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.
When most people think about apps designed for learning a language, they probably think of Duolingo. The app has garnered a fair amount of praise for its ability to teach the beginning stages of languages, and in the nearly decade that has passed since it first launched, it’s added 23 unique languages with 68 different courses, and has 22 more courses in development as of writing. Duolingo is a seriously powerful app, and while it isn’t the most in-depth on this list—a fact we’ll dive into more below—it still gets points for being one of the best apps for beginners of any language to start using and learning right away.
It’s obvious that Duolingo is designed to be as easy to use for beginners as possible. Upon launching the app for the first time, you’ll be asked to choose a difficulty level that sets the time of your daily goal. The recommended option for beginners is regular, which targets your training for 10 minutes a day, but there are other options for casual (a brisk 5 minutes), serious (15 minutes a day), and “insane” (20 minutes a day). Whether or not these longer options are really insane is up to you; regardless, it is nice to see Duolingo allow for the user to customize their experience. It’s also the first of many times we’ll see Duolingo gamify the method of learning a new language. After you select your time frame each day, the app will ask you to select a language from a list of the full 23 options available. After asking for your experience with the language, it pushes you into the app, beginning day one of your training.
Exercises within Duolingo are fairly similar to most of the apps we tested on this list. The obvious difference between this app and some of the other options we’ll discuss below comes down to visual design. Duolingo is fun to look at, and fun to use. The visuals are creative and feel modern to the smartphone era, and the small flourishes like animated answers really make for an excellent mobile experience. It goes without saying that Duolingo is one of the best-looking apps on this list, both on Android and iOS. The app feels fun, and encourages you to continue pushing through the lessons to continue learning. A lot of that push comes down to the design of the product, and Duolingo has nailed the look and feel of its app.
However, it’s less obvious how Duolingo designs its lessons. Instead of starting with the conjugated verbs or even with the basic “to be” verb of être, Duolingo starts with teaching “the boy” and “the girl” in French. In the same lesson, it jumps between displaying images of food and other content that seems to lack a cohesive theme. It’s possible that Duolingo is attempted to teach male and female articles with the first lesson by using the simple “boy” and “girl” lesson, but regardless, without any form of context surrounding the menu, it becomes difficult to understand what Duolingo is trying to create. Likewise, early lessons lack any form of vocal training, an important aspect of learning languages. It does seem that later lessons incorporate some form of vocal pronunciation, but our runner-up application below does it much better than what we’ve seen offered by Duolingo.
None of this is to say Duolingo is bad, however; just that the the app seems somewhat unorganized in the way it offers its lesson plans when you first begin the app. That said, the app does later spell out its units when you begin reloading the app, allowing you to view the order of what you’ll be learning, and you can even begin skipping around the app by “taking shortcuts” and testing out of certain sections. Still, instead of making the app feel like a textbook, Duolingo focuses on gamifying its core experience, making learning feel like a mobile game rather than a chore or a lesson to do during the day. This is something we’ve seen educating tools do for years, dating back to The Oregon Trail in the 1970s, and it’s something we’ll see done again and again in the mobile language space below.
Duolingo’s game-like offerings are slight; they don’t focus on story-based missions or a fantastic universe. Instead, the app uses an experience-based progression system that attempts to make learning more addictive than it would otherwise be. This allows the app to push you to work for your five-to-twenty minutes a day, whatever you’ve previously accepted as your chosen timeframe. Completing your work each day allows you to gain experience points, compete within leaderboards with your friends, and even gain achievements for working hard. Duolingo also has some online communities for each language, called Clubs, that allow you to dive deeper into a community to start learning a language with people online. All of these ideas are interesting at least, and while they may not teach you a language actively, they do go a long way in pushing you to learn more from your language.
All of this is great, but what really makes Duolingo the best language-learning application on both iOS and Android is its price. Duolingo is one of the only language apps on smartphones that don’t require a monthly subscription in order to continue through the course. Nearly every similar app on mobile platforms requires some kind of payment, but Duolingo manages to be free with advertisements placed at the end of lessons. These ads are surprisingly unintrusive, lacking videos with sound or full-screen “try this game!” ads designed to make you click into the app store on your phone. The banner Duolingo places around the ad even features an apology of sorts for having to use advertising to keep the app free. It’s remarkable how friendly the app feels when you log in.
