Here at Expat Focus, we regularly talk about how important it is for any expat to learn the local language in their new country. In some countries, it’s nearly impossible to get by without knowing the local language, while in others, it’s easy enough. But even in the latter case, knowing the local language gives you access to a range of experiences and benefits that you would otherwise not have.Today, it’s not even necessary to find a language school or tutor and schedule fixed slots daily or weekly to learn a new language. Online options have been steadily improving for years, and to make things easier, there are now also thousands of apps allowing you to polish your language skills anywhere, anytime. Of course selecting the right app out of the thousands that exist is a bit tricky. Many apps are not worth your time, and in addition, even among the ones that are well designed and useful, the techniques, resources, prices, and level of intensity differ from one app to the next. It’s important to find an app that fits within your budget, is suitable for your current skill level, and matches your goals and learning style. Here’s a quick look at 15 language-learning apps to help you get started.
Anki is a flash card style language learning program with a focus on improving your vocabulary. The name is supposed to mean “memorizing” in Japanese, and that’s indeed what the app does – help you memorize words and phrases by displaying them along with images and sounds. The flash card format means that Anki is very flexible in terms of pace and intensity, but of course it’s limited in what it can teach you. You’re highly unlikely to learn a language by using Anki alone. Rather, you can learn the language in the real world or through another app, and use Anki as a supplemental resource to improve your vocabulary. Anki is free and can be used on both Android and iOS, as well as on Windows, OS X, and Linux.
Babbel is a paid app that runs on both iOS and Android, as well as online through your browser, and offers courses in over ten different languages. Multiple courses are available for each language – for example, courses at multiple levels for beginners, a course on “false friends” in that particular language, a course on idioms, and sometimes courses that focus on the cultural aspects of the language. There isn’t a standard format across languages, both in terms of the courses offered and the structure of individual courses, so that learners get what works best for their chosen language. Babbel runs on a monthly subscription, which makes it a bit expensive in the long term, but the quality of the content is certainly excellent.
Busuu is one of the most well-rounded, interactive, and thorough language learning apps out there. Lessons at the basic level use flash cards, and are thus focused on vocabulary and memorization, but as you progress, there are more and more resources and techniques at your disposal. The community aspect of Busuu is particularly important, allowing you to practice and get feedback on what you’ve learned. Your writing and speaking exercises are evaluated not by the software but by native speakers who are part of the Busuu community. There are also mock dialogues, lessons on grammar, and downloadable PDF files for certain topics. Some of the more advanced features are available only to paid members, but even the basic, free app has plenty of resources beyond the flash cards.
Brainscape is essentially a flash card app, and it can be used to learn anything, not just languages. What makes it stand out as a language app is features like the ability to rate your own skills, based on which the app will present you with quizzes; the ability to create your own flash card decks; and the ability to search through and use thousands of decks created by other users, many of whom are native speakers and professional teachers. The certified courses include a fantastic Chinese (Mandarin) course, which includes lessons on basic Chinese, business Chinese, Chinese vocabulary and grammar, and, possibly the best of all, writing Chinese in an interface that is beautifully designed and easy to use.
Byki is another language app that relies on flash cards to help users expand their vocabulary. Currently, the basic app is free, along with three vocabulary lists for each language, but an in-app purchase is needed if you want to access additional vocabulary lists for any particular language. Byki is available for over 80 languages, and in addition to the flash card mode, it has quizzes, review options, the ability to slow down sound while you learn and perfect your pronunciation, and it can also be used as a phrasebook.
Duolingo is without a doubt one of the best language learning tools out there, and you’ll find it on almost every list of recommendations. What’s more, it’s free of charge, with no ads or hidden charges. For such a popular and well designed tool, it has a surprisingly small number of languages to offer, but they’ve been steadily adding to the list, and the languages that they do have are always done beautifully and thoroughly. Duolingo is gamified, like many other apps, and offers points, skill levels, time challenges, duels with other users, and plenty more. The app also uses a great technique to keep users moving along – in order to at least maintain your current skill level, you must log in and use the app regularly. Duolingo uses a range of techniques to help you learn, including speaking, reading, and translating actual online content. Duolingo can also provide verified certificates to use on your LinkedIn profile, demonstrating your level of fluency.
