Start to learn languages – Top language learning apps and websites
A look at some of the best language learning apps and language learning websites available today. The best ways to learn languages, aside from immersive experiences, are with language tools you can use at home, online and offline, that you can take with you when you travel.
As a traveler, learning a new language gives you an opportunity to engage with a country, its culture and its people in a more meaningful way. Being able to communicate with a person in his or her native tongue opens the door to deeper and more immediate connections with locals. There are other documented cognitive benefits to learning languages, too, such as improving memory, better concentration, better critical thinking skills, and slowing down mental aging.
Wherever we travel, I see firsthand the benefit of learning a new language, even if just a few words. Therese, my wife and HITravelTales partner, is a linguistic sponge – fluent in German, conversant in French, and passionate about learning the basics of any country’s language before we arrive and while we are there. Her ability to speak to locals, in their own language, even if she’s just bumbling along, allows her — and by extension me — to experience cultures outside the tourist bubbles of any destination. We’ve connected with people and places that would be much harder to do, if not impossible, without knowing at least a few words of the language in the country we are visiting – or finding a shared foreign language.
That’s not to say learning a new language is easy for everyone. On the contrary. Therese, as I said, is a sponge. She sees, hears and analyzes words with linguistic acuity. Me, I muddle through, often forgetting words shortly after hearing them. I have to keep practicing and practicing if I hope to lock words into my memory sufficiently enough to recall them later in conversation. Make no mistake, I do learn, but at a far slower rate than Therese. And that’s where language learning apps and websites become so important to me. With apps installed on my phone and laptop, I am able to practice at home, on the road, in the car – wherever I can carve out some time and am not going to disturb others.
Remember, no matter how good an app says it is, or how quickly and easily it promises you will be able to learn a new language, you will only really learn by practice, regular practice. And then, frankly, an app or website is never enough. Language is more than words, grammar rules and conjugations. Learning how to use, speak and properly write words that make up a language requires regular study and practice with real people, not just computers.
My favorite language learning apps and programs
Apps and websites are valuable tools to use in the language learning process. Here are the language apps and computer programs I use regularly plus several others I am familiar with by reputation.
Duolingo is a free language program (there is a paid pro version but, as far as I can tell, you don’t seem to get much more for the fee).
Essentially, Duolingo presents courses that are made up of various modules. You will progress through each module in an order Duolingo determines. And there is no skipping ahead … unless you test out, which you can do for any module by demonstrating sufficient proficiency in that language skill. Modules are completed in order, and new modules appear only after you completed a previous one. You can also use the “test out” function when you first set up your language choice, so you start learning at a level suited to you.
Although Therese very much prefers in-country learning over any app or computer program, she will use Duolingo before we travel to nab a few basics like numbers and greetings for the local language if it’s not one she knows.
Vocabulary is taught using images, speech bubbles, flashcards, multiple-choice questions, listening exercises (I always use headphones) and speaking exercises (you can disable your microphone and skip these, but where is the fun in that or the real learning? Unless you are in a public space or your spouse is trying to sleep….).
At any time, you can review or repeat lessons. Best of all, Duolingo tracks your daily progress to encourage you to keep practicing and keep working toward your language-learning goal. It’s like having a personal language coach inside your phone, albeit sometimes an annoying one. You can turn off reminders and alerts if you choose.
Pro: Free. Fun to use. Gamification style motivates. Great for review or quickly learning new language basics before travel.
Con: Speaking exercises are very basic.
Babbel is a subscription-based online and app-based language learning program. Like Duolingo, you can set up prompts and reminders to keep you practicing your language skills every day.
Babbel uses multiple-choice and listening exercises to help you learn. But, unlike Duolingo, it ups the language learning game significantly by using conversational examples so you can learn how to use the words in a sentence when speaking with another person. In addition, Babbel offers a speech recognition feature that will help you learn to pronounce words properly (well, as properly as the phone or computer can recognize your voice). I will admit sometimes I have gotten a green light for a German word I just pronounced that Babbel thought was fabulous, and then when saying the same word to my fluent wife, I just get a giggle and eye roll followed by a corrected pronunciation.
Pro: Well-organized course structure. Good for basic conversational learning. Good for beginners.
Con: Exercises repetitive. Could become dull.
Rocket Languages is a language-learning app that works on your computer, tablet or smartphone. And the lessons can be downloaded for accessing offline – meaning there is no excuse not to be learning a few words or phrases, ever. Rather than a subscription-based model, you pay a one-time fee for lifetime access to each level of instruction in a language. In my German language course, for example, there are three levels and I have paid for two.
The platform uses audio lessons with interactive exercises, listening and writing lessons, and cultural lessons. Each audio lesson is approximately 20-30 minutes long and is designed to get you speaking and understanding the language (although not necessarily writing) with relative proficiency, making it perfect for travelers. Rocket Languages offers a free trial to try up to three lessons. After that, you will need to pay to access more.
Pro: Lots of audio lessons. Emphasis on learning to read and speak a language. Speech recognition to help pronunciation skills. Can be downloaded for offline use.
Con: Too much explanation of culture and grammar details in English. Audio lessons can be a bit boring.
Pimsleur is a subscription-based, audio software program that is designed for you to listen to and interact with anywhere – at home, in your car, anywhere. Each lesson lasts approximately 30 minutes. The Pimsleur Method of language learning is designed to have you able to speak and read a language as quickly as possible, even for those who think they have trouble learning a language – like me.
In addition to the audio programming, there is plenty of additional course material including reading lessons, speaking challenges (role-playing while reviewing conversation transcripts), digital flashcards, what Pimsleur calls “light bulb moments” (for cultural and historical learning as part of the language), and speed games (where you test your conversational knowledge at a faster pace than normal learning).
Pro: Great for beginners. Can be used without a computer.
Con: Not for gaining conversational fluency. You only learn phrases.
And three language learning apps I am not currently using, but are popular
Rosetta Stone is considered, by some, to be one of the best language learning software programs available for those seeking as close to an immersion-experience as possible. It is, however, one of the pricier options. Thankfully you do get a three-day free trial, and there is a 30-day satisfaction-guaranteed warranty. It’s certainly been around a long time – since the age of the CD-ROM! Back then, I tried Rosetta Stone and frankly found it tedious. Therese also tried it a number of years ago to get back her French and also found it dry and uninspiring. Still, that is our experience, and others seem to swear by the company. Its language courses are now available in desktop computer, tablet and mobile versions, making it easier to study and practice anywhere.
Fluenz is a video-based language learning program that charges a one-time fee for access to a complete course. Like Rosetta Stone, Fluenz is not cheap. You learn words and phrases by first watching a video, and then working through various exercises. More videos are interspersed between the exercises. Learning is based upon a lot of repetition.
FluentU is a subscription-based language learning program with a twist – one account, all languages. Meaning you establish an account and pay by the month or annually, and you can learn Spanish, Chinese, French, English, Japanese, German, Korean, Russian and Italian. It teaches language proficiency by using real-world videos – movie trailers, music videos, news reports, and more. It also has motivational emails that include downloads for all kinds of fun tidbits about a language or themed learning, like how to talk about sleep.