Technology has had a global effect on humanity, bringing peoples and communities who are geographically distant closer together. Through instant communication and easing the diffusion of ideas, tech has helped give rise to Walt Disney’s ideal of a small world after all. However, even when we can instantly communicate with the far corners of the globe, we don’t always communicate in the same way and tongue.
While translation apps and programs have tremendously improved in recent years, they are not perfect, and things get lost in translation. Consequently, the wide world of tech has provided alternative tools to ease communication.
Language learning apps can help you pick up simple phrases to full conversational skills. While learning a new language is harder for some people than it is for others, it’s doable for anyone. I myself am not the best with tongues. Heck, English is my first language and I struggle with it occasionally. However, with all these apps listed below, the universal truth is that you will get what you put in. The more effort, energy and enthusiasm you put into learning a new tongue, the more success you will get with acquiring a new language. For those trying to learn a new language, here’s a list of some excellent sources you can rely upon.
Duolingo is a freemium app you can download to your smartphone or work with in a web browser. It was founded by a linguistics professor at Carnegie Mellon University (the same professor who invented reCAPTCHA). With lessons for approximately 70 different languages offered in about 30 languages, it’s probably the most wide reaching and available language learning tool. The Pittsburg, USA based company has also announced that lessons for an additional 30 languages are in development. Duolingo acts as a personal tutor, with quiz based lessons working your way up from nothing to conversational skills in a fun, game-like format. It also provides assessment tests and a certification procedure. I personally have been using it daily, actively taking courses in Hebrew, Hungarian and Russian, and I really enjoy this app. It’s a great source to start with, with a very high Alexa ranking (703 as this post is published) and well recognized by the tech industry, most notably winning Apple’s App of the Year award in 2013.
A subscription based app, Babbel doesn’t offer as high a variety of languages as Duolingo, nor is it free. In fact it’s actually a tad bit expensive. However, the 14 language courses it offers are developed by linguistic and language staffs at such prestigious universities as Cambridge University and Technische Universität München. It is a much more professionally oriented app than Duolingo, and focuses more on conversationally based learning vs Duolingo’s vocabulary based learning, while complimenting its lessons with one-on-one video tutorials. With monthly subscription rates ranging from 7$-13$, it’s not going to break your bank. However, the German based company has a reputation for building a much more solid linguistic foundation than Duolingo, and users of both apps report that they form a great complimentary pair in linguistical development if you can find a language both offer. Babbel and Duolingo are considered the top two apps in the market today based on reviews and usage rates, so consumers value Babbel highly. (Disclaimer: I have not personally used Babbel myself because the language I’m actively focused on right now, Hungarian, is not offered on Babbel. I’m basing this review on word of mouth and research)
The British based Busuu is another freemium language learning app offering lessons in 12 languages. Busuu utilizes a social network inspired approach to language learning, with lessons broken into units that follow an approach more similar to what you’d find in a classroom, with multiple choice assignments, speaking assignments and written assignments all evaluated on a grade scale. Users take on the roles of both teacher of their native tongue(s) and student of the language they are learning, using chat rooms, mics and webcams to communicate and learn collaboratively. While the basic structure is free, you will need to pay to gain access to some of the more desirable features. Busuu also offers lessons targeted for kids, and successful completions are certified by Pearsons. Newer than Babbel and Duolingo, Busuu has nonetheless been raking in industry awards.
Not so much a pure lesson app as a communication app for those trying to learn a new language, HelloTalk partners people learning a new language with those who are fluent in the targeted language but are learning the first person’s native tongue and puts them in a texting-like chatroom, encouraging a give and take in skill learning. While it requires you to have enough basic skills in your target language to initiate a conversation, it is great for further devoloping linguistic skills, reinforcing and practicing what you already know, and allows you to take conversational risks in a safe and educational environment. This partnership is dubbed ‘Language Exchange’. At first, I had to rely on translating apps just to understand what my fellow conversationalists were saying, but I found that by practicing with a native Hungarian speaker, and allowing them to practice their English with me, I actually developed a lot more quickly than I did in Duolingo, surprisingly so, and I’m not the only person who was highly impressed by this model. For those who have developed a basic vocabulary and grammatical idea of their target language, HelloChat is a great platform to take the next step towards conversational skills.