FluentU takes a very unique approach to teaching languages – it uses actual, existing online video, and uses them as resources. In a way, it’s that old technique of watching television in a foreign language that you want to learn, but made much better with the help of modern technology and some great design. Videos are available on a variety of topics (including music videos and movie trailers), so you can choose the ones that interest you. Each video has an interactive transcript where you can select individual words, look up their definitions, look up further examples of usage, and add them to a list for future reference.
Fluenz is expensive, but it’s one of the best, most thorough language learning apps you can find. The software has been around for a while and was originally available only on CD, but has now moved online, and it also has apps for both iOS and Android. You need to have purchased the program from an authorized retailer in order to activate the app (after installing it from the app store) with the code provided, but the extensive resources that are available to you are worth the expense and the minor complication. The one area where Fluenz is lacking is the number of languages offered – they currently only have seven.
HiNative is a community-based app with several useful features that rely on its extensive community of native speakers. It’s more of a language Q&A app than a course app, so you’ll probably find it a bit lacking as your primary learning app. However, as a resource to practise with and for when you’re on the go, it’s great. You can upload audio and get feedback on your pronunciation, upload pictures of signs, menus, and so on to get translations from other users, and even get travel tips from locals. The premium, subscription-based option offers you additional features such as having your questions prioritized, but unless you’re regularly asking a lot of questions (and unless the community has enough speakers in that language to answer them), this probably isn’t worth the expense.
The one problem with the Living Language app and series of courses from Random House is that it’s only available for iPhone and iPad, leaving Android and other users out in the cold. However, iOS users can enjoy one of the best designed courses around, with lessons on grammar, vocabulary, and conversation, as well as games, flash cards, tests, and dialogues with native speakers. Another great thing about the Living Language courses is that you can choose to buy exactly what you need – packages are available at various levels and lengths, and are priced accordingly. There are even free resources available for non-paying users. Living Language offers one of the few useful Arabic learning apps available, and probably the only app that will teach you Dothraki!
Memrise is a flash card style program, but it incorporates a number of fun and imaginative techniques to make it more interesting and expand the scope of what it can do. One of its best aspects is that it turns your language learning into a game, with a score and various levels, as well as the ability to compete against other users. There are also numerous courses to choose from, and although the crowdsourcing element means that many of the courses are less than satisfactory, there are plenty of great ones too. Another limitation is that, as a flash card-based program, the focus is essentially on memorization and vocabulary. However, in that category, it’s one of the most useful and popular apps. Memrise is also free, and is on both Android and iOS.
MindSnacks is an iOS app – or rather a set of apps, one for each language – that consists of nine interactive games to teach you vocabulary, conversation skills, and more. Going by the graphics, the games seem to be targeted more at children; however, they’re well designed and have some great features, and are still a fun option for adult beginners. One note however – although the app shows up as free, what’s actually free is only the first lesson, and you have to pay for the rest. However, with around 50 lessons and 40 hours of content in each language, it’s great value for money.
The Pimsleur Method predates apps, smartphones, and in fact anything digital. The program was apparently begun 50 years ago, and even though it has now gone digital, it remains a more traditional, audio-based language learning tool, and the app is basically just a way to download and manage your audio files. The technique involves listening to the audio, with lots of speaking aloud and repetition. Many users prefer this method of learning, rather than interactive apps. There are a variety of courses to choose from, and 50 different languages. The charges vary from course to course, but you have the option of a free 30-minute sample to decide whether this technique suits you.
Play and Learn Languages
This is another flash card style app, but there are three additional modes in which you can use the app. In flash card mode, you currently have eight basic card packs with images and audio. The other three modes are a multi-level word quiz, a memory game, and a spelling game where the letters of words are shuffled and must be rearranged correctly. The basic version of the app with the eight card packs is free, but there are also additional card packs, which you need to pay for if you want to use them.
Rosetta Stone is a paid app, and it’s far from cheap, but it’s probably the oldest and most well-known language learning app on this list. It offers over 20 different languages, and takes a rather unique approach – nothing is in your own language, it’s all in the language you’re trying to learn. Pictures play the main role in conveying meaning, and there’s also on-screen text and audio that need to follow. You’re supposed to repeat what the app is teaching you, and the speech recognition will evaluate what you say. You can choose how strict the app is with you, but no matter what you do, things get more and more challenging as you proceed through the levels. This app isn’t all fun and games, but for many people, it’s the best way to learn.