- Best Online Language Learning Courses: Rosetta Stone Language Learning, Duolingo, Sign It ASL, Fluenz, Babbel, Pimsleur, Rype, Yabla, Transparent Language Online, Rocket Languages, Michel Thomas.
How to Find the Right Apps to Learn a Language
What language do you want to learn? Have you already learned a little, or are you a blank slate? Is your goal to know the language so well that you can speak, hear, read, and write it, or do you want to start with just one of those outcomes? Does the language you are learning use a different script? Is it hard for you to make unfamiliar sounds? All these questions are crucial to finding the right language-learning apps—yes, apps, and plural. If you want to see real progress in learning a language—whether you’re trying to master it for school or just learn enough to get by as a tourist—you need a variety of tools.
As with all kinds of education, learning a language takes dedication, and picking the right tools sets you up for success. You have to practice consistently. A gap in exposure leads to loss in ability. That is why it is so important to find apps and resources you like. This is not the time to put up with tools that are annoying or frustrating. You do not want to give up on learning just because you do not like the tool.
Use More Than One App or Service
With apps and online services for language learning, you can learn at your own pace and wherever you are most comfortable. The trick is figuring out what you need to work on at different stages.
When you first start out, you might like a program that tells you exactly what to study for an intensive 30 minutes per day, something that Rosetta Stone and Fluenz both deliver. Pair that with a mobile app so you can test your memory in five-minute bursts. Duolingo is especially good at that. So is the study aid Quizlet. Some people find that looking at written language trips up their pronunciation. In that case, you might be better off starting with an audio-focused program, such as Pimsleur or Michel Thomas.
If you are already an intermediate or advanced speaker, one-on-one conversations with a tutor are an excellent way to keep learning. Rype helps you find inexpensive tutors who meet with you via video chat. Not quite ready to converse? Try Yabla, a site that’s flush with videos of native speakers, which can help you acclimate your ear and expand your vocabulary.
Sometimes you need resources that are specific to the language you are learning. For example, not many language-learning programs offer American Sign Language alongside other tongues, although Rocket Languages does. There are, however, apps that focus solely on sign language, such as SignIt, which we have not yet reviewed at greatofreview. (We focus on apps that offer multiple languages, but we check out others when possible.) The same goes for languages with a different script. You can find many apps that teach only the writing aspect of Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Mandarin, Hindi, and other non-Roman scripts.
What Are Your Learning Preferences?
One of the hardest things about learning a language is that if you succeed 100 percent of the time, it is not difficult enough. If it is too easy, you are not learning. This is uncomfortable for many people. It is another reason you need to find language apps and resources that work for you.
For example, if you like to listen to podcasts in a foreign language, something Babbel and Duolingo offer, and you can understand 80 percent or more, that is right where you need to be. If you are not into podcasts in the first place, you might get frustrated and give up.
Let us look at some of the best language learning apps in more depth.
What is the Best Free App for Learning a Language?
The best free app for learning a language is Duolingo, hands down. We highly recommend it no matter your level or language goals, as this app has tools for just about everything.
It is available as both a web app and mobile app, and it works well whether you are a total beginner or already have experience. You can study as many languages as you like on Duolingo. It has more than 30 languages with instruction in English, plus more options if your preferred language of instruction is something other than English.
If you are not a beginner, Duolingo lets you take a placement test to find the right place to start. It also makes it easy to practice specific skills because it has lessons that focus not only on vocabulary themes (Family, Hobbies), but also verb tenses and grammatical rules (Past Imperfect, Dative Case).
You can practice exercises in bite-size lessons or explore content for intermediate and advanced speakers, including Stories and podcasts, which are only available for some languages. Duolingo also has some gamification aspects, in addition, so you can set a goal for yourself and compete against others. The more you hit your goal, the more bonus points you earn. A wonderful app’s totally free. You can support Duolingo by paying for a Premium account, but it is not necessary to get everything this app has to offer.
What is the Best Paid Language-Learning Program?
Rosetta Stone is the most polished language-learning app, with plenty of extras. Among paid programs, it continues to be our top pick. It is reliable, accurate, and thorough, with more than 20 languages. We like its rigor, especially for beginners. You know exactly which lesson to do every day, and you can count on it taking about 30 minutes to complete. If you follow this routine, Rosetta Stone has enough content to keep you busy for months.
Rosetta Stone is ideal for anyone new to a language looking to develop a strong base of vocabulary and grammar. It is well structured, clear, and moves at a deliberate pace. Use Rosetta Stone faithfully for a few months and you will learn to speak, read, write, and understand basic words and phrases.
New bonus material ranges from short instructional videos to live streaming classes. You can also find games plus small-class tutoring via video call for an extra fee.
