Learning Languages Online: Reviews of Common Language Learning Apps
People take online courses for a variety of reasons. Some want a flexible, affordable path to earn a degree. Some take MOOCs to advance their careers, gain expertise in a subject area, or use as a platform for continuing education. Others simply want to develop a practical, lucrative skill and find that online courses offer the most convenient method.
They wouldn’t be wrong. Online learners have access to everything from cooking classes to Bitcoin and blockchain tutorials. But as helpful as those skills are, learning a language might trump both. Besides the obvious cultural advantages of language learning, there are numerous cognitive, professional, and day-to-day benefits. Language learners improve brain power, memory, and decision-making skills. They’re also healthier: studies show that bilinguals have reduced risk for dementia and recover from strokes better than monolinguals. Other benefits include increased job opportunities and earnings, better communication skills in your native language, and more enjoyable travel experiences.
To get you started, we’ve profiled some of the most popular language learning apps, with pros and cons, general tips, and additional resources.
Best Language Learning Apps for Beginners
Duolingo is easily the most popular way to learn a language online, in part because it’s great for beginners. Learners can choose between 30 online courses — everything from French to Japanese to “Elvish” — and either test out to advanced lessons or start from the basics. Most important, it works. One study suggests that 34 hours on Duolingo is the equivalent of a semester-long college course, and many teachers use the app to supplement traditional classroom material.
- Interface. Duolingo’s design is clean, intuitive, and highly engaging, with a straightforward interface and built-in gamification elements. Especially important for first-timers, Duolingo goes out of its way to make language learning fun and un-intimidating.
- Resources. In addition to interactive lessons, Duolingo offers practice quizzes, explanations, a grammar guide, and an extensive library of podcasts and “stories,” which encourage learners to follow and translate real-world dialogue.
- Free. Many language learning courses offer free versions, but Duolingo is the “most” free: every student has unlimited access to the app and all course material. A premium subscription eliminates advertisements, but these are already limited and unobtrusive.
- Mobile. Duolingo’s mobile app is not nearly as effective as the web version. Many features are missing, and incorrect answers are penalized (unlike the web), discouraging use.
- Awkward sentences. A common criticism against Duolingo is occasionally awkward sentence constructions, i.e., sentences you’d probably never use in the real world. On one level, this is a natural part of language learning — you’ve got a limited vocabulary and have to start somewhere — but it does result in some impractical lessons.
Sound interesting? Check out our in-depth Duolingo review.
Winner of the 2017 EdTechX Europe award, Lingvist is an exciting, relatively new player in online language learning. Co-founded by a former CERN scientist, the program combines machine learning, language statistics, and cognitive science to help students rapidly build vocabulary and learn grammar basics on the fly. Premium subscribers can learn up to 4,000 commonly used words, have unlimited access to all reading, listening, and speaking challenges, and gain 1:1 support services. (The free version caps some features, but we’d recommend it all the same.) Great for beginners, Lingvist offers excellent introductory lessons to build a foundation in your new language.
- Simple. Every question is fill-in-the-blank, which seems restrictive at first but eliminates some of the more distracting elements found in other language learning apps. A live progress chart makes it easy to monitor improvement areas, and the grammar guide is a useful tool. (Pop-up grammar tips appear for incorrect answers.)
- Natural. Lingvist is designed to promote “unconscious learning,” or language acquisition, which research shows to be more effective than “conscious learning.” In short, practice makes perfect.
- Resources. Compared to competitors, Lingvist doesn’t offer many additional learning exercises outside of the main interface, particularly on the free version. This makes Lingvist best used as a complementary learning app rather than a full-service program.
- Limited support. On a related note, Lingvist’s support system remains relatively limited. Continued growth should bolster this area, but for now learners are largely on their own. Beginners should focus on building vocab and grammar basics before moving to a more robust program to develop advanced language skills.
