Best Language Learning Apps
By Caroline Carlos
So you’re planning a trip halfway around the world and, just after clicking “confirm” to purchase your airfare, you realize you don’t speak a word of the local language! Fear not. This article provides you with numerous resources including the best language learning apps to help you get by during your trip (because let’s be real, you could use the spare time to work on getting a reservation at one of the world’s best restaurants). Whether you need to brush up on your high school French or learn your first Japanese word, read on to get your language juices flowing!
Do a generic search for “language” on your phone’s app store and you will find myriad mobile applications. Bonus: If you’re an advanced learner, you can often opt out of the initial lessons and skip to the more challenging ones. Here are my top picks to help get your foreign language skills up to speed.
MindSnacks is a great example of gamified learning. Be warned: it’s highly addicting! (I’ll attest to this, having downloaded the app in three languages and counting). You can opt to receive a word of the day, and there are various games to test your vocabulary. The upside is that it’s great for cramming in the words and phrases you’re most likely to need on a trip; the downside is that it doesn’t test your speaking abilities. However, you have the added benefit of using the app as an electronic phrasebook that doesn’t require internet connectivity. The first few lessons are free, and if you decide you like it enough to purchase, it’s a small investment at $4.99. In the unlikely event that you never use it again after your trip…well, it only costs as much as a Starbucks order!
Babbel, while offering more thorough and well-rounded lesson plans when compared to MindSnacks, is also not as fun. It’s a bit dry and actually does feel like you’re taking lessons. But hey, if you’re going to sit down and feel like you’re actually studying, at least there’s a desktop version to make life easier. Actually, I’d say do desktop over mobile on this one anyway. Babbel seems to be more dialogue-centered, versus the flashcard memory of MindSnacks and the writing-centric style of Duolingo. At about $13/month or $83 for an annual subscription, it’s more economical than Rosetta Stone, if you’re going for a more comprehensive learning approach with one of the best language learning apps.
Duolingo is probably the best-known app of my first three recommendations, and features the most number of languages (I’ve started five of them). It also has a desktop version, along with the option to set daily goals and email reminders, and a Lingot Store to exchange your earned points for more language fun. The placement test for advanced learners isn’t difficult, but it’s somewhat meticulous; you have to know your word genders and their corresponding articles. Though the translations are adequate, some of the vocabulary is antiquated, and the translations are sometimes literal rather than accurate in usage. That said, I’m still continuing to use it. Beyond the initial skipping over the 101 lessons, you can continually test out of subsequent lessons as well. The best part? This app is entirely free.
So much is on YouTube these days that you can find videos ranging from vacation phrases for the summer to 3-minute tutorials. What’s not to love about countless videos at varying levels, with varying methodologies, for free? Ah, the beauty of the internet. I did Turkish 101 one Saturday morning while doing chores…just played videos over and over to learn pronunciation. I typed my favorite phrases into my phone’s notepad, practiced them on the plane, and started using them at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport just a few days later. Who knew YouTube could be one of the best language learning apps?!
If you’re looking for alternative options, you may benefit from playing audio and speaking the words out loud. Practice your language skills while commuting to work or in the grocery store – two birds with one stone! Audiobooks, Podcasts, and CDs: You can pop into a bookstore or hop online to find easy, economical audio downloads to cram in some basic phrases of your target language.
Berlitz provides free downloads and reasonably priced CDs for quick study sessions. Offering language classes, online courses, and other programs depending on your needs, Berlitz has many different options.
Rosetta Stone is highly interactive. To foster your understanding of grammar rules, sentence structure, and verb tenses, Rosetta quizzes you on a rounded set of language skills – writing, reading, listening, and speaking. Note that it’s an immediate immersion into a language – there are no instructions in English or your native language at all. After Rosetta, I tested out of entire Duolingo levels quite easily.
Personally, I get so engrossed in the lessons that I might come up for air a couple of hours later, not realizing what time it is; but a friend says she gave up after a few lessons because it was too difficult. Good thing you can try a demo before purchase. Last I checked, it’s $250 for all five levels, but I’ve definitely seen the prices vary, so wait for a promotion if you find it at a higher price point. Or start with the first level and see if you want to continue.
Pimsleur, centered around conversation, aims to get you proficient in 30 minutes a day. It focuses on pronunciation and involves intense drills of listening and repeating. Lots and lots of repetition. Some say it’s great and some say it’s ineffective, so you’ll probably want to do a sample lesson before shelling out the money for the different levels. I’ve only done a sample lesson, which was very effective for breaking down difficult German pronunciation, but I didn’t want to pay $150 for just the Level 1 lessons.
Head First, Knee Deep
Speak It! Don’t worry if your pronunciation isn’t perfect – just throw out what you know. You can’t improve if you don’t first try…and you can’t get better if nobody can hear you! Chances are a native speaker will get the gist and will appreciate that you tried.
Carry a Phrasebook. Go old school. It’s not glamorous, but it’s reliable and you don’t need an internet connection.
Take a Class. If you’re doing a short trip, it may not be worth it (unless you’re really into the language and culture, or have the spare time). But if you’re planning on a month-long stay type trip (heck, let’s get ambitious and say a 3-6 month stay), this could be worth your while more so than just relying on the best language learning apps.
Language Exchange. You teach me Italian, I’ll teach you English. Learning is great, but you need to have actual conversations to kick up your skills. Try italki or Verbling for friendly banter and trip advice; you can filter for potential partners by native language, level of fluency, and location. It’s free! If that isn’t enough, you can also sign up for paid lessons with official teachers. Hey, you may already have friends in the country when you get there.
Caroline is a travel and language enthusiast who doesn’t mind reading foreign movie subtitles or singing songs she doesn’t understand the lyrics to. Follow her adventures on Instagram, @signorinaviaggi, and on her blog, The Rambling Suitcase.