The Best Apps for Learning a Language on both Android and the iPhone

More than ever, our society is becoming increasingly global, thanks largely to the importance of the internet for commerce, trades, and so much more. Even something as seemingly simple as entertainment has been touched by the ability to view content from around the world in the blink of an eye. Whether it’s watching a French film on Netflix or streaming hours of anime on Crunchyroll, the internet has made the world a bit more familiar with the culture and entertainment of every society. That’s to say nothing of the falling prices of travel, which allow for individuals to visit places all around the world they’d never imagine in their wildest dreams. Plus, thanks to the importance of working together with globalized brands, employers often see the ability to speak multiple languages as a major reason to hire a new employee, making it a great way to get ahead in the workforce and snatch that new job you’ve been looking for.

Those reasons and so many more act as some serious motivation to get out and learn a new language, and just as the internet has made the world a smaller place than ever before, it’s also a great tool to improve your skill set. Learning a new language used to be a difficult undertaking, one that involved buying expensive software or, before the computer revolution, using textbooks and memorization techniques to push yourself to learn. The whole experience used to feature a high barrier of entry, but thanks to the smartphone you already own, learning a new language is easier than ever. A number of excellent apps exist on Android and iOS to help you learn new languages, starting at the basics and slowly moving through lessons until you begin to understand full verb conjugations, sentences, and can even speak fluently.

Mobile apps aren’t a perfect way to master a new language, but they are perfect at getting you to start practicing every day and getting your feet wet in a language you’ve never spoken before. Both the Play Store and the iOS App Store are filled with apps that promise to get you started on the long journey of learning new languages. So whether you’re looking to add a new skill to your resume or trying to take a trip around the world, starting your language education with your smartphone is a great way to begin practicing. To test these apps, we used the French lessons within each app, partially because every language-tutoring application on the Play Store and the App Store has the ability to teach French, and partially because the author has some experience speaking French. Also, each app was tested on Android, though most apps below have clients on iOS and Android. With that said, these are the best apps for your smartphone to learn a language.

Everyone else

If Duolingo focuses on gamifying the process of learning a language, Memrise takes this approach to an entire new level. More of a game than a language-learning tool, Memrise uses a science-fiction setting to begin training you new languages. After selecting the language you want to begin studying, Memrise opens with a comic-book style cutscene, giving the app a full story that pushes you through daily training exercises. Following a short introduction, Memrise will push you directly into starting the missions within the game, pushing you through several missions and using an experience system similar to what we saw from Duolingo.

Early words in the first couple missions, however, were very casual (teaching phrases like “what’s up?” and “bottoms up” before introducing the player to actual phrases in French seemed like an odd choice), and even in the trial version of the application, most of the modes within the game were locked behind a paywall. We did appreciate the video examples that showed people speaking the language you were being tested on with the actual phrases, but overall, the actual design of the app outside of the comic-book stylized cutscenes left a lot to be desired. At $9 per month (or $59 annually), Memrise won’t offer much to anyone looking for a free language app, and the trial version only lasts seven days. Still, there’s something really fun about Memrise, and if you’re looking for something that feels like a game more than an educational tool, this might be a perfect app to try out.

Another Duolingo-type option, Babbel invites you to select from a number of languages to start learning the new skill of your choice. Unlike Duolingo or Memrise, Babbel takes after an application like Rosetta Stone, skipping over the gamification aspects of language apps to offer a fairly-straightforward, exercise-based application for work. The first lesson (the only one we were able to test; more on pricing below) uses matching games, organization games, and similar textbook-based exercises to teach you language, using images and English words to allow you to select the phrase as you work through content. Each language has a number of options available to begin learning through, including beginner courses, intermediate courses, grammar skills, units based around listening and speaking, and a number of words-and-sentences with themes like City, Lifestyle, and Media.

Most of the features within the app are nothing really new, though Babbel does manage to bring one neat trick to the table in the form of conversations. The text conversations require you to fill out dialogue trees between two people, selecting the correct answer for the blank. It’s a lot of fun, and requires you to be able to read the language in order to predict the correct answer for the blank spaces. The visual design of the app isn’t bad, but it does leave something to be desired, especially compared to Rosetta Stone or Duolingo. This might be less of a big deal if the app wasn’t one of the more expensive subscription-based apps on this list. Babbel is a fully-paid application, similar to Memrise, with prices starting at $12.95 for a single month’s subscription. Babbel does sync with the web client as well, so if you’re looking for something mobile-based and desktop-based without paying for Rosetta Stone, Babbel might be for you.

While Memrise and Duolingo try to make their language-learning applications feel like video games, and Rosetta Stone and Babble focus more on the standard-education side of things, Busuu tries its best to innovate in an arena that feels overcrowded. Busuu combines its standard learning exercises with social network-lite features to give a new spin on the standard language application. You wouldn’t know this from simply starting the app however; after the option to start as a beginner or to take a placement test to skip ahead to more difficult prompts. We tested the beginner option, which gave us a quick series of vocabulary, reviewing words and playing the pronunciation without asking questions (similar to how a textbook would provide information to beginners), then prompting you with questions to review your knowledge of the content. Like most language apps, there’s a daily streak option to keep you active, which also plays into the social aspects of the app in a major way.

The app features a clean presentation, using a card-sliding interface to present its lessons and keeping in line with the typical blue-on-white theme we’ve seen from a lot of different language apps. Exploring the app outside of the lessons will lead you to the social aspects, displaying a friends list where you can add and meet other users, including native speakers and fellow students. It’s a nice addition, but certainly not necessary for the app to be useful for learning languages. As with most apps on the list, Busuu uses a subscription deal, and manages to fall on the cheaper end of the spectrum. The app will run most users $9.49 per month, though you can gain access to a deal to pay $30 for a full year of the program after completing the first 8-card lesson within the app. Overall, Busuu is a great Duolingo alternative, especially for those interested in expanding their social circles.

