With the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets, we’ve all started to embrace apps to make life more convenient.
Some might say we’re developing a problem with app addiction.
We’ve got calendar apps for work, apps for finding music, apps for checking up on the news.
By the way, do they have an app that can help with app addiction?
Actually, it’s okay if they don’t. As a language learner, you can put this addiction to good use.
The world is full of apps to help you learn languages. If you’ve ever thought about learning a language, you can get yourself from raw beginner to seasoned old pro by using these strategically designed language apps. If you’re already invested in a language, all you’re missing is a quick virtual trip to the app store.
Why Apps and Languages Are a Perfect Match
Apps are particularly wonderful because they never leave our sides. Even if you don’t currently consider yourself an app addict, I’m willing to wager you keep your smartphone nearby at all times, just in case there’s a text message from mom, an emergency family call or important notifications from work.
And, since you’re trying to make language learning a daily habit, what better learning tool is there than one that can fit in your pocket? Textbooks and websites are great and all, but let’s face it, they can’t go everywhere we do. You can always bring that smartphone along, and you can always squeeze in a couple of minutes on your phone to practice your new language while enjoying coffee breaks, commuting or waiting in lines.
Another big thing to consider is that apps these days are beautiful and extremely well designed. They’re interactive, highly responsive and easy to navigate. They trigger the reward systems in your brain and give you real pleasure, much like a thrilling video game.
Want to take a break from flipping through your textbook or repeating that same deck of flashcards? Apps give you loads of variety, color and fun, and their creators know how to keep you coming back for more—which is super important when motivation is so key to learning a language to fluency.
Apps can keep you and your study materials organized. You’ll often be given a history tool to keep track of your favorite reading and listening material, and in apps for language learners you may find a feature to measure and record your progress through course materials.
So, let’s talk apps! Here are some amazing ones we love to get you started.
16 Multifaceted Language Learning Apps for Any Modern Student
Apps with Language Lessons
Why lesson apps?
Apps that deliver language lessons are ideal tools for studying on the go.
If you’re studying with a classroom or private instructor, then you can use these as supplements to your course material. Since they’re all focused on attacking language topics from different angles and with different activities, they can provide fresh perspectives on the lessons you’ve been learning. Or at least a little extra practice.
If you’re learning on your own (perhaps through media-based immersion), apps can provide you with the “glue” that helps your random knowledge stick together. They can get you started, help you develop a study routine, assess your progress, keep you motivated and keep studying stress-free.
Best of all? Many of these apps are gamified—meaning that they’ve transformed language topics into games. They’re tons of fun in and of themselves. You’ll get so caught up in the thrill of competition that you’ll forget you’re learning!
FluentU currently offers language lessons in six languages (with more in development): English, Chinese, Japanese, French, Spanish and German.
Media-based immersion is promoted as one of the best ways to learn a language deeply and to the very highest level. That means getting tons of exposure to TV shows, movies, music, news, speeches and other things that native speakers typically watch. There’s only one problem: Learners who are new to this might find listening to and watching native media very intimidating.
Learners can be turned off learning before they even get started.
That’s where FluentU comes in, as a unique website and app that lets you gently wade into native media.
It not only gives you access to diverse media, but it also gives you the tools to enjoy and understand this media, with the structure of a traditional course. The interactive subtitles, vocabulary lists and tailor-made flashcard decks will help you learn actively while watching your favorite videos, giving you an extra boost in reading and listening practice. Before you know it, you’ll be listening to foreign language radio and TV without any help at all.
Duolingo is super popular for good reason. It’s gamified learning at its best, complete with levels, points and a smooth, attractive interface that makes it incredibly easy to use.
It’s easy to get started and keep moving forward here. Just choose your language and work your way through the lesson “tree.” Using modified spaced repetition, Duolingo feeds you new vocab and grammar a little at a time. If you’ve been away for a while, Duolingo’s learning bars for each skill show you what you’ve probably forgotten.
Duolingo has plenty of language options—they offer 20 language programs as of the writing of this post, and they’ve got seven more in development. Quality and depth depends on language choice, and it seems like they’re tweaking and updating things as they go. So, try out Duolingo—particularly if you’re a beginner and you need some structure and easy levels to get you going!