However, you may notice that both the App Store and Play Store listings feature in-app purchase options, and it’s true that Duolingo is a freemium app that allows for purchasing options with real money. The first option is a subscription model that offers the ability to pay $9.99 per month, $7.99 per month for six months, or $6.99 per month for twelve months (with the latter two charging their full fees upfront). Paying removes ads entirely, allows you to download lessons for offline use (great if you want to brush up while overseas or on a plane), and supports keeping Duolingo free for most users.
The second option is an in-app purchase system that allows you to purchase an in-app currency called lingots. These lingots can then be used to buy “power-ups,” which allow you to perform actions like “freezing” your daily streak for one day and double your lingots by maintaining a seven-day streak. You can also use lingots to customize and accessorize your in-game avatar, if that’s something that interests you. Like the monthly payment options, these are entirely optional, and allow you to use the app how you want to use it, without having to worry about costs if you’re fine with accepting some non-intrusive ads in the app.
Overall, Duolingo is the perfect hybrid of everything you would look for in a mobile language-learning application. It’s essentially free to use, barring a few ads and very-optional in-app purchases. It’s got a solid design and uses gamification methods to push you to work hard towards your daily goals. And the ability to start at a beginner or moderate level by testing out of the basics is ideal for relearning languages you might have studied in high school or college, but haven’t worked on since. Duolingo might not be the best app for mastering languages—there are some critics of the service on the web that would argue the app is only capable of giving you a rudimentary knowledge of the language—but it is a great way to kick off your learning, and to make it fun at the same time.
When considering nearly every factor between Duolingo and Rosetta Stone, the two apps seem like polar opposites, sharing a common goal in their utility and not much more. Duolingo was born in the smartphone age; Rosetta Stone merely adapted for it. Duolingo focuses primarily on newcomers to languages looking to learn a new skill; Rosetta Stone seems to approach the same topic but with the goal of leading you to fluency. Duolingo treats its app like a game, offering users experience points and daily rewards for practicing their language skills; Rosetta Stone is far closer to a college course, designed for you to put in the work necessary to get something out of the application.
It’s unfair to say Duolingo is better than Rosetta Stone and vice versa; the apps are incredibly similar at their core goal but go about their central goals in wildly different ways. If the name Rosetta Stone sounds familiar to you (outside of its historical context, of course), it’s probably because the service was advertised heavily in the 1990s and 2000s on television as a piece of software for home computers that would help you to memorize languages in a modern fashion. Using the advances in modern technology to essentially create a virtual tutor for languages in your house, Rosetta Stone skyrocketed in popularity, selling millions of copies over the last two decades and essentially creating the business market that apps like Duolingo were able to grow in.
Though it began as a disc-based software system, Rosetta Stone has adopted the needs of customers in its current day, offering web clients and smartphone apps for both iOS and Android. The smartphone and tablet version is designed to emulate the same experience you would have had sitting at a desk for hours on a device you can take anywhere, whether that be in the back of a car, on the train headed to work, or laying in bed before bed each night. It’s important to note that, as best we can tell, this version of Rosetta Stone has only been downgraded in terms of the size of display; as far as features go, it’s been left with exactly what you would expect from an original release.
Unlike most of the language-learning apps on this list, Rosetta Stone is presented in horizontal format on your device. Upon launching the app, you’re asked to pick the language you want to begin learning. Rosetta Stone has twenty-four total options available if you include American English and British English, as well as Latin American Spanish and European Spanish. Once you select your language, you’re greeted with a layout displaying each distinct unit of Rosetta Stone’s educational output. Unlike what you might see from Duolingo or other applications like Memrise, Rosetta Stone’s application is themed to resemble a classroom, with each unit appearing as a book before you begin the lessons. Upon first launching the app, you’ll notice that most of your lessons, with the exception of unit one, have a lock symbol on it. We’ll get more into pricing below, but as mentioned up top, Rosetta Stone does not ship for free.
