Technology has been a bit of a double-edged sword for language learning. On the one hand, tech advances, the internet, and learning apps have meant it’s never been easier to learn a language. On the other hand, it’s also never been easier to get away with travelling without ever bother learning one, thanks to apps like Google Translate that will do all the hard work for you.
Still, whether you want to learn for travel, for work, because you’re moving abroad, or just for the personal satisfaction, there’s a daunting array of options. We’ve sorted through all the apps, software, and services we could get our hands on to figure out the best ways to learn a language online.
Duolingo is probably the best known and most popular language app out there, and for good reason. For one thing, it’s entirely free - you can pay an extra fee to remove ads from the app, but they’re mostly unobtrusive anyway, and none of the actual content is gated behind a paywall.
There are currently 19 language courses available for native English speakers, with more in beta or under construction (even Klingon is on the way!) and it also has courses designed for non-English speakers to learn English or other languages, which not every language-learning app does.
You can use it on iOS, Android, or in a web browser, and your progress is synced across devices. As for the actual learning? Modules are broken down by both subject areas and grammatical types, and after completing them you’re periodically encouraged to practice older modules.
The whole system is also gamified - you gain experience, level up, and earn a virtual currency as you build up your skills, which goes a long way to encouraging you to keep up your daily practice streak.
Exercises include reading, listening, writing, and speaking (though you can skip those ones in case you don’t want to be awkwardly reciting French sentences on the train), and you can set daily reminders to practice, with custom goals for how much you want to achieve each day.
The big downside is that the app doesn’t always teach you why some of the grammar works the way it does, only how to use it, but beyond that there’s little to complain about.
The ads can get a bit obtrusive, popping up after every module, but if you get too fed up there's Duolingo Plus (currently Android only), which clears away all the adverts and adds offline lessons for $10 a month.
That's a steep price just for removing ads, but the lesson downloads will be useful for anyone who hopes to practice on an underground commute - though be aware that you can't download practice sessions, only the initial modules to learn material for the first time.
You practice specific words or phrases at a time, loosely connected by topic areas, with reminders in the form of community-generated memes. We found them a bit odd, but they are at least memorable, which we suppose is the point.
As you practice words and phrases, you build up a flower for each - one leaf or petal for every correct answer until you have a full flower and have now learnt it. There’s a bit of a confusing mix of metaphors at work though, since the rest of the app has a sci-fi theme that casts you as a galactic explorer - we’re not quite sure how the flowers and the spaceships fit together.
The base app is free, but there’s a rather pricy Pro subscription available (£37 per year at the time of writing), which unlocks features like an offline mode, a chat system to talk to native speakers, and unlimited access to every mode. There are a few too many pop-up ads for the Pro mode though, so it can get a little annoying.
Ultimately, how well you get on with Memrise depends on how well rote learning works for you when it comes to languages, as compared to learning how to build up sentences on your own.
This free chat app connects you with people from around the world that you can talk to by either text or voice chat to help each other learn languages and share your culture.
You get to set up your own profile with a few photos, and information about the kind of people you’d like to talk to, what you’d like to talk about, and which languages you speak and which you want to learn.
You can then either set the app to only suggest people who are native in the language you hope to learn, or to let you match with other people trying to learn the same language.
There’s a feedback system to flag or recommend people who are good matches, and the app has some built in tools for translation, and for correcting each other’s messages.
It also makes every user agree to a behaviour guideline that includes agreeing not to treat it as a dating app, so you shouldn’t have to worry too much about dealing with creeps.
If you want to take it up a level you can pay to book a session with a certified language tutor through the app (or use it to advertise your own tutoring services), but if you just want to chat with other users it’s totally free.
If you’re just starting to learn, Tandem is a bit like throwing yourself in at the deep end, but if you’ve made good progress on another app or service and want to get better at actual conversation, Tandem is ideal.
Lingvist is one of the most impressive language learning apps we’ve come across so far - so long as you’re learning one of the few languages it currently supports.
At the time of writing, Lingvist covers French, German, Spanish, Russian, and an extra small course devoted to Estonian (in honour of where it was created). If you’re hoping to learn one of those, then Lingvist comes highly recommended, but naturally for many language learners it just won’t cover what they need.
Boasting a clean, minimalist design, Lingvist is different to many other language apps. Rather than separating its content around topic areas, it instead sorts them by difficulty level, which you progress through by practicing.
It encourages you to work through 100 flash cards each day, learning a certain number of new words and practicing others along the way. Grammar tips pop up at relevant points to help with trickier elements, and there are also separate ‘challenges’ devoted to specific grammatical points.
The gimmick/selling point is that it’s all built around AI and machine learning, which it uses first to determine your ability level and then to serve you flash cards at the best moment, adjusting on the fly to your current ability level. That’s hard to assess in a brief testing period, but it did do a decent enough job assessing our initial skill level at least.
The free version caps you at 3,000 pieces of vocabulary and limits you to 50 new words and one challenge per day - though that should be enough for most. Others can upgrade to Lingvist Premium for unlimited daily learning, one-to-one support, and voice input options.
If you’ve ever looked into language learning software before, you’ve probably heard of Rosetta Stone. First launched way back in 1992, for a long time it was the absolute go-to language software, but its clout has diminished slightly in the Duolingo age.
First, let’s get the bad news out of the way. Compared to the competition, Rosetta Stone is expensive. At full price, a year’s subscription to the online course (for web browsers and smartphones/tablets) will set you back £240/$179, and it’s even more if you want permanent access to the downloadable desktop software or one of the advanced courses.
What sets Rosetta Stone apart (other than the price) is the unique learning method. It’s a system designed to teach you to speak like a native, without reference to your own language. Instead you pair pictures with words and phrases, or pick out correct answers from a list or type in translations.