If you learn best with flash cards, then Memrise is the app for you. Originating as a glorified flash card app with a chatbot, Memrise has evolved to include meme and gamification based features that allow you to learn and practice a target language while having fun. Developed by the notable British Grand Master of Memory Ed Cooke, Memrise utilizes psychological and memory based methods to ingrain the target language deep into your memory. With lessons for over 150 languages, it’s a very wide ranging app. Memrise users are scored on their daily achievements (the gamification aspect) in their lessons, and can compete against one another in a daily leaderboard, so if you are as competitive as I am, then it provides a great motivational incentive to learn. Memrise is well recognized by the industry, winning Google Play’s overall Best App award twice consecutively in 2016 and 2017.
If you are an ESL student or someone who is learning English as a second (or third or fourth, etc.) language, then Leaf might be the app of choice for you. Built primarily for situational needs, Leaf uses your phone’s GPS to determine your location, then deduces what words, phrases and questions you might need to know and provides quick lessons to catch you up to speed. Are you in a bar? Leaf will quickly teach you how to order a beer and ask for a bill. At the gas station? Leaf will quickly teach you what leaded, unleaded and premium means. In line at the DMV? Leaf will quickly teach you what questions and answers you’ll need to know in English to get your drivers license. With short lessons using real world, practical situations on the fly to learn by need, Leaf is one of the most effective ways to learn simple English.
Similar in concept to a toned down HelloTalk, HiNative pairs native speakers and language learners with each other for situational learning in an instant (like chat roulette). While not as in-depth as HelloTalk, nor with as many bells and whistles, some people find the no-nonsense simple usage app and it’s straightforward features a nice change of pace. Let’s face it, learning a new language can be daunting and challenging at times. By not being overly complex, or in your face, HiNative can be a great tool when you are in the midst of a frustrating struggle and a confidence boost as well reminding users that while they may struggle sometimes in learning a new language, another person is struggling to learn their language, and by teaching, you can grease the channels in your brain to allow knowledge to better slide right in.
A start-up founded by a partnership between the universities of Cambridge and Stanford, Lingua.ly aims to get its users reading material written for and by native speakers at the earliest instance. After assessing your reading level, it will start providing texts gleaned from the internet, allowing you to click on words you don’t know to help you learn their meanings, first by inference then by vocabulary lessons. Using an algorithm that ensures you’ll be reading a text that you should know roughly 90% of the words in, Lingua.ly aims to let you build your vocabulary through inference of context. This app helps users learn one of roughly a dozen languages in a manner that’s refreshing and with a wide source of enterntaining texts.
For those who are more audible learners, or are more engaged when current events are involved, NewsInSlow is a series of apps created as a joint venture between NPR and the BBC that play the day’s news broadcasts and features in a slow easy to process manner. Intended to help language learners learn by listening to the news, it’s a form of targeted immersion learning that also keeps the user engaged. With apps focused on news read in slow Italian, German, French, Ibearian Spanish and American Spanish, the slower pace of speaking helps users process what their hearing, and keeping them informed of the news going on means they are sort of killing two birds with one stone. And speaking of stones…
Rosetta Stone is probably the most established and well known language learning app in the language learning business. Unlike the rest of the listed apps, this one is not a start up but a well established brand with over 3 decades of success stories. Sometimes the classics are the best, and what ain’t broke don’t need fixing. Using a formula the company calls ‘dynamic immersion’, Rosetta Stone uses texts, audio, images, multimedia and repetition to help you learn your targeted language while discouraging and avoiding translations. With 32 languages offered, it has a very high rate of success and is reputable for its use by the United States Army and the CIA in educating their agents in new languages as a primary source. The drawbacks are that it has had issues in the past of being insensitive or lacking in the cultural context of languages, older versions have focused to heavily on formal speaking at the expense of informal language to the extent where the users don’t sound like a normal speaker, and the price of user licenses are quite high, with subscription packages of three, six, twelve or twentyfour month subscriptions at 25$/mo all paid up front being a significant barrier to those on limited or fixed income.
Weather you find pleasure in learning new languages (one of my best friend’s collects languages like they’re fine wine), need to learn a new language for work, want to speak like a local when traveling, or need to learn a new language for beaurocratic reasons (like me!), it’s a rewarding process that can open doors to new cultural and professional landscapes that come with a whole lot of excitement. The process of learning can be tough sometimes, but the more effort, energy and enthusiasm you put into it, the more you will succeed. Nothing will be quite as effective as totally immersing yourself in an environment surrounded by native speakers of your target language, but each of the apps detailed above can go a long way in helping you learn and grow. There’s many other apps out there that I have not had time to review, but you can find other lists of reviews here, here and here.