MindSnacks is yet another gamified learning platform, but it’s been made to be extra cute. Let this be your linguistic happy place.
The app is designed like a video game rather than a traditional, points-based system of learning lessons. For example, one game in the Chinese version has you drawing characters with the correct stroke order as fast as you can—in space!
All of the games are similar between the seven language versions, but they’re tailored to the needs of each specific language. For example, the Chinese and Japanese versions focus on writing and recognizing characters as well as vocabulary. The cute graphics and addictive nature of these games totally make you feel like you’re playing a normal mobile video game instead of working with a learning tool.
Keep in mind that MindSnacks seems to focus on vocabulary over grammar, and the vocab is probably of most interest to beginners who need to amass basic words and quickly. Still worth checking out for intermediate learners—plug up those holes in your vocabulary!
Babbel specializes in conventional lessons, most of which can be completed in 10 to 15 minutes. Sure, it’s not the 5-minute break Duolingo offers you, but the lessons here are a little more in-depth and are structured similarly to textbook exercises. For example, new words are grouped by topic.
The app first introduces you to new vocabulary by having you match each word with an image, and then it has you move on to matching words with their translations.
Babbel is perhaps less gamified than some of the other apps above (no points or competition), so it’s good if you’re used to conventional lessons and you thrive on that kind of structure, or if you’re indifferent to those video game features.
If you choose to go with Babbel, you’re getting a basic course that’s structured more traditionally. It’s well-made and a great tool to add to the rest of your app arsenal should you find it to your liking! It also offers a good selection of popular foreign languages, including but not limited to: Spanish, French, German, Russian and English.
Memrise grounds itself on the strategic use of spaced repetition, using a gamified system of “seeds” that you water gradually to grow flowers over time. This ensures that you learned the content the course has presented you and don’t neglect your linguistic “flowers.” If that isn’t enough, you can win points and compete with others.
That being said, Memrise is actually a lot less game-like than Duolingo or MindSnacks. Many of the user-made courses are actually based on textbooks, and they include a lot of traditional info (verb forms, noun cases) presented in traditional ways.
The user-made part has tons of diverse, specific content and makes it so that, especially with popular languages, you’re definitely going to find an ideal course to flesh out your knowledge—whether you want to learn advanced Russian verbs or Spanish proverbs!
Coursera is a website and app that provides access to university-style courses. Most of these are true Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), meaning they’re made especially for online learners, as opposed to recorded university lectures. For an example, check out Chinese for Beginners, offered by Peking University.
That being said, these courses, content-wise, are very similar to an IRL in-class experience. If you like that type of structure, sign up for a Coursera course! They’re offered by all kinds of accredited universities from around the world. Download the lectures and watch/listen to them on your commute or piecemeal whenever you have a few minutes. Additional features, like teacher feedback, graded exams and certificates to prove you took the course, are available for a fee.
Many courses are offered year-round, but others you’ll have to wait for—and the catalog changes frequently. Click here and we'll whisk you away to see what they're offering right now!
iTunes U offers what’s probably the most traditional language learning experience that you can access online. These are online courses similar to Coursera. However, while many have been created for an online audience, many are actual recorded lectures from real universities. A good example is this Japanese course offered by UC Berkeley.
For you learners who truly want to replicate that university-level experience, you’ll want to supplement these courses with the recommended textbooks. Everyone else can just download the lectures and the texts and have at it!
Apps for Foreign Language Reading Material
Why practice reading with apps?
The short answer to the above question is that apps are more convenient than lugging around a bag of books and newspapers. You can keep a huge variety of reading material on hand for whenever you want to get in some reading practice.
If you have a hard time getting yourself to sit down and read in your target language, even for a brief time, consider using your phone or device to your advantage. Surely you can set aside three minutes to check the news in your language, right? When you’re more confident and ambitious, you can sit down to choose from all the foreign language e-books available for free download.
It’s just a great, easy way to get in as much reading time as possible. Apps are easier even than web browsing on your phone, because they’re often better designed and the info you want is right there when you open it.
Regardless of whether you use apps or traditional, paper-and-ink tomes, you should be reading in your target language. Dr. Stephen Krashen from the University of Southern California argues that reading native material helps you absorb grammar and new vocabulary. So, get to it! Start by trying these apps to level up your reading skills.
A no-brainer, really.