Best Program with a Virtual Teacher
Some learners really do best when they have someone to guide them. When you are first starting out with a language, seeing human beings speak it, watching their facial movements and seeing their smile, can make it feel less intimidating. Fluenz gets it. This program uses videos of a teacher to introduce new lessons and review concepts, and then follows them up with learning exercises. It is as rigorous as Rosetta Stone, but it has a completely different learning approach, which some people may prefer.
As Fluenz progresses, the instructor walks you through lessons in not only pronunciation and grammar, but culture, too. If you learn best when you see a familiar face, Fluenz is a great program to pick. The company also sells an enticing Spanish immersion program, which can be virtual or live in Mexico, travel restrictions permitting.
Fluenz offers seven language courses: Chinese (Mandarin with Pinyin writing), French, German, Italian, Portuguese (Brazilian), Latin American Spanish, and European Spanish.
What is the Most Challenging Language Instruction App?
One app stands out for having lessons that are harder than others are Babbel. While testing this app, we kept a notebook by our side and quickly filled it with notes just to keep up. Not everyone can jump into tough language learning content, but some people can.
For example, if you are learning a language that is linguistically close to one you already speak, such as German and Dutch or Spanish and Portuguese, tougher content might be best for you. Additionally, experienced language learners might find Babbel’s content just the right speed.
Babbel has 13 languages, assuming your language of instruction is English. You can learn Danish, Dutch, French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, and Turkish. There is also a course for learning English, with instruction available in French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish.
Best App for Intermediate or Advanced Speakers
If you have studied a language before and find that, most language-learning apps are too easy, try Yabla. Imagine a video on demand service that lets you easily find content in the language you are learning. It has options to show closed captioning in the native language as well as English subtitles. You can also look for content from a particular country or region for times when you need to acclimate your ear to a certain accent.
The app incorporates exercises, too, but the videos are the hook. Many of the videos were not produced specifically for language learners: They are real video footage with native speakers using a natural pace and accent. Yabla offers six languages: Chinese, French, German, Italian, and Spanish, plus an English program for Spanish speakers.
Best Audio-Focused Language Apps
If you are the kind of person who can be immersed in podcasts and audiobooks, you might consider an audio-focused language-learning program. Two that stand out are Pimsleur and Michel Thomas. Each is named after the person who created the learning technique used in the program. Both were once sold as tapes, then CDs, and now in apps.
Pimsleur, named for Dr. Paul Pimsleur, uses a spaced repetition method. In other words, the program uses specific intervals of time between when you first learn a word and when you are asked to recall it, and these intervals are designed for maximum language retention. Each lesson takes about 30 minutes, and you are supposed to do exactly one lesson per day. For select languages, you can find a version of the Pimsleur app with interactive exercises, too, but the heart of the program is audio. It is incredible at teaching pronunciation, and the material is solid.
The method used in Michel Thomas is different. Michel Thomas was a polyglot who developed a method of informal teaching. It involves putting people into a classroom and teaching them words that can be used as building blocks. That way, you get to speaking quickly and can mix and match the words you have learned to say a number of sentences. When you buy the Michel Thomas program, you hear the recording from one of these classrooms, and you are supposed to play along as if you were there in person, too.
Best Apps for Boutique Languages
Most language-learning software is available for Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Portuguese. What do you do if you need to learn Igbo or Ojibwe?
When you are in a bind to find an app for a language you want to learn, there are two sources to try Transparent Language Online and Mango Languages (which did not make the cut for this list). Transparent has programs for more than 100 languages. Some of those programs are short, but the company is adding to them over time. Mango Languages is an option if you are stuck, though it is not an app that I recommend highly. For some languages, however, it may be your only option.
Best Language App for Travel
Not everyone needs a language-learning app to study a language. For example, maybe you need an app where you can write down vocabulary you want to review. The free app Quizlet is exactly that. The software lets you create unique content that you want to study, and it is excellent with foreign languages.
Though Quizlet may sound like yet another boring flashcard app, it offers different tools to mix up your study sets and how you review them so you are learning never gets stale. You can work on fill-in-the-blanks questions or even play games with your unique study sets. The tools are nicely animated, and the app offers speech-to-text features for pronunciation help, too. Be sure to indicate the language you are studying for the best pronunciation.
Best App for Learning ASL
There are several useful apps for learning American Sign Language, but our clear favorite is Sign It ASL. This app meets the unique challenges of teaching ASL’s simple fingerspelling alphabet of ASL, its more complex signs, and its unique grammar. As you might guess, the vast majority of the content is video based. Sign It ASL manages to convey a lot of information in relatively long (up to an hour) video lessons that are nevertheless also entertaining and engaging.
However, you choose to learn a language, stick with it! Do not be afraid to change the app you use as you progress. When an app feels too easy, it is time to stretch yourself in new ways.
If any of the apps in this list sounds right for you, click the link for an in-depth review. If you are looking to study subjects other languages, you should also check out our roundup of the best online learning services.