This app is crazy. Honestly, if Duolingo and Rosetta Stone aren’t doing it for you, HelloTalk is at least worth a look for its strange concept. Unlike most language-learning applications, HelloTalk is centered around trying to get you to communicate with people around the world who speak different, varied languages, in order to talk about culture and everyday life in new areas of the world while simultaneously learning. This means HelloTalk needs access to your phone in order to place calls and send messages to people around the world, which some may feel uncomfortable about handing out. Once you’ve selected your native language, you choose the language you want to learn and your level of knowledge, and you enter the app, ready to talk to people. You’ll then load a list of people you can be ready to talk to, displaying their native language (always the one that you’re looking to learn) and their knowledge of your language (and other languages).

For example, loading the list of people who spoke native french gave us a list of people from around the world (namely, France) that were fluent in French. Some only had some experience speaking English, some had a higher level. Some even had experiences in languages like Japanese, Russian, and Italian that were unrelated to what we were looking for. You can search within the app for your best matches, members that are online, people closest to your area, and a “self-introduction” category that, frankly, didn’t make a lot of sense to us. Once you’ve chosen the person you want to talk to, you can view their profile, text them, and if they allow for it, even call them over VoIP to communicate with voice. The premise of the app is simple: by talking to someone in another language, you’ll slowly grow your ability to communicate in a way flashcards alone won’t allow for. It’s a really interesting idea for an app, and with a free version available to use, it’s ideal for combining with an app like Duolingo.

Let’s be upfront: Beelinguapp is a terrible name. A play on bilingual, bee, and app, the name is a bit of a mess, something difficult to read and say. That shouldn’t come off as a negative about the app, however, as developer David Montiel has created something really great with Beelinguapp. The first app on this list to really do something different, Beelinguapp does away with the standard vocab quizzes and matching questions to focus on teaching through reading, giving users a full list of stories that can be downloaded to your device. After choosing the language you want to learn, you select the story that you want to read through, and you’ll see the readings presented on your display in both your native language (presumably English) and the language you’re looking to learn.

In many ways, this reminds us of how your high school Spanish teacher would show dubbed animated movies in Spanish class without subtitles to get students used to hearing the language. As you following along with each piece of reading (most of it is fairly simple, though there are some more difficult passages), you start to grow used to certain repeated words in the language. Books are downloaded to your device for access in both online and offline mode, and there’s a solid selection of free books to choose from (with genres ranging from children’s stories to factual articles aimed at older readers; however, the content of the story isn’t necessarily the point of reading them). Outside of the free offerings, most of the books are split into parts, with each part offered for $.99. Alternately, you can pay monthly or yearly subscriptions to view all the books in the collection; a monthly subscription only runs users $1.99.

Lingvist is the most modern application on this list, at least in terms of appearance. Launched in 2014 as part of an open beta, it only features four languages right now (German, Spanish, Russian, and French), which may limit its utility for anyone looking to learn Japanese or Chinese. Still, Lingvist’s modern, flat user interface is matched only by its actual learning tools. If Duolingo has been criticized for not accurately teaching its users how to speak languages, Lingvist will, at the very least, not be accused of being easy. Of all the apps on this list, Lingvist is certainly not for the faint of heart; in fact, we’d argue that beginners to a language will likely have a hard time getting into the app. Once you begin working on your language skills, Lingvist skips the easy matching exercises and uses virtual flashcards to make you translate vocabulary. These words aren’t random greetings or verbs; they’re actually vocab words that are used in day to day conversation.

Each word is given to the user in English, with the user required to type the word out in the language of their choice. The first word we received was life, or the life, and typing vie (‘la’ was provided) cracked the code. If you don’t know the word, you can hit reveal to show the phrase in your language, which then requires you to type the word to help memorize it. For this reason, we would argue the app might not be great for beginners, but it is excellent for returning linguists and people who have some familiarity with the languages above to work on their skills. In addition, there’s a number of challenges and different units to choose that help to accelerate learning. One note about Lingvist, however: it’s fairly expensive, coming in at a total of $22.95 for a single month and charging $89.50 for a full year subscription.

Despite the name, Innovative struggles when it comes to doing anything new in the language-learning app sector. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does leave the name as a reminder that this experience can be had elsewhere on both Android and iOS. There’s plenty of stuff here to like, including options for thirty-four full languages, one of the highest language counts we’ve seen on any of these apps, making for a great application for anyone looking for languages not supported by other apps. There are also full videos featuring tutorials from educators, walking you through the language the way they would in a classroom. These teachers allow for a one-on-one style instruction system that teaches you how to speak fluently, and the level system when you sign up allows for users to customize their experience.

Still, Innovative leaves something to be desired, especially on the Android app. The entire interface is dated, with some aspects of the application using Android 2.x stylized notifications and loading screens. The entire app on both platforms is busy, leading to a messy experience that lacks the sense of innovation the name implies. Then there’s the price, a subscription model that is so convoluted, it’s actually difficult to explain in words. There are several different levels of subscriptions you can choose from, ranging from a standard month-to-month subscription for $46.99 per month for the “Premium Plus” model, all the way to $4.99 for the “basic” monthly model. There’s also a mobile-only plan that costs $199 for lifetime access, and that’s not even every payment option available. Overall, Innovative is a solid app that feels more like a classroom than anything else on the list, but an unwelcoming design and a complicated pricing scheme makes it difficult to recommend over other apps.

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