Learning a new language is not only fun to do, but something you really should do if you are planning on traveling abroad. Learning key words and phrases with a language-learning app can make your travel experience smooth sailing.
What to Look for in a Language Learning App
These apps are designed to guide you through educational courses, while making it fun and helping you retain what you learn. Here are a few things to consider in a language-learning app:
- Course Goals: These apps tend to fall into one of two categories—those offering full courses and work toward total fluency, and those aimed at travelers only wanting to memorize a few basic phrases before they leave. Consider your language goals before choosing an app so you don’t end up paying for more than you need.
- Language Availability: Not all apps are created equal! While all of them offer access to the most popular languages, like Spanish and French, fewer will cover languages such as Swedish, Turkish, or Portuguese.
- Ease of Use: Learning a new language can be intimidating, especially if you never had the opportunity to study one in a classroom setting with a teacher guiding you. So, if the app or lesson design is confusing, it can intensify any stress you may be feeling. Good language teaching apps should keep things simple and engaging with fun graphics and game-like elements. The more comfortable and intuitive things are, the more likely you are to connect with the language and learn it.
- Retention Efforts: Practice makes perfect, and the best language learning apps know that. They should note any material you’re having trouble with and review it with you until it sticks, along with regular reviews of previous course material before moving on to new lessons to help slowly build your vocabulary.
Best Overall: Memrise
You wouldn’t take piano lessons from someone who wasn’t a pianist, and why should your language lessons be any different. With Memrise (Free, with subscriptions starting at $9/mo), you’ll learn new words by watching short clips of native speakers saying words and phrases and taking fun quizzes. They even promise to teach you a few swear words, for that extra authentic touch.
Pairing these video clips with multiple choice questions feels natural and gives Memrise’s courses a powerful and comprehensive vibe that’s a lot like what you’d expect from a classroom setting without the boring textbook approach. Within the app, you can even record yourself pronouncing vocab words. The app is smart enough to analyze your pronunciation and will let you know if you’re doing well enough or if it needs work.
The app’s clean and approachable UI makes learning a new language exciting, not daunting, and short lessons make doing so something you can fit into your busy schedule whenever you want. And, with 19 different languages available, you’ll find courses in popular languages, as well as those that are slightly less sought out, like Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, and Korean.
Memrise is a welcome pairing of beauty and brains. Being able to see and hear native speakers pronounce a word gives you a leg up on learning it properly and remembering it. And, the clean, fun visuals make it a fun moment in your day, not a chore.
Best Budget App: Duolingo
Duolingo (Free) is the most widely known language learning application out there, and it’s loved because it offers an impressive number of languages: 34 to be exact. This includes two fictional languages: Klingon (where my Trekkies at?) and High Valyrian (yay House Targaryen).
The app is intuitive and has an engaging and colorful design that makes you forget about textbooks and eccentric language teachers, so it’s great for beginners. Initially, you select the language you’re interested in, then it places you into your first lesson: vocab, accompanied by pictures. As you work your way through a lesson, you’ll accrue hearts, one of the ways Duolingo gamifies the language learning process and helps you master the skills being taught.
You need hearts to complete lessons, and lose a heart every time you make a mistake. But don’t fret—if you run out, you can refill them with the gems that you earn from completing lesson sections or subscribe to the premium version ($6.99/mo), which also removes ads and offers other benefits. It’s understandable that Duolingo needs a way to pay the bills, but the hearts and gems are limited and may discourage users who make lots of mistakes.
Duolingo shakes up lessons by teaching you through a variety of activities like multiple choice questions, vocabulary flashcards, and listening or speaking exercises. But when it wants you to type a vocab word, it penalizes you if you type with a keyboard that is not from that language, so you will need to get one before starting lessons. Keyboard apps like SwiftKey let you download keyboards from other languages for free. This is kind of a hassle, but if you’re planning on learning the language it may benefit you in the long run.
Although the app has quirks (and many critics), it’s still a solid option for beginners, especially as so much of its course material is available for free. The lighthearted interface is easy enough for teens and adults to use and to at least get a feel for how learning a language works.
Best for Practicing with Native Speakers: Busuu
One of the best ways for you to learn and remember a second (or third) language is to practice it on a regular basis with native speakers. That’s exactly the thought behind Busuu (starts at $6.55/mo). Its robust catalog encompasses 1,000 courses across 12 languages, each of which is expertly designed by linguists in combination with machine learning technology. You can even download lessons so you have access to them offline—great for when you’re on the go.
As you learn words and phrases, you can practice pronunciation and syntax directly with Busuu’s network of over 100+ million native speakers—a feature that’s rare to see outside of a college study-abroad program. The cherry on top? You can earn officially recognized certificates created by McGraw-Hill Education (a learning science company and top educational publisher) to show your progress and success across the four CEFR levels, from A1 through B2.
If you started learning a language a while ago and have some proficiency, you can skip ahead in the courses so you don’t have to waste time with material you already know. As you progress, you can track your overall proficiency in the course, which is aimed at becoming fluent, and mark both daily and weekly progress. Lessons are topic-based and consist of various exercises, including writing tasks, learning grammar, and voice-recording exercises.
Busuu’s hands-on approach and direct interaction opportunities with native speakers make it a wonderful option for those who take learning a new language seriously and plan on using it regularly in the future. Plus, official certificates are beneficial to have for jobs or majoring in languages in college.
Most Classroom-Like Experience: Babbel
People have varying ideas on how best to learn another language. Those who are bold like to learn a few fast catchphrases and pick up the rest while they’re in a new country. Others prefer a more traditional, classroom-like setting, which is exactly what Babbel (starts at $6.95/mo) offers. Whatever your end goal, Babbel allows you to tailor it so you can learn situation-specific vocabulary, like business terms or common tourist phrases.
Babbel is a thorough language-learning program, designed to provide a learning experience similar to a classroom with lessons designed by native speakers, rather than a language algorithm. This means you’ll be better prepared to speak and understand in real-life situations once you have the opportunity to. Its interactive dialogue function has speech recognition technology, which, paired with its gradual yet thorough learning slope, makes your learning experience more of an organic one that you’re more likely to retain information from.
Each review section is curated and designed to help you remember material from previous lessons. Babbel makes a note of the words, rules, and general areas you struggle with, and gently reinforces them until you get them down. Lessons are tailored to you specifically and have helpful, easy-to-understand tips that will guide and correct you along the way, just as a teacher would.
The app syncs across all of your Android and iOS devices, so you can practice at home or on the go without losing progress. Plus its shorter courses (which typically range from 10-15 minutes a pop) are easy to remember and fit into your busy life. You can even try your first lesson free before committing to the subscription and choose to learn one of the 16 offered languages.
Overall, Babbel’s focus on giving you a more conversational and classroom-like learning experience is what makes it a great option for serious students who don’t want to pay to take a college language course.