10 language learning apps that actually work
Most high schools require students to take at least one language course before they can graduate. I took French, and while I loved the language, it didn't come naturally to me. The cycle repeated my first year of college when I tried my hand at Spanish -- even though I had an engaging professor, I struggled. Thankfully, I passed (even retaining some conversational Spanish!), but the experience helped me realize something.
Cramming a language -- any language -- into a four-month semester (with your GPA at stake) isn't always the best way to learn it. I also realized I had to want to learn a new language.
General introductory courses can spark an interest in a language that leads to more advanced courses, studying abroad, masters programs and more. But those of you who don't want to go back to school still have options for learning a new language to travel, enrich yourself or better connect with your heritage.
Here are the 10 best apps that make it easy for you to learn a language at your own pace.
Best for an online school-type experience
I found Babbel to be the most like a course you'd see in an online school curriculum. The app's minimalist layout helps prevent a new language (French for me) from seeming overwhelming without making it boring. Each lesson takes you through translations, and includes variations of the word or phrase, pictures and whether it's formal or informal. If it asks you to spell a phrase, the letters are included.
You also get to see the words you're learning used in common conversations, listen to them (if you choose to have audio on), repeat the phrases, and learn more about verb groups.
Babbel is free, or you can subscribe to a package. Monthly subscriptions are $12.95, a three moth subscription is $26.85, six months costs $44.70, and one year is $83.40.
Best for learning multiple languages
As a regular Duolingo user, I enjoy the colorful interface and short, game-like lessons. The app doesn't restrict how many languages you can try to learn at the same time (personally, I think two is a good maximum if you want to retain anything). I use Duolingo to practice Spanish and German.
I like Duolingo's user-friendly layout, and the "streak" feature, which motivates you to keep going by tracking the number of days you have reached your point goal. If you use the app online, you can access resources like Duolingo Stories, which are short audio stories that allow you to check your comprehension as you go. I also subscribe to Premium for $10 per month, which gives me access to a feature that lets me chat with a tutor from a country where the language is spoken.
Best for learning to speak casually in a new language
One of my favorite parts of Memrise is the app's use of short videos to show how real locals express different phrases. I tried the French course and the first lesson alone let me listen to the tone of voice and casual pronunciation, as well as showed me the phrase's literal translation and explained the gendered usage. The app also helps you spot patterns in the language to make it easier to learn.
A few lessons are available for free daily, but the full program unlocks if you subscribe to Memrise Pro. There are three plans-- one month for $9, a year for $29.50, or three months for $18.
Best for goal-oriented users
When you sign up for Busuu, you select the language you want to learn, and the app helps you determine how advanced you are with it and why you want to learn it, and to what level. From there, you set a daily study goal, and if you subscribe to the premium plan, it creates a study plan so you'll reach your goal by a set date. For example, Busuu says if I study three times a week for 10 minutes a day, I'll be pretty fluent in my chosen language by June 2020.
Premium costs $5.83 per month for a year. Even without premium, Busuu offered valuable tools if you want to learn a language.
I tried Italian with Busuu and I liked the clean, bright layout of the app. Busuu also offers helpful reminders to users: The second time I logged in, it reminded me about "weak words" I needed to review. In addition to listening to a phrase paired with a photo of the corresponding action, Busuu included helpful tips (like that "ciao" can mean "hello" or "goodbye").
Best for learning Spanish musically
If you listen to any song enough, you'll learn all the words -- even if they're in a different language. But how do you figure out what they mean? This is where the Lirica app comes in. This app is unique in how it approaches teaching Spanish. Instead of traditional teaching methods, Lirica uses popular music by Latin and reggaeton artists to help you learn the Spanish language and grammar. On top of learning the language, you're also immersing yourself in the culture behind it.
Lirica has a one week free trial and then it's $4.49 per month. For now, the app only offers Spanish, but its website says it plans to add more languages in the future.
Best for helping you remember specific phrases
Similar to Drops, Mondly is a fun, colorful app that has multiple features to take advantage of even if you don't subscribe to premium. I tried beginner Hungarian on this app, and I liked how it offered to show you different conjugations if you tapped on verbs. The app packs images, translations and auditory aids to help your specific learning style.
The instructor also speaks the words and phrases in a rather melodic way that made it easier for me to recall them (even after trying different languages on different apps).
On top of that, Mondly is offering a huge discount on its Premium features for the next five days. Access to Premium is usually $479.99 annually, but it's dropped to $47.99.
Best for visual learners
I tried my hand at Greek on the Drops app. The app's fun, colorful layout definitely made the language (which has its own alphabet) less intimidating. The app shows users each word in the Greek alphabet and the English alphabet, and says the word and shows an image of it.
If you don't subscribe to premium for $10 per month, you have to wait 10 hours to access another lesson, but you can check out your statistics after completing the lesson (correct answers, wrong answers and words learned) and tap on the words you've learned to hear them pronounced again (and see them written in the Greek alphabet). This can give you a leg up when your next lesson starts.
Best for breaking down how a language works
Language Learning with Netflix
While not technically an app, the free Language Learning with Netflix Chrome extension can be helpful on your journey to becoming multilingual. Install the extension and click the icon to launch the catalog of movie and TV show options. You do need a subscription to Netflix though.
Once you launch the catalog, you can pick from hundreds of titles that use movies on Netflix to help teach different languages. For example, if you wanted to work on your Spanish, select the language in the dropdown menu, along with the country where you're using Netflix. If you're watching in the US, the extension generates 306 titles. To watch one of the films, just click the red "Watch on Netflix" button. Depending on the language you want to learn, you might have fewer titles to pick from.
As the series or movie plays, two sets of subtitles display at the bottom of the screen. One set is your native language and the other is the one you're wanting to learn. The words highlight as they're spoken, like a karaoke sing-a-long. You can listen to the dialogue phrase by phrase, pause and replay as needed, access a built-in dictionary and more.
Best for learning on the go
Pimsleur is an app that offers 51 languages to learn, but delivers the information in what is basically the form of a podcast. Essentially, you'll choose the language you want to learn and begin a 30-minute auditory lesson (downloadable and Alexa-compatible). The app also has a driving mode, so you can learn during long commutes without looking at a screen.
Unfortunately, you only get one free lesson, which doesn't showcase all the app has to offer besides "listen and repeat." For a $14.95 per month subscription, you can access other features including reading lessons, role-playing challenges, and digital flashcards.
Best for auditory learners
Perhaps the most well-known language learning service, Rosetta Stone has come a long way since it started in the 90s. My parents still have a box set of discs for learning Spanish somewhere in their house. It's a lot easier now with the Rosetta Stone app, but you still need at least 30 minutes to complete a Core Lesson.
I tried Rosetta Stone's first Irish lesson, which was primarily auditory with images, though there are ways to customize the app to your learning preferences. For me, the lesson started out fairly challenging, especially for someone who's completely new to the Irish language. However, it did get easier as I went along.
Rosetta Stone has three different four subscription plans depending on the language you want to learn-- $26.34 for three months, $19.84 for six months, $14.92 for a year, or $10.30 for two years.