In my last post I wrote about why you should learn a second language, and the advantages of being bilingual. And one of the easiest ways these days to learn a language is by using an app. Although these language apps will not make you fluent, they will help you to learn the basics of a language and understand basic conversation, either completely for free or for a small price a month.
In the past few months, I have tried the free version of 5 of the most popular language apps: Duolingo, Babbel, Memrise, Busuu and Rosetta Stone. In this post, I will review all of them and list their pros and cons to help you decide which app to use.
Duolingo is my go-to app for language learning. I discovered it years ago when I wanted to improve my French for a holiday, and I am currently learning Swedish and Spanish on there. The greatest thing about Duolingo is that it is totally free – although you can pay for Duolingo Plus, which gives you advantages like being able to download the lessons. It offers a lot of language courses, even for fictional languages such as Klingon from Star Trek or High Valyrian from Game of Thrones.
Duolingo works with a ‘tree’ of skills that center a specific theme, like food, animals or pronouns. Each skill comes with a page of tips, which explains grammar rules that you will practice in these lessons. The skills all have 5 levels: after completing a certain amount of lessons you will level up and earn a crown. Each level gets a little harder. The further you go down the tree, the harder the lessons will get too. By completing lessons you also collect XP and lingots – the latter allowing you to buy streak freezes to keep your daily streak going.
I personally really enjoy Duolingo because of all the gamification. I feel like it is easy to keep up with the lessons and actually remember what you have learned. The grammar lessons are really great too. The downside is that the sentences are not really focused on conversational skills. They can even be rather weird at times, because they are more about learning grammar than actually being able to use the full sentence in real life.
Pros: There are many languages to choose from, there is a lot of gamification, and it is free.
Cons: Most languages are only available to learn from English; it is not focused on conversational skills.
Babbel has a much more limited number of languages to choose from: only 13. I chose to learn Danish on here, because I wanted a language that I could easily understand with my Swedish knowledge. Then Babbel let me select why I want to learn the language, and I said I want to learn it for fun. I am not sure if this actually impacts which courses it offers me, though, as I can’t change this in the settings.
Unfortunately, Babbel is not free and only lets you complete the first lesson of each course. The courses are not split into themes, but into categories such as Newcomer, Beginner I and II, Grammar and Words and Sentences. The sentences and words are focused on useful topics when on holiday, such as greetings, asking for directions and ordering food. The courses immediately start with not just reading and writing, but also listening and speaking exercises. The speaking exercises are really frustrating to me though, as half of the time it just does not understand what I am saying.
Although you can still learn quite a lot from only doing the first lessons, the app is clearly not meant to learn a whole language for free. Babbel says that the free lessons are meant to see how the lessons are structured and view the course topics before subscribing. It isn’t free because the courses are made by experts, there are no ads and they don’t sell your data. I think if you mostly want to learn a language for a holiday and need to learn useful topics in a short period of time, and you are willing to pay for it, Babbel might be a great app for you.
Pros: Focused on useful conversation, for example when on holiday.
Cons: It’s not free; there are not many languages to choose from.
Memrise has a nice selection of languages when you’re using English as your source language. British English gives me 22 choices, American English gives me 19. When I select my own native language, Dutch, I can select 8 languages to learn. That’s more than on any app so far! I ended up deciding to learn simplified Chinese. After selecting the language, it let me choose whether I was a beginner or an advanced user – so if you already have some knowledge in your preferred language you can start at a higher level.
Unfortunately there is not a lot you can do with the free version of the app. Within every course I can do one lesson, but all the others are locked. However, this still gives an idea of what the full version of the app is like. You can choose between several ways to practice: a classic lesson, a quick lesson, repeat difficult words, listening skills, and pronunciation skills. In the paid version of the app, you can also practice words and sentences and even practice with a local. The lessons in the courses seem to be mostly focused on vocabulary and not so much on grammar, which makes Memrise different from the other apps. I think its best feature is the ability to practice with locals. If a correct pronunciation is your main goal, Memrise might be your best choice.