Download Kindle Reader to your device, and you basically own a Kindle without having to buy one. E-books, especially for the Kindle, are the easiest way for those living outside of their L2 country to find books in the language, and this goes double if you live in the US.
I’ve personally bought a number of Kindle books (mostly translations of popular, English-language titles) from Amazon in Spanish, French and Portuguese. But the sky’s the limit—there’s a huge selection of titles in tons of world languages.
Oh, and one more incredible tip for anyone who loves magic: You can shop on Pottermore to find Harry Potter e-books in a variety of common languages at very reasonable prices, then have them sent directly to your Kindle-enabled device.
For those not so into fiction or full-sized books, read the news! The BBC News app comes in a variety of languages, including Arabic and Hindi. Skim the articles for words you know or to sharpen your skills. Even better, set up notifications on your device. That means you get little snippets of reading practice all day long.
Flipboard is a cool app that lets you skim popular articles and photos from around the internet according to preferences you set up yourself. So if you want to read about cooking, gaming or anything else that tickles you, this is how you find reading material on that topic in your target language.
It’s also great for reading those catchy headlines! Simply set your device in your preferred language, and Flipboard will change for you.
To use Twitter to learn languages, change the default language of your profile to your target language, then switch the default country for Trending on the left side of your feed.
Now you can read trending tweets in your target language, and when you search something Twitter will default to your set language and location. This means you’ve now turned social media into a convenient place for reading practice. You’ll get to read tweets, find magazine and newspaper articles and discover interesting blog posts, all of which are interesting to people speaking your target language.
Follow people who are tweeting about things you love in your target language, and soon you won’t be able to scroll down your feed without learning a language lesson.
Apps with Audio
Why practice listening with apps?
Listening is at the very root of speaking. Being able to understand people gives you more fodder for your own speech, and it improves your accent and overall fluency. You can’t talk like the native speakers unless you can understand them, right?
The apps, like all the others, are strong in terms of variety and convenience. No more will you have to listen to the same track over and over again ad nauseam. You’ll have podcasts, talk shows, new music and more to listen to after you try these audio tools out.
We’ve recommended a bunch of iTunes offerings, but it’s worth noting that iTunes itself is useful for finding movies and music.
However, you can’t buy anything while the app is set to a country other than yours. So, one strategy for finding great recommendations is to first change your default country to a place that speaks your target language. This way, iTunes can recommend the music and movies that are popular there. Then go try to find them somewhere you can buy them!
That’s just one way to go about this—but keep in mind that there’s often lots of stuff available in your target language—even if your country is set as USA.
So, this is essentially an extension of iTunes. To take the most advantage of your Podcasts app, use iTunes on your computer to find podcasts in your L2. Change your default country on the desktop app and the homepage will recommend podcasts that are popular in that country. Easy! Send ’em over to your device, and you’re set.
TuneIn Radio gives you access to live-streaming radio stations from around the world. It’s pretty straightforward and an excellent resource. You can search for stations by location or by language. You might have to do a little trial and error to find a live link, but after that you’ll always have the soothing sounds of your target language in the background. You can find music stations, news and talk radio here.
And one more hint: If you’re interested in a language in a vastly different time zone, you might need a special trick. Try searching for the language in the search bar, or using the Talk Radio >> World Talk option (these menus are easier to find on the website) to find more stations. Some of these are based in the US!
It’s more than just a time-waster—YouTube can be an integral part of your language regimen. Set your location to a target language country, then scroll over to the trending tab to see what’s popular in that region.
If you’re into gaming, it’s easy to find Let’s Play videos (videos of people talking through games they’re playing while they’re playing them) simply by searching “Let’s Play” followed by your target language in the language itself (Français, Español, 日本語). I’ve also searched for random words in my target language to find vloggers—try “books,” “video games,” “comedy”—see what you dig up!
Spotify has been the best way for me to find new music in a target language. It’s super easy—simply search for your target language (in English or not, it doesn’t matter) and you can find playlists others have put together. Sweet and simple. I’ve used this to find playlists in Japanese, Hebrew and even Latvian, so it’s not just the popular languages!
You can practice tons of language skills with apps, whether they’re learning-specific apps or apps you’re leveraging to get at the target language.
You carry worlds in your pocket—never feel guilty about being addicted to your phone!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.