Perhaps the most useful skill you can carry is knowledge of the local language.

It can open up a startling range of opportunities, ease the strain of logistics and planning, and allow you to develop a deeper connection with the place and, more importantly, the people you are visiting.

With a little advanced planning, and an introduction to the basics, it can be surprisingly easy to pick up a language on the road.

A good phrasebook, and the dedication to use it, are the first steps to mastering a new tongue. Beyond that, an organized set of study materials can make all the difference between stumbling though a few disjointed commonalities and articulately expressing your ideas and opinions.

While most travelers understand this, who wants to buy and carry around a pile of language books? Fortunately, there are a number of excellent internet sites devoted to language study, most of them providing their services for free.

1. BBC Languages

Who wants to buy and carry around a pile of language books? Fortunately there are many free language sites.

The BBC offers comprehensive online courses in French, Spanish, German, Italian, Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese, and Greek, with slightly briefer introductions to several other languages.

This incredible, totally free, service is the best option for starting a new language from the beginning as the curricula are well designed, very complete, and easy to follow; all important features of a self-study program.

2. MIT OpenCourseWare

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has made a great effort to supply all of its course materials online for the free use of MIT students and the global internet community.

The Languages and Literatures department features courses in languages such as Chinese, Japanese, French, German and Spanish in addition to many interesting literature and culture topics.

While the usefulness of the materials provided varies depending on the course, they all include a detailed study plan to aid the self-learner in structuring a home course.

3. Internet Polyglot

The Internet Polyglot provides study materials for twenty-one languages. The unit-based materials available are ideal for a student already familiar with the basics of the language and interested in practicing specific areas and applications.

4. The Open University LeaningSpace

Similar to the Internet Polyglot, the LearingSpace provides unit-based study materials with a primary emphasis in French and Spanish.

5. Language Learning Podcasts

In the last few years, there has been an explosion of podcasts devoted to learning a language. These resources provide important sound cues and practical pronunciation guides, and are an invaluable tool for a self-study program.

To find podcasts, iTunes users can navigate to the “education” category of the iTunes Music Store. Other listeners can browse popular podcast databases like Odeo or The Podcast Directory.

A highlight of some of the more popular language podcasts includes Learn Greek, The French Podcast, ChinesePod, A Taste of Russian, and the Cherokee Language Podcast.

6. Madinah Arabic Language Course

For those interested in learning Arabic, the Madinah Course is the best online course available for free. Focusing on both spoken and written Arabic, this course takes the student from the first introductions through the advanced beginner level.

7. Livemocha

Livemocha is a social networking community focused on learning foreign languages. It provides free online courses in German, Mandarin Chinese, French, Spanish, and Hindi with plans to expand to other languages in the future.

In addition to the online courses, available from introductory to intermediate levels, Livemocha provides an active community of language learners and native speakers willing to work with you and give help when needed.

This community based approach makes Livemocha one of the most useful tools for the self-study of language.

8. Something Completely Different

Travelers interested in learning a more obscure, or even endangered language, should begin their research at the Ethnologue, an online database of all of the world’s 6,912 known living languages.

For more specific study, check out the Sanskrit Self Study program, an introductory course for learning Tibetan, Yucatec Maya language study materials, the great book Introduction to Zulu, or the Comparative Bantu Languages Dictionary.

Learning a new language requires time and dedication and can be a challenge no matter how good the tools available.

Still, these online resources are accessible anywhere you can find an internet connection and will make all the difference when trying to tame that new tongue, at home or abroad.

What are some your favourite online resources for learning a new language? Please share in the comments!