What’s easy to consume, bite-sized and all-around appetizing?
Why, it’s language learning apps, of course!
If you have an appetite for language learning, satisfying your craving has never been easier with language learning apps on your smartphone.
Over the past few years, the number of apps available for learning another language has exploded. In fact, the choices are almost dizzying, with apps promising to teach you using flashcards, real audio, videos, vocabulary lists, grammar lessons and so much more.
Some apps are able to teach multiple languages—sometimes upwards of 20 or 30—and some apps teach one language individually.
So, whatever your goal or your target language, there’s an app—or seven—out there for you.
Let’s figure out how to choose the best ones!
Do Language Learning Apps Work?
Despite all the hype around language learning apps, you may find yourself wondering how effective these apps actually are. And you’re not alone!
While research in this field is pretty limited since language learning and technology is so new, there’s some evidence to suggest that language learning apps do work in teaching you a new language.
According to one study of the language learning app Babbel, students who used the app for 12 weeks improved their oral skills in the language they were learning. That means that they may have had very a very limited ability to speak a language before Babbel, but after 12 weeks, they could speak at least a little bit of the language.
Further, for the students who didn’t improve in their language, the program simply didn’t work because they stopped using it before the end of the 12-week study.
It’s important to know that these findings are applicable to language learning apps in general: If you use a language learning app, it can help you improve your language skills. In fact, we can assume that many language learning apps such as the ones listed later in this post would yield similar results.
There’s one hiccup, though: Just because a language learning app can teach you some of your target language, that doesn’t mean it’ll get you all the way to fluency.
For evidence of this, we need to look at first-hand accounts from users. For example, anecdotal evidence suggests some apps do an okay, but not amazing job at teaching languages. In fact, there have been articles posted in The Atlantic and in The New York Times asking “does Duolingo work?” These articles suggest that language learning apps won’t make you fluent in a given language.
In fact, there’s even a study that claims there are three main reasons why you won’t become 100% fluent with language learning apps alone: they lack real language usage, they lack adaptability to the learner’s needs and the lack of feedback.
Does that mean you shouldn’t use language learning apps at all? Well, no. The research tells us that apps can’t teach you everything, but they can be an integral part of language learning when used with other forms of language learning.
How to Choose the Best Language Learning App for You
Choosing the best app for learning a language comes down to one thing: you.
To get the most out of any language learning app, you should consider how you learn best. Once you understand yourself as a learner, you can find the perfect app or perfect group of apps for you.
For example, some people like lessons that are presented in a logical progression. That means that the learning path is clear, and you always know what skills you’re learning and what skills you’ll master next. This tends to be the common format for the best language apps for travel.
Some learners prefer their lessons to be a free choice. These types of learners like to have control over their learning content so that can target their growth in specific areas in relation to their goals.
Next, some people prefer explicit grammar instruction and repetition. For others, this may be boring, and they prefer a language lab app or an app that creates an immersive environment to simulate being in a place where the target language is spoken.
Further, you should understand what your learning style is. A learning style is a preference for the way information is presented and learned. For example, some people are audio-based learners, meaning that they learn best through listening and speaking. Others are visual learners, which means that they learn best through images and video. Still others learn best by doing, often through active practice and trial and error.
You should also make choices about the language learning app itself. Namely, you should decide whether you want a free app or you’re willing to pay. If you don’t want to pay, there’s a huge number of free language apps available. If you’re willing to pay, what’s your budget? This is important to determine when you start your search for the perfect language learning app for you.
It’s also important to look for an app that’ll work on your mobile device of choice. For that, you’ll need to look at the best language learning apps for Android, the best iPhone language learning apps or decide if you’ll learn a language with an iPad.
Lastly, you may also want an app that’s available without an internet connection so you can learn languages offline if you lose connectivity.
The Best Language Learning Apps, Reviewed
Still having trouble figuring out which are the best language learning apps?
