I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been researching the topic, but lately I’ve been bombarded with ads about new language learning apps. You guessed it: they all claim to be the best.
And while I’m sure technology makes it easier than ever to study on your mobile device, I’ve also personally failed numerous times to learn Spanish on my phone.
Maybe it’s because I’m a bad learner. Or maybe some apps are less effective than others.
This is why I wanted to separate the wheat from the chaff and review different language learning apps to see which ones really work.
Busuu is the best app that covers different language learning styles. Their Premium plan costs $9.99 a month. You can speak with natives, download lessons offline, and practice in your own time. Babbel is similar, but doesn’t offer conversations. PrePly is good for finding a tutor online. Memrise uses the flashcard method and 90% of the features are free.
It goes without saying, but first, the app needs to support the language you want to learn. Offering tons of obscure dialects isn’t going to be helpful, because you’re really only likely to learn one at a time.
Which is why I think it’s much more important to focus on other parameters, such as:
Any kind of phrasebook or vocabulary builder. Don’t get me wrong, they are super useful when you’re going on a short holiday abroad. But I wouldn’t consider them language learning apps.
I’ve also disqualified platforms for online courses like Coursera and Udemy. Although you can learn languages through their apps, they’re not specialising in language-learning.
The Busuu app was first launched in 2010, and I’m not the only one who believes they’re probably the best language learning app out there. It was named Best Language App by the German Association for Consumer Studies, Google Play and Bloomberg. And with 90 million registered users and counting, it’s quickly becoming the most popular too.
So what makes it special? First, it’s the research put into the method. You have everything you’d expect from a language learning app (quizzes, reviews, exercises and games), plus a vocabulary builder, grammar rules and cultural context.
But the killer feature is probably the peer-reviewed feedback from native speakers. After you’ve learned some vocabulary and grammar on your own, you can send out a conversation starter to the community. Your new friend will answer, give feedback on pronunciation, and you can keep the conversation going at your own pace. So it combines tutoring with social learning and immersion.
I should also point out that the app design is top notch. It’s fast, responsive and intuitive, and you track your progress with percentages, scores and daily goals. That covers the “gamified” aspect of learning too.
Finally, Busuu is the only app I’ve tested that could probably take you all the way from beginner to fluent. It might take a while, but the wide range of learning methods and tools is sure to offer something for everyone – and at a competitive price point to boot.
Deciding whether Babbel or Busuu should take the top spot was the hardest thing. The two apps are very similar in a lot of ways. The features are close, and so are the prices. They even have similar marketing soundbites, like “x amount of hours with our tool is equal to one college semester”.
So Babbel also works with the quiz / review format. It mixes pictures, audio and words. You also get context in the form of conversation dialogues and grammar rules. Really, it’s got everything Busuu does – except the peer-review system.
In fact, it might be the only reason Busuu came first. While Babbel is great for beginners and casual learners, it’s just missing those real-life conversations to reach the top spot in this list.
Duolingo is probably the most popular language learning app on this list. The app boasts more than 300 million registered users, and allows English speakers to learn 30 or so languages. Their owl mascot has been turned into a meme, and it’s been around so long that there’s even been a backlash against their teaching method.
The thing is, Duolingo was born from noble ambitions in 2009: to provide free language education to anyone with an internet connection. The iOS and Android apps were released a few years after the online platform, and they are completely free to use. There are, however, ads (which you can pay to remove).
Duolingo’s app is somewhat hit and miss. While the interface and user experience are fantastic, it makes you feel like you’re playing a mobile game rather than learning something. For some, it’s what makes it fun and casual. For serious learners, it can turn into a button-pushing experience that leaves you frustrated as you don’t get explanations or feedback.
Preply is a bit different from other language-learning apps as it focuses on helping you find a tutor. So really, the quality of the courses will only be as good as the tutors themselves. The good news is that there are 29,000 of them from 185 countries.
The other good news is that you can create a ton of filters to search for the right tutor. It might take some time, but eventually, you should find one in the right timezone, price range, and teaching style. And if you’re not satisfied with the first, paid class, you can reuse those funds to put towards another hour long trial.
Once you’ve filtered the right candidates, you can start taking lessons. They’re done via Skype, but Preply will also create a calendar and lesson reminders, and it will manage all the payments automatically. After the first lesson, you must purchase hours in packs, the smallest of which is 5 hours.
At this point it’s worth noting that Preply is nowhere near the only tutor marketplace available on your phone. But its focus on language learning and excellent user interface helps it stand out from the competition.
Note: If you want to earn money as an online language teacher, Preply is currently looking for more tutors.
