Language Learning Apps, Revisited
More than three years ago, I discussed a few apps meant to help you learn a foreign language; while I still believe the best way to learn a language is to use printed manuals with audio support, especially the old-style ones that give you competent grammar explanations (for the French readers: Assimil … sans peine, Pocket 40 leçons pour parler …, Livre de Poche … en 90 leçons et 90 jours aka 1 leçon par jour pendant 3 mois, with extra material such as Bescherelle … pour tous, Hatier … de A à Z, where “…” should be replaced by the target the language in the definite article), sometimes technology can help quite a lot, and most people might benefit from the different approaches used in different apps, such as the Spaced Repetition System (SRS). So here I come back with short assessments of some major language-learning apps.
Targeting a “rare” if not exotic language severely limits the choice of a helper app, but supposing you want to learn German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French (or maybe Mandarin, Japanese, Korean) and you know very well or your mother tongue is English or French (the second case also limits the choice), there is a bunch of apps available for each language pair. The apps mentioned below were only tested by me for the following languages: German (from English), Italian (from French and from English), Spanish (from English), French (from English). WordBit was tested using Romanian as the native language and Italian, German and English as target languages.
I’d rather recommend the following apps:
🟢 Memrise — Nothing never heard of, but it seems to include the right progression rate and the right amount of repetition that allows a good start from zero in any included language. Pronunciations (with video) are by native people, namely people on the street, not teachers. Beware though: Memrise is not the app that will teach you grammar! Still, IMO it’s a better choice than Busuu and Duolingo. Beginners of all levels of education should love it. What I don’t understand with Memrise is why their apps don’t offer everything that’s on the website. On Android, they offer “German 1” to “German 7”–but on their website there is much more, including contributed material as distinct modules, such as Learn German Grammar, Learn German Conjugation, and much, much more.
🟢 Fluenz — Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, it’s strikingly American. And yet, its mostly video-based approach, with nice tutors (at least for Italian, Latin American Spanish and European Spanish), makes it a winner and unique in its category. The usability could be improved, but the contents is well thought. It might have a slow pace (which makes it expensive to reach a more advanced level), but the explanations are extremely thorough, and fully in English. The “full immersion” dogma isn’t something Sonia Gil, the founder of Fluenz, believes in; all explanations are in English, not in the target language, and the course insists on the various difficulties that an American would have while learning the respective language. I agree with some commenters that the French tutor doesn’t have the best possible pronunciation, and I find that the German pronunciations aren’t the most Hochdeutsch ones, but for the languages mentioned at the beginning, it’s a great choice.
🟢 WordBit — Now, this is a bit of an outlier. Not a course, but strictly a vocabulary enhancer. Android-only and a different app for each language pair, but even if you’re Russian, Polish or Romanian and you want to learn English, French, German, Spanish or Italian, you can do it. Strange language pair exist too (Korean-Japanese, Hebrew-Spanish, Arabic-Italian, etc.), but many European languages are not covered. The concept of a lockscreen-based flashcards (the same as in the app) forces the user to learn or to repeat the included words. Make sure you select several categories, and that you set the order to random, not alphabetic. These flashcards, unlike in other apps, include more than one meaning, and usually several sentences given as examples (or for context, if you prefer to see it this way).
🟢 iTalki — This is more than special, as this app is only a pretext, and you don’t pay for the app; what you pay for is the real people you’ll interact with, and you’re actually paying them! Professional or ad hoc language teachers, that is. For learners keen to spend some money to interact with real people who will be their tutors, this is the choice (beware of imitations!). I expect it to have become even more popular during the pandemic.
🟢 HiNative — When I first tried it years ago, it was the only app in which you could get your questions answered by native speakers. Sure thing, there’s a question to ask: why aren’t people asking questions on StackExchange or on specialized forums (no, not Reddit!) instead of chatting in such an app? Well, they want something like Facebook… so usually they turn to this kind of app. Meanwhile, the competitors are more popular (see below HelloTalk and Tandem) and they offer a more sophisticated UI, yet I still believe HