5 apps to help you pick up a language
If you’re not careful about your pronunciation, it’s pretty easy to tell someone in France that you’re pregnant instead of saying you’re full. In Israel, you might ask someone to buy their daughter instead of buying a slice of bread. Saying you’re cold in German? It sounds a lot like saying you’re dead.
Living like a local is all the rage for travellers, but speaking the local language is not always so easy.
Thanks to a rise in Rosetta Stone-style mobile apps, it’s easier than ever to pick up a new language—or at least get a grasp on the basics before your next trip. Here are the best ones to consider, depending on your personal learning style and ongoing goals.
For short attention spans: Drops
Why we like it: No reading. No typing. Just 5 minutes a day. That’s how Drops promises to get you to learn one of 19 languages—spanning from French and Spanish to Korean and Arabic (Esperanto, comically, is also included). Lessons walk you through 120-word buckets covering food, drinks, numbers, and hotel terms. And instead of showing you flash cards with cheesy stock photos, the app focuses on clean illustrations, all in white, set against solid-coloured backdrops. Whether you’re matching pictures to their translations, unscrambling letters to practise spelling, or swiping across a grid of letters to unearth the word that matches the picture, the exercises feel like quick games rather than classroom worksheets.
The caveat: Drops places a heavy emphasis on building vocabulary through nouns, which means you won’t get much in the way of grammar, usage, and conjugations. You won’t be quizzed on speaking or pronunciation, either. And though you can purchase unlimited time for $48 (around Rs3,100) per year, 5-minute blocks mean that you learn at a relatively slow pace. That’s great if that’s all the time you have to spare, anyway—not so great if you’re actively trying to cram before a trip.
To sound like a local: Busuu
Why we like it: Busuu offers the language-learning equivalent of pen pals—if you’re studying French, you can have your speaking exercises evaluated by Busuu students in France, so long as you return the favour and grade someone else’s homework in your native tongue. To extend the theme, lessons in 12 languages include insightful tips on local usage: For instance, this is the only app I tried that told me that French natives are more likely to use the plural “ons” instead of “nous” when conjugating “we” verbs.
The caveat: Most of the app’s best features, including unlimited exchanges with foreign students, are behind a paywall. But the plans are highly affordable: One month costs $8 and a year goes for $45, less than a dollar per week.
For a long-term commitment: Duolingo
Why we like it: While all these apps are free to download, Duolingo is the only one without a premium subscription model, which means you’re free to learn 23 languages at your own pace—even if that means spending several hours a day on your Italian. It’s also holistic in its teaching style: You learn vocabulary, grammar and usage simultaneously, with illustrated flashcards and fill-in-the-blank exercises that really make you think.
The caveat: If learning to speak is your priority, you’ll find the spelling exercises tedious. Pronunciation exercises are also too forgiving—you can be marked correct even if you completely botch your answers. And for travellers, vocabulary doesn’t skew towards the practical—you’re likely to learn how to conjugate “I read, you read, she reads” or “the cat is black” before learning to say “please” and “thank you”.
For a quick fix: Memrise
Why we like it: Beneath a kitschy narrative concept about unlocking the outer cosmos, Memrise shows a real concern for both fun and practicality. A highly customizable format lets you decide how many words you can absorb in a single lesson and positive reinforcement abounds; as you progress in your learning, you earn points for correct answers, graduate through a silly rank system, collect badges, and watch your skills grow from seedlings to flowers. Plus, the app favours everyday conversational skills over technical exercises—my very first lesson in French covered the phrase “bottoms up!”
The caveat: The app offers little opportunity to practise your pronunciation.
The closest thing to a classroom education: Mondly
Why we like it: It’s not beautifully designed. And it’s not gamified. But what Mondly lacks in charm, it makes up for in comprehensiveness and rigour. Basic lessons walk you through the nuts and bolts of conversational language (“How are you?” and “My name is …”); they get progressively difficult and more involved, spending roughly 2 hours of instruction on each of 20 topics (animals, travel, shopping, for instance). As in school, you get as much out of Mondly as you’re willing to put into it: New words come with conjugation charts you can study, and daily lessons cover bonus materials and unlock weekly quizzes.
The caveat: Mondly keeps the majority of its lessons behind a paywall (plans start from $3.99 per month). Its uninspired interface can sometimes feel like a chore. But with 32 languages to choose among—including Persian and Afrikaans—it may be worth it.