Compared to WALS, the entries are more like an encyclopedia and focus on the human aspects of language; who speaks it, where do the speakers live, what are its varieties and dialects. As an example, here’s the Ethnologue page for Korean.

Public Domain Foreign Service Institute (FSI) Materials

FSI Hungarian

Cover of 1962 FSI Hungarian Training Manual

There’s a particular genre of language text I can’t resist: an old one set in courier type and bound with a wire spiral or a plastic comb binder, a book that looks like it’s been passed around like Soviet-Era samizdat. The last time I was at Schoenhof’s, they had a grammar of Dari in that form, and I had a hard time not spending my lunch money on it.

In that vein, one of my favorite less-commonly taught language resources is a site where volunteers have been scanning and uploading public domain materials developed by the US Foreign Service Institute (FSI). There you can find free resources for learning languages as uncommon as Czech, Lao, and Yoruba.

Fascinating relics of the Cold War, I would strongly caution that you NOT actually use these materials to learn the target language. The introduction to Chinese, for example, confidently tells you that “comrade” is a title applied to everyone. Nowadays, be cautious addressing a Chinese friend as comrade (同志, tóngzhì). But as artifacts of education and snapshots both of the target language in the past and how Americans prepared diplomats, soldiers, and spies? Priceless.

UPDATE: Since I first posted, these free resources have been moved to a new site under the auspices of a distance language company called Live Lingua. The import seems to be a work-in-progress. Not all of the materials (like the ones associated with the Hungarian set above) are available. Many of the buttons just link back to their homepage. I have no association with Live Lingua, haven’t used their services, and am not endorsing (or criticizing) their service. I stand by my caution that these free FSI materials are fascinating, but not appropriate for contemporary language learning.


3 thoughts on “Cool Language Resources

    • Thanks, Ray! I don’t know anything about Live Lingua and can’t endorse (or trash) their services, but it’s cool to see these materials available. Thanks! I’ll update the link.

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