Best Language Learning Apps to Build Reading Comprehension Skills
Lingq is one of the few language learning apps that prioritizes reading first and foremost. Specifically, Lingq wants you reading real material in your target language: essays, stories, poems, and books, instead of computer-generated sentences and phrases. In short, the idea is to give students control over course work to foster a more engaging, enjoyable, and productive language learning experience. While Lingq does offer its own lesson plans, the course library features hundreds of user-generated “courses,” which include a range of lesson types. (Students also have the option to import text into Lingq.) Learning German? Listen to a German TED Talk and follow the transcript. Learning French? Read a short story by Guy de Maupassant. Click words you don’t know to add them to your vocab list, and Lingq will create customized practice lessons. (The free plan limits the amount of words you can tag, but you can use other online dictionaries for an easy workaround.) For its extensive library and unique education model, Lingq is a top pick for students focused on developing reading skills.
- Engaging. Lingq’s model is specifically designed to increase student engagement and motivation, and for the most part it succeeds. Why practice rote vocab exercises when you can learn the same vocab by reading the news? Not only is the latter more rewarding, it’s a natural and immersive way to learn a language.
- Customizable. Unlike some other apps, Lingq’s quizzes are truly tailored to individual learners. Practice what you want to practice.
- Design. The biggest knock against Lingq is the sub-par user interface and design. Seasoned users don’t seem to mind — or at least they’ve learned to adapt — but first-timers will discover a somewhat clunky, outdated design, especially compared to other apps. There’s not much in the way of intuitiveness, and gamification elements only add to the confusion. Simplifying the UI/UX would result in a much more efficient program and encourage return users.
In many ways, Readlang follows Lingq’s learning model while improving on user interface and design. (At the same time, whether it’s a true language learning program or simply a tool is debatable.) The app is strikingly simple: turn on Readlang’s web reader, visit a web page in your target language, and click to translate words and phrases you don’t know. The app then saves these to a vocab list, which you can practice via flash cards. Import texts — even whole novels — browse the web, or get started using Readlang’s small but curated content library, including videos, songs, fiction, and more. The app remains relatively small, but with over 160,000 users, Readlang is a promising platform for language learners that want to develop vocab in a real-world context.
- Design. As mentioned, Readlang supports a much more seamless user experience than comparable reading-based language apps. Set-up is easy, so you’ll be learning new words right off the bat.
- Practical. Even if you decide to use another program as your main language tutor, Readlang’s web extension is perfect to use on-the-fly, and the free plan includes unlimited word translations and flashcards. (For $5/month, add unlimited phrase translations.) Most important, the app forces users to build practical skills in an immersive, authentic setting.
- Functionality. Readlang is seamless, but it’s also a bit bare-boned right now. Google Translate offers a similar extension plus unlimited full-page translation. To stand out in a crowded field, Readlang needs to expand its course library, resources, and practice options.
Best Language Learning Apps to Build Verbal Skills
Babbel is one of the most popular language learning apps online, designed to get users speaking their target language as soon as possible. Unlike Duolingo, one of its main competitors, Babbel is a premium, subscription-based service, with multiple pricing tiers for flexibility and a reasonable trial period that introduces users to program basics. In addition to receiving praise from industry-leading publications like TechCruch, Fast Company named Babbel 2016’s most innovation education company. As of this writing, the app has over 1 million active subscribers and ranks as the #1 selling language learning app in the world.
- Rapid skill development. According to the Babbel, the app offers the shortest path to real-life conversation. Over 70% of Babbel users say they would be able to have a short and simple conversation in their new language within five hours. Further, Babbel teaches practical, real-world vocab and speech skills that you can use whether you’re traveling abroad on vacation or learning a new language for work.
- Depth. Babbel offers an extensive library of tailored course content and practice resources, including multiple choice, fill in the blank, word bank scrambles, transcription exercises, and simulated dialogues using human voices.
- Customizable. Babbel gives online learners complete control over lesson plans and courses. Not only does this help you save time and money, it also allows you to build a tailored curriculum to fit your needs and interests.
- Limited explanations. The best online courses create a feedback loop that corrects students’ mistakes and supports real learning. Unfortunately, Babbel’s feedback is too inconsistent. Explanations only pop up on some questions, and in many cases, users simply keep answering the same question until they get a correct answer (which encourages guessing rather than learning). Further, without a grammar guide like Duolingo or Lingvist, learners can be left to figure out complex grammar rules on their own.