HelloTalk is simply the app version of a language exchange. Find someone who wants to learn your language. If they speak the language you want to learn, it’s a match! You can start talking, texting and communicating to improve, both as a student and teacher.
While the concept is simple, HelloTalk is packed with smart (often paid) features that make it more than a Whatsapp for foreign language speakers. For instance, you can practice with a chatbot if you don’t find a match. You can also comment publicly on posts, Facebook-style, to start conversations with strangers. The voice-to-text feature lets you convert voice messages into text if you’re embarrassed to speak directly.
The app interface is excellent, and the communications tools work great. You can even send pictures or draw doodles to share ideas visually. And while you do have to create a personal profile, there are enough filters available to ensure you are only matched with the right people (same gender only, hide profile info, etc…).
While still far from DuoLingo’s popularity, Mondly is slowly growing its user base. More than 40 million users have used it to introduce themselves to a new language. I say “introduce”, because Mondly is heavily skewed towards beginners in the 33 languages available.
This app combines daily lessons, a chatbot and VR lessons (one off fee of $4.99). I find the latter a bit gimmicky, but if talking to a virtual hotel clerk to practice your vocabulary works for you, then great! The chatbot is decent, and uses speech recognition to understand what you say – but expect some hit and miss.
If you give the app a quick try, you’ll find it’s very similar in look and feel to DuoLingo, albeit maybe a bit less well designed. Some of the interactions are also different (for instance dragging words up or down to select them), but the pros and cons are largely the same, as you’ll see below.
I’ve only tested the Spanish course, but heard reports that the lessons are the same for all the languages. So it’s easier for Mondly to create courses, but there might be errors in your lessons when things don’t take the cultural context into consideration.
Memrise, as the name suggests, is a kind of memory game. It uses the concept of flashcards, and gamifies it to turn it into a learning experience. But there’s more than quizzes via pictures, audio and text. Memrise also makes clever use of mnemonics to help you remember vocabulary and grammar.
Here’s an example. Say you’re an English speaker learning Spanish. A sentence you might get is the following: “”it's aburrido to eat a burrito with every meal” (it’s boring to eat a burrito with every meal). The play on words between aburrido and burrito is supposed to create a mental image that sticks in your head. Fun, right?
But there’s a bit of controversy here. In the past, Memrise allowed users to submit their own mnemonics to help other learners. You could pick and choose the ones you liked and add them to your account to review later. They’ve since discovered it was a recipe for disaster, with spammy and sometimes NSFW submissions. Turns out managing a community of 35 million users can be tough.
Still, Memrise is a great tool, and they’re very generous with their free features. More than 90% of the app is completely free. You can purchase the pro version for $2.50 a month, which will give you learning stats, offline downloads, pro chats, and video mode, amongst others.
Rosetta Stone, named after the ancient stone slab that helped decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs, was first launched in 1992. As you can imagine, their method and technology has come a long way (I actually remember someone in my family learning the method through a huge box of CD ROMS).
These days, you can do it all from their app. And they’ve put a lot of effort and tech into it (and probably poured millions into R&D). For instance, you can use their patented speech recognition engine, TruAccent, to give you feedback on your pronunciation. It can be hit and miss, so not sure it’s better than learning with a tutor (PrePly) or peers (Busuu).
Rosetta Stone is a strange company. My guess is that they managed to get in early in the language-learning-via-software game and have been resting on their laurels a bit. New apps might not have their speech recognition software, but they are better overall tools for going from beginner to fluent.
Let’s start with a con: LinguaLift isn’t cheap. It costs $29 a month, which only lets you learn one of three languages (Russian, Japanese or Hebrew) on your phone or computer. You get access to a Vocab Lab, a Verb Academy and some games.
So why the price? Well, LinguaLift is a complete method that comes with well-crafted, reviewed and tutor-approved lessons. In fact, you can even talk to tutors to ask questions and review points. They’ll even assign you homework if that’s your thing.
Now, unlike with other user-generated content apps, you are sure to get in-depth lessons that touch upon a country’s history, culture, grammar or etiquette. In fact, a lot of the content is text-heavy, so you’ll learn more “around” the language than how to speak clearly. It can be good for some, and who knows, maybe paying monthly could be a big motivator?
As you can imagine, there is no magic bullet to help everyone learn every language on Earth fast, cheaply and proficiently.
In fact, one of the great advantages of language learning apps is that you can combine them to support your learning through different methods.
But still, here’s what I would recommend:
And that’s it for the best language learning apps. Anything I missed? Feedback, comments? Let’s chat in the section below!