Pros: Quite a lot of languages to choose from in any language; the option to practice with locals.
Cons: It’s not free; it is focused on vocabulary and not on grammar.
Busuu has only 12 languages to choose from, which is the lowers number of languages so far. I decided to learn Italian here. I can now select that I am new to Italian or do a placement test to find my level. The app then asked me why I want to learn Italian. The option you choose here will determine what course you are put in: the complete language course, one specifically for travel, or (depending on the language) a business or pronunciation course. I then could even select what CEFR level I wanted to achieve, from A1 (beginner) to B2 (upper immediate) level, which I thought was pretty neat! Their Premium Plus version even offers certificates. I could then choose which days I’d like to learn, at what time, and how many minutes a day. Based on this the app will tell you how long it takes to reach your goals.
The beginner course consists of 45 lessons about themes such as introducing yourself, ordering at a restaurant and talking about your family, but it also has lessons about pronunciation and grammar. Most of these lessons are split up into a couple of smaller lessons, some of which can be done with the free version and some of which are locked. There is a high focus on speaking and listening skills right from the start. Lastly, there is also an option to find language exchange partners. You can find people who are learning your native language and correct their writing and speaking skills, and people who are a native speaker of the language you’re learning can do the same for you.
To me, Busuu seems like a combination of the above apps: the courses are split up into themes like Duolingo, it is focused on useful conversational skills like Babbel, and you can practice with native speakers like Memrise. This app is my favourite from all the paid ones so far – but even the free version already seems great to practice some basic language skills.
Pros: It works with CEFR levels and certificates; it is focused on useful conversational skills; the free version is functional.
Cons: Only 12 languages to choose from; the free version is still limited.
Rosetta Stone offers a total of 24 languages to learn, which is a nice amount. I selected Russian here, and could then select my plan: free or full access. The free version only has 30 minutes of content, while the full version has 250 hours – so clearly the free version is only meant to get an idea of what the app is like. There is also a free 3-month trial of the full version which you can cancel before you get charged, but I just chose the free version.
The app says it uses an immersion-based learning method, which means they don’t offer translations. You can also select what you want your learning focus to be: only reading and writing, only speaking and listening, all four or an extended version of all four. The course consists of 20 units that all have themes such as greetings and introductions, shopping, or dining and vacation. The only unit I have access to in the free version is Language Basics, and there I can only do the first lesson out of four. This lesson is split up in a core lesson of 30 minutes, and smaller parts such as pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar that take 10 minutes.
The immersion-based lessons aren’t really my favourite way of learning. Most exercises are based on reading or listening to a phrase and then picking the picture that best describes what was just said, such as “The man eats”. Often this needs to be inferred from the context: the app doesn’t first tell you what “eating” is. And the pace is quite fast too: the first lesson immediately contains the plural – which, again, you have to infer from the pictures suddenly containing multiple people. While immersion is definitely a good way to become fluent, as an adult it is usually harder to pick up a language by immersion only than as a child. While this still could be a good method for many people, it certainly isn’t for me.
Pros: It has 24 languages to choose from; it has an immersion-based learning method.
Cons: It’s not free; it has an immersion-based learning method.
Which one of these apps is the best for you, depends on what your goal is, which way of learning you prefer and how much money you are willing to spend on it. Memrise is the cheapest at €7.99 a month, Busuu is €9.99 a month, Babbel costs €12.99 a month, and Rosetta Stone is €16.66 a month for 3 months. While Duolingo is completely free, it offers extra features for €13.99 a month. For all these apps, the price a month lowers when you subscribe for a longer amount of time – so once you’ve tried the free app and want to pay for the full version, that would definitely be worth it.
For me, Duolingo definitely wins, as I am just learning languages for fun and am not willing to pay for it at the moment. However, if I had to pick one of the paid apps, for me Busuu wins. I like its use of CEFR levels, and if I am going to pay for a language learning app I’d love to have certificate to show for it.