- Poor for beginners. Unless you’re learning a foreign language for a specific, limited purpose — for instance, a two-week vacation —Babbel isn’t ideal for beginners in need of a bottom-up approach. There’s little to no curricular direction, and the interface is slightly disorienting.
- Speech recognition. Babbel’s speech recognition software is a major feature, but it’s inconsistent. Correctly pronounced words are marked wrong, while incorrectly pronounced words can slip through the cracks. Sometimes the function simply doesn’t work. If improving verbal skills is Babbel’s main attraction, it needs to improve its voice technology.
Sound interesting? Check out our full review of Babbel.
With over 150 languages supported and 10 million members, HelloTalk is one of the best conversation-based language apps on the market. To be clear, HelloTalk is not a course. There are no lesson plans, and if you’re not already familiar with a language, even at an early beginner level, HelloTalk won’t be of much use. That said, as a practice tool, HelloTalk is top-notch. For maximum real-world experience, users text, talk, and video chat with fluent speakers in their native tongue. Then, in exchange for their help, you’ll help them learn their target language (presumably English). It’s a two-way street! Built-in features like translation and correction tools provide additional support, and “Moments” allow users to post updates or ask a specific question to the HelloTalk community. Short of living in a foreign country, HelloTalk offers one of the best ways to learn a language by speaking it.
- True immersion. Practicing a foreign language with real, native speakers is simply the most reliable way to learn a language.
- Strong community. HelloTalk works because of its unique, symbiotic model: you teach me, and I teach you. This builds mutual motivation, accountability, trust, and engagement, as well as opportunities for lifelong, cross-cultural relationships.
- Zero structure. This is less a con than the nature of the app. There are no lessons, guides, or other tools typically found on language learning programs. That means you’ll need to know basic vocab and/or phrases in order to start a conversation. If you do better with a formal curriculum, pair HelloTalk with a more developmental app like Duolingo or Lingvist.
- Hit-or-miss. Your learning experience is entirely dependent on your language partner. Naturally, that means that some sessions will be productive, and others will not. What you gain in freedom, you lose in control.
Best Language Learning Apps to Build Vocab Skills
Launched in 2008, busuu has become one of the most popular language learning programs in the world, boasting 80 million users and praise from Google, BBC, and Bloomberg Business. In 2016, busuu partnered with McGraw-Hill Education to create an official certification that allows students to validate their fluency according to the the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR). In addition to high-quality online courses in 12 different languages, busuu offers excellent vocab exercises, quizes, and feedback from fluent speakers, a la HelloTalk. Most important, research suggests busuu works: a study by City University of New York and the University of South Carolina found that 22 hours of busuu Premium are equivalent to a college semester of language learning (compare this to 34 hours on Duolingo), and every participant improved after 16 hours.
- Content. While busuu offers less languages than many of the above platforms, its content is in-depth, nuanced, and used by language instructors across the world.
- Offline mode. Another unique feature? busuu’s offline mode, which allows users to access courses without internet.
- Certificates. The ability to earn a certificate not only helps learners measure progress, but also validates language proficiency for potential employers, schools, and other interested parties.
- Limited free access. Free subscribers only have access to vocab flashcards. Compared to Duolingo, which features a similar level of courses and learning resources for free, this knocks busuu down a peg. Nonetheless, busuu remains highly affordable if you’re willing to pay a premium: plans range from just $5-8 a month.
Last but not least, Tinycards is Duolingo’s standalone vocabulary building app. Login with your Duolingo account, and access thousands of flashcards decks to test the vocab you’ve reviewed on Duolingo. Needless to say, Tinycards are specifically designed to serve as supplementary practice, but that shouldn’t prevent you from diving in whenever you’ve got a free moment. You can create your own deck to share with friends, or pick from the collection library. Simple, fun, and solid practice.
- Mobile. Unlike Duolingo’s central platform, Tinycards is great on mobile, and makes for easy practice and vocab learning.
- Additional material. For current students or continuing learners, Tinycards also offers flashcards in biology, chemistry, geography, history, and more.
- Repetitive. Since you’ll have already seen every word on your Duolingo account, Tinycards at times feels mildly repetitive or redundant. Sure, repetition is key to language learning, but some decks are more busy work than active learning. Learners have control over which decks to study — and can even create their own — but your time might be better spent on Duolingo.