Lucky for you, we’ve reviewed many of the best options for learners here on the FluentU blog. Just click on each app’s heading for an in-depth review.
Have you ever seen a video on the internet in your target language and thought, “this would be a great way to learn new vocabulary and grammar constructions?”
Well, with FluentU, many authentic videos can become language learning lessons.
All videos have interactive subtitles in English and in your target language that can be turned into flashcards. Each video also comes with adaptive quizzes that text your understanding of the language you just saw in use.
The FluentU program is currently available to teach English, Chinese, Spanish, French, German, Japanese, Italian, Korean and Russian (with a Portuguese program in the works). You can freely switch between languages with just one account, without additional charge, making this an excellent choice for anyone looking to learn more than one language.
Try the free trial or read more about FluentU in our overview of the program.
If you want your language learning to really blast off, then I suggest you check out Rocket Languages.
Rocket Languages uses podcasts and support material to teach a number of languages. At the time of this writing, Rocket Languages offers courses in 12 languages including French, Italian, Arabic and Chinese.
Support material includes grammar exercises, listening and speaking exercises and flashcards so you can watch your fluency soar.
Like Rocket Languages, Pimsleur uses completely audio-based lessons to teach a language. In fact, one of the biggest draws (or the biggest drawbacks) of the app is that you don’t need to read or write down a single thing!
In essence, each Pimsleur lesson uses a dialogue and the learner listens to a native speaker, repeats what they say and answers prompts from the host.
Keep in mind, Pimsleur can be quite pricey, so if you like this language learning format but not the price tag, check out these Pimsleur alternatives.
Mondly is a pretty standard, well-rounded language learning app. It uses a cool interactive world map to deliver lessons on topics that are useful for language learners.
Most of Mondly’s exercises are flash-based fill-in-the-blank questions or questions where learners must create sentences out of a mixture of words. Each lesson also has native speaker audio, in-depth analytics to track your progress in a language and quizzes to test your understanding.
Where would a list of language learning apps be without Duolingo?
Unless you’ve been vacationing on Pluto for the last 15 years, you’ve inevitably heard of Duolingo and its super-cute owl mascot. This hugely popular app teaches over 35 languages in a “gamefied” format.
In short, Duolingo uses a language learning tree to structure language learning in a logical manner. Each lesson uses a mix of writing, reading, speaking and listening activities to grow vocabulary and grammar constructions learned for a specific topic. Many lessons also include grammar tutorials and a lively community to converse with other learners.
If you love the format but not the hype of Duolingo, there are also a number of apps like Duolingo you can check out as well as apps to use after Duolingo if you feel you’ve explored everything it has to offer.
Like Duolingo, Memrise is an app that’s gained popularity over the past couple of years. In fact, it’s so similar to Duolingo that there are “Memrise vs. Duolingo” debates a-plenty online.
Memrise is primarily flashcard-based and uses a Spaced Repetition System to deliver vocabulary at timely intervals to capitalize on your brain’s memory. It uses native language vocabulary, grammar flashcards and a learning tree to show progress.
There are also a number of Memrise alternatives available online.
Mango Languages has a relatively easy setup, but it can be surprisingly effective. It primarily uses sentence building to teach a language, color-coding words for literal translations and including little nuggets of grammatical information.
Mango Languages has a nice variety of offered languages, including endangered and minority languages. It also uses native audio and a logical progression that can be fast-tracked and skipped for customized learning.
Innovative Language is famous for the “Pod101” series in many languages. The program uses mostly video and audio podcasts to teach languages. Each lesson comes with a written component, often a transcript or grammar explanation.
Innovative Language has courses available in many languages, including some less popular languages like Afrikaans. They also have many videos available for free on YouTube.
Yabla is an app with an old-school interface that uses videos and built-in subtitles to teach a language.
They also offer a number of languages to choose from, and you can turn the words from the subtitles into flashcards for later review and mastery.