Right away, Rosetta Stone changes one of the main complaints we had about Duolingo. While our top pick does eventually include voice tests in lessons down the line, Rosetta Stone gets you speaking right away, using your device’s microphone to test your pronunciation and even give it accuracy ratings as you speak. These tests worked exactly how you would want them to, offering quick ratings for your pronunciation and allowing you to retry the test if you fail at the words. In addition to these tests, Rosetta Stone begins its lessons by offering you some basic exercises to work on your language skills. Matching games and lessons where you select the correct phrase to a photo help you to slowly learn the words as you progress.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like there’s anyway to skip past these basic lessons, even if you are somewhat experienced in a language. This really comes down to how the free version of Rosetta Stone operates, and theoretically, you could purchase the entire lesson to continue down the line while skipping some of the basics in the beginning. In our eyes, Rosetta Stone does a better job laying out its lesson plan for your use than we’ve seen from Duolingo or some of the other apps on this list. The first lesson you access in unit one starts with gendered words and verbs, making it more of a catch all for some of the very basic building blocks of education. As you work through the lessons, Rosetta Stone slowly takes away verbal cues to force you to learn the context of what is being said verbally as opposed to what’s on the screen. It’s a great way to learn not just the visual aspects of remembering what words look like, but what they sound like as well.
When looking through the lesson plan within the app, it becomes obvious that Rosetta Stone’s plan is a bit more refined than Duolingo’s. This isn’t to discredit what Duolingo accomplished for free—it’s simply to say that Rosetta Stone has been around far longer, and been able to refine its lesson plan to the point where it matches something you might find in a classroom setting. These lessons focus on very specific parts of languages, with each lesson plan depending on what the language requires from the person learning. (For example, Mandarin Chinese may be more difficult for a native English speaker to learn than French, simply because the languages require very different skills and use different alphabets.
Rosetta Stone offers a few additional extras in the settings. Lessons can be downloaded to your phone in the settings menu on your device, allowing you to take learning on the go wherever you are. There are also settings for speech recognition, including the ability to disable speech tests (if you have difficulty speaking due to a disability) and the option to raise or lower the difficulty on the speech recognition portions of the lessons. You can also edit the focus of your lessons within the app to ensure they’re customized to fit any needs you may have. For example, you can disable the speaking and listening portions of each lesson if you have a hearing impairment, or focus solely on speaking and listening if you have a challenge seeing the display. It’s great that Rosetta Stone has made it possible to customize the basic portions of learning in the app, allowing anyone who wants to speak or read a new language the opportunity to do so.
So, if Rosetta Stone is seemingly the best option when it comes to learning languages for the majority of people, why is it not ranked higher in this list? Why has it only gained the runner-up spot behind Duolingo? Anyone who remembers the commercials for Rosetta Stone’s PC software may remember that it didn’t come cheap, and the same can be said for the digital platforms on Android. Rosetta Stone gives users the first lesson in a language for free, locking the other lessons and units behind a paywall. Most apps we tested charged users for a monthly or annual subscription to the app, but Rosetta Stone charges upfront for software packages. This might sound like a deal, but it really depends on how much you’re willing to spend for language software.
For most of the languages we previewed, purchasing the full Rosetta Stone package through the app costs $199. As far as we can tell, that unlocks you everything you need to continue learning. For French, our example language, this meant unlocking 720 full lessons. If you’re looking at it from the perspective of a price-per-lesson, that’s just a bit more than a quarter per each lesson. Still, this is certainly an expensive barrier keeping plenty of customers out from using Rosetta Stone. It isn’t a lot cheaper, but we should mention that the web version of Rosetta Stone seems to offer a better deal than the Android app. Their website has a personal plan that offers you 24 months of access to lessons of a single language for only $179, and that allows you to access lessons on your phone, tablet, and computer, with the ability to sync your progress between devices. Sure, you won’t have permanent access to these lessons, but for 24 months, we think it’s a pretty solid deal.
If you can afford it, Rosetta Stone is a must-have for anyone looking to learn a language. By far, it’s the most focused on education of any of the other applications we tested for this list, even if these lesson options are blocked by a high cost. For most users, Duolingo probably offers a better value, allowing them to get acquainted with a new language in basic or intermediate terms, while costing effectively nothing and encouraging users through a gamified app. However, for those that are dedicated to becoming fluent in a language, while also looking for a program that can be completed on your smartphone or tablet, will want to really consider giving Rosetta Stone a try. It’s an excellent tool to begin learning with, and with two decades of version history behind it, you can guarantee that no other mobile app on the App Store or Play Store is as advanced.
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.