It’s an immersive approach that lets you build up your own language associations as you go - you can try out a free demo to find out if it’s for you or not.
You get not only the main courses, but also online tutor services in your chosen language, community access, and a variety of language games to help you learn. Bear in mind that you pay for a specific language though - so you don’t get to study any others without paying again.
FlashAcademy is one of the many language apps that takes its cues from Duolingo, using gamification to encourage users to stick to their language learning goals.
Exercises are broken down by topic area, and test grammar as well as vocabulary, each introducing a few new words before building up to more complex sentences and conversations. There are also mini-games that give you the chance to apply those new words against the clock.
The only real downside from our time with the app is its insistence on pairing new words with cartoon icons to illustrate them - useful with basic nouns like 'apple', but less helpful when you're trying to figure out which icon is meant to represent 'internet connection' or 'advertising agency'.
Probably the coolest feature is outside the main learning experience though. FlashAcademy can use your phone's camera to scan objects in the world and give you an immediate translation, which is a pretty nifty way to learn and reinforce new terms.
Léa Knows takes a single aspect of Google Translate - saving translations for future reference - and expands it into a full-blown app, entirely for free.
While Google’s software lets you star a few translations to look at again, it doesn’t let you do much with them, simply giving you a date-ordered list to scroll through.
Léa Knows expands on this by automatically saving every translation you make into a flash card, and then allowing you to categorise them further by starring ones you want to reference frequently, archiving others that you don’t need so often, and deleting any you know you’re done with.
You can further sort lists by alphabetical, most recent, or most viewed, and can also colour code them for easy reference. In the future we’d love to see the option to sort translations by language - useful if you travel a lot or are learning more than one - but for now you can use the colour coding for the same effect if you don’t mind the extra legwork.
There’s no gamification either, so it’s entirely up to you to put the effort into going through your flashcards every now and then - the app won’t hassle you into it, or reward you after you do, so how useful Léa Knows is will depend a lot on your motivation going in.
This won’t be the core of your language learning, but it’s a neat little app to supplement your learning by helping you remember those tricky translations, rather than just use them once and forget.
TripLingo is a little different from the other apps in this list, because it isn’t technically focused around language learning. Instead the focus is on specific trips, giving you all the knowledge you need to travel abroad without a hitch, for either iOS or Android.
You simply pick the country you’re travelling to, and you’re given access to an array of common phrases and slang (split into topics like dining, shopping, getting around, and business) and a culture guide, letting you know about local quirks like dress codes, dining etiquette, and safety tips.
There are also heaps of other features, including a currency converter, Wi-Fi dialler to save on international calls, an image translator, a tip calculator (factoring in local rules), data roaming tools, and a voice translator.
The free version gives you basic access to every feature in every language, but you’ll have to pay a subscription if you want full access. The basic features should be enough to get you by on an occasional trip, but frequent travellers might want to consider the upgrade.
Udemy Language Courses
Udemy isn’t strictly language learning software, but it’s a platform for a variety of educational courses - including plenty to do with languages.
There are courses on just about every language you can learn, from short ones tied to specific topics right up to sprawling multi-part courses across every aspect of a language. Naturally, prices also vary along the way, but a lot of the shortest ones are free, so you can get a taster for the service.
Courses typically include video, supplementary files, listening practices, and quizzes and tests, and some will continue to be updated even after you’ve paid for them, so could keep on improving as you use them.
Since they’re put together by different instructors there can be some variation in quality and style, but there are user reviews to help guide you towards the best lectures for you, so you should mostly be able to avoid any duds.
Courses are split up into some beginner and intermediate sections, and then others separated by topic area, type of learning (listening, speaking, writing), or language section (grammar, vocab, etc.).
The array of courses (in Italian, at least) is absolutely vast, and feels very comprehensive - even beating Duolingo. Unlike that app, it also offers more cultural insight, with a section dedicated to local traditions, even going into regional variations - while still offering language skills.
The user interface is pretty bare unfortunately, and there’s not much in the way of gamification either, so if you’re worried you might struggle with motivation then Babbel may not be the app for you.
It also feels a bit repetitive within each course - probably good for language learning by drilling things into your head, but it can make using the app a little dull.
HiNative is another language learning app that’s doing something a little bit different. It’s really a Q&A app, which you can use to ask people around the world questions about their language and culture, with a community shared across the iOS and Android versions.
When you sign up, you fill in which languages you speak and which you’d like to learn, and are taught how to use the app by asking your first question. There are a few basic formats, encouraging you to ask how to translate certain words or phrases, or why a certain sentence might be right or wrong, or about something more cultural.
Obviously that means that HiNative isn’t going to give you a solid grounding in a language’s grammar and vocabulary, or get you up to fluency on its own.
But if you don’t want to invest the time in a language exchange app like Tandem, it’s a great way to get answers to occasional questions, with the benefit that you’ll get a variety of answers from different people - it’s basically crowdsourcing your language learning.
The base app gives you a selection of languages to choose from, which exercises across a variety of topics tiered into the internationally recognised CEFR levels.
Busuu offers courses from A1 to B2 (upper intermediate) - wisely acknowledging that if you want to reach the upper tier of language proficiency you’ll need to actually talk to people in that language, not just use an app.
Courses are split up by topic and type, and there’s an attractive UI and some light gamification to keep you interested - though not quite as extensive as Duolingo’s.
The downside is that the best features are locked behind a premium paywall, which the app is almost constantly encouraging you to cough up for. Not only are things like offline downloads kept to premium users, but so are basic grammar units and quizzes, and even the ability to learn more than one language.