Busuu is similar to other language learning apps in the sense that it capitalizes on the “bite-sized” lesson format for busy language learners.
Busuu teaches languages using audio, videos and flash-based exercises.
Busuu is best for paid users, but if you like the format and the delivery, there are a number of Busuu alternatives available for free.
Babbel has a pretty sleek interface, but at its base, it uses flashcard-based exercises to teach grammar and vocabulary in your target languages.
There are multiple courses for different levels of languages. For example, you can find a course if you’re an intermediate or advanced learner, which is something a lot of language learning apps lack. Furthermore, Babbel is also great for specialized courses such as for people who want to learn the business register of a language.
Babbel can be pretty pricey, so keep in mind that there are a number of Babbel alternatives, as well.
italki is an app that puts you in contact with native speakers of your target language. It’s unique in the fact that it doesn’t just help you meet native speakers: It’s actually meant for language learners who want to improve in their target language.
That means that you can do two things:
Firstly, you can take lessons from a tutor or teacher. These are generally paid, but you can try a trial lesson before committing.
Secondly, you can meet other language learners and swap native languages. This feature is offered for free. Whether you want to chat about sports or books or learn something more substantial together, this is a great option for meeting native speakers of your target language right from your living room.
Rosetta Stone isn’t just the name of a rock that unlocked the understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphs: It’s also one of the first digital language learning programs.
Founded in 1992, Rosetta Stone has stuck to its language-learning method over the years. It mostly consists of recall exercises that teach you words and phrases that you must repeat back.
After being available only as a CD-ROM for many years, it can now be downloaded as an app at a subscription rate. This rate can be quite pricey, however, so be sure to check out a Rosetta Stone alternative if it’s slightly outside of your budget.
Types of Language Learning Apps
As you saw in the above list of specific apps, there’s a myriad of different types of language learning apps. Check out the different types of apps, listed below, for a wide variety of ways you to learn a language on your phone.
Language Learning Program Apps
Language learning program apps are the most common apps to learn a language, and they do their best to mimic traditional language learning methods. In short, they’re often presented as courses that you might attend in person whether through a class or a one-on-one lesson.
These programs offer a complete way to learn a new language with apps that learners can follow. Most of the time, these apps promise to take learners from an absolute beginner level in a language to an intermediate stage. There are apps, however, that offer language courses for intermediate and advanced learners, as well as specialized apps for learning specific vocabulary such as business language or a dialect.
Often, these programs offer lessons in chronological order. This means that lessons are presented in a logical order that builds on previous lessons, often becoming more and more complex as the learner advances through the app.
These apps also tend to include the four major learning skills: listening, speaking, reading and writing. While giving learners the opportunity to hear and see the written language, many apps allow learners to write and practice speaking with speech recognition language learning technology.
Further, these apps tend to focus on drilling grammar and vocabulary. They often repeat words and constructions over and over again to maximize your brain’s memory power.
Examples of language learning program apps include Duolingo, Memrise, Mondly and Innovative Language’s Pod101 series.
Social Media Language Learning
Social media isn’t just for killing time while you commute on a bus, sit in a waiting room or relax at home. You can actually learn a foreign language just by using the social media apps already on your phone.
A great way to do this is to change the interface language into your target language. For example, you can learn a language on Twitter or use Facebook for language learning if you go into your settings and set your language in the website as the language you’re learning.
Aside from that, you can also follow brands or language teachers on your social media. For example, there are lots of people on Instagram who post entire mini-language lessons on their feed that you can benefit from as you scroll.
In fact, language teachers and brands often upload photos and videos that teach something, often in a minute or less. Further, their posts also give tips and tricks for learning your target language.
You can even join a language-learning social network to meet other language learners and native speakers, and you can find thousands of songs in your target language on Spotify for even more language learning.
Language Exchange Apps
Even though learning with apps means you can learn on your own, you don’t have to stay solitary. In fact, apps can help you learn a language with other people!
