Foreign Language Courses, Free Online

Thanks to Lifehacker for the pointer to the U.S. Foreign Service Institute langauge courses online. They’re free and available at Unfortunately I wasn’t the only one who saw this announcement — not by a long shot. Apparently traffic from Lifehacker overwhelmed the site’s servers and the site had taken down some downloadable materials, though every language I looked at had at least PDFs of course material available.

The site covers 41 languages, from Amharic to Yoruba. Pick a language from the list on the left, click it, and you’ll get a list of student materials on the right. (In the case of the screen shot I chose Bulgarian.) There’s student texts (available in PDF) and teaching tapes (available in MP3.) There was almost no annotation for the materials. To stop the site from being overloaded again, you may wish to just download one section or text at a time.

If there’s not enough here, check the OffSite page where you will get pointers to other language lessons, including Polish, Persian, and Dari.

If that’s REALLY not enough, you may wish to explore the following sites for more free language lessons:

Word 2 Word
Internet Polyglot
BBC Languages

CIA Gives World Factbook a Makeover

This is how much of a nerd I am: I have the CIA World Factbook on my Kindle. Pretty nerdy, huh? But it’s not a bad thing; I’ve been fascinated with the Factbook for years. So much information. So easily navigable. Recently the CIA announced what it called “the first major redesign of the Factbook site in over a decade.”

The Factbook is still available at The front page looks a lot different, with a color-coded Flash map (zoom in to the region in which you’re interested and pick a country) and quick links to things like a gallery of flags of the world.

But what I’m really interested in is the country information. I took a look at Iceland. The country’s information page starts with a flag of the country, a geographic context map, and then a closer map of the country itself. A few feature of the site makeovers is country photos, though not all the countries have them (currently Iceland has 14 photographs. All country photos in the Factbook are in the public domain and there is a link for image downloads.)

Beneath this initial data you’ll find the categories of information provided on each country: introduction, geography, people, government, etc. I hate that these are all “collapsed” by default. Look for the “Expand All” link and you can uncollapse all of them at the same time. You’ll see that there are lots of data fields here, covering everything from the economy to the literacy rate to natural hazards to number of airports.

One of the new features of the Factbook is that many of the data fields now contain world rankings. So looking at Iceland’s life expectancy at birth, I can see that it’s 80.67 years for the total population, but I can also see it ranks 14th in the world. If I click on the 14 I can get the full ranking of all countries for this statistic (Macau ranks #1 in case you wondered.)

If you just want to get a list of a single data point for all countries, look for the “Field Listing” icon to the right of each data heading. This’ll give you all countries in alphabetical order. This is handy when you want to get an overview for unrankable information like natural resources or international disputes.

The CIA World Factbook updates every two weeks, which I keep having to remind myself is NOT slow in the age of Wikipedia. No it isn’t. There’s also a “changelog” of sorts available at This’ll give you information on both broad changes (census data being entered) and some country-based changes (leadership changing, etc.)

I’m not a big fan of lots of Flash, and I personally would have the categories uncollapsed, but the site has seemed to strike a good balance between adding more data and functionality without making things either overly-complicated or heavy to load. (And if you DO find it too heavy to load, there’s a low-bandwidth text-based version that dispenses with the Flash and the graphics and loads like lightning in my browser.)