Some of the best language exchange apps let you find language partners as well as book one-on-one lessons from professional teachers. On a language exchange app, it becomes possible for you to meet someone to practice your target language with, even if you and your partner live far apart.
Language exchanges can be one-off conversations or a long-term relationship. Often, you meet on the language exchange app and then you continue to chat on WhatsApp or Skype.
To make the most of your exchange, you should find someone who speaks your target language and wants to learn your native language. This makes it easier for a fair trade-off: You can chat half the time in your target language for you to practice, and then the other half in your native language so your partner can practice.
For a successful exchange, you should set expectations such as how often you’ll chat and what you want to talk about. You may also agree to teach and learn from your partner—perhaps they’ll help you master a grammatical construction or some new vocabulary. You may also exchange things you’ve both written to have the other person correct.
Translator and Dictionary Apps
Translator and dictionary apps are quite common, especially when you’re a beginner in the target language or if you want to use it for travel.
There are three major types of apps that allow you to look up words and sentences in your target language.
For starters, a dictionary app is used to look up specific words from your native language or in your target language. Some dictionaries may also have grammatical information and audio samples. This is perfect for learning how to integrate new words of your language into your speech and how to say them correctly.
The second type of app in this category is the translator app. This type is used to translate full sentences or paragraphs to or from your target language. There normally is very little grammatical information, but the best translation apps have audio—even if it’s computer-generated—with these apps. Aside from a basic translator app, you can even find a photo translator app or an offline translator app.
Depending on your mobile device, you’ll want to check out the best translation app for iPhone or the best translation app for Android.
Thirdly, a language checker app allows you to find errors in your writing in your target language. Simply copy and paste text written in your target language, and these apps will find the mistakes for you. There’s generally no audio with these apps, but there may be grammatical explanations for errors.
Vocabulary Building Apps
Vocabulary building apps are just that: They help learners acquire new vocabulary.
These types of apps sometimes organize vocabulary into manageable groups or “lessons.” That means that they may categorize vocabulary by level or by vocabulary topic. This is handy if you know what topic you want to learn or what level of your target language you’re at.
You can also master vocabulary using games, lists or language flashcards apps. These apps may employ SRS, a Spaced Repetition System for language learning. Basically, SRS uses algorithms to judge how well a learner knows a word or phrase and then feeds these vocabulary pieces to the learner at intervals in order to send it into their long-term memory.
An example of an app that uses SRS for vocabulary flashcards is FluentU, which is where the screenshot above is from.
Each video on FluentU has subtitles in English and your target language (both of which can be toggled on or off at will). You can click on any of these words to see a full dictionary entry complete with translations, grammatical information, example sentences and even other videos that use the word.
These words can also be saved as flashcards. Each flashcard comes with a progress bar, so as the SRS kicks in and you review new words, you get to watch your mastery of each word grow.
Fun and Games: Fun Language Learning Apps
Even if an app isn’t necessary for language learning, it can still be used as a language-learning tool.
For example, apps like Netflix can help you learn a language. That’s because you can find films and TV shows in your target language complete with native audio. Some even have subtitles in your target and native language.
Further, you can use chat sites such as Discord to have fun with your learning. You use Discord for language exchange and speak in your target language to other learners or native speakers.
Another innovative way to learn a language is with smart technology like Alexa. Can Alexa teach languages? It turns out the answer is yes! Simply ask Alexa what language learning options she has available and get started.
If you don’t have Alexa, you can still learn with “Chatbots” online. A language learning Chatbot offers automated conversation for you to practice your new language skills, and some chatbots are even built into learning apps.
Adults can also use apps meant for kids to make learning more fun! In fact, you can use the best language learning apps for kids for an interactive and memorable learning experience. There are even apps that are specifically created as a language learning game apps for practicing specific vocabulary and grammar topics.
How app-tastic has this been? With all these language learning apps at your disposal, you’ll be speaking—or improving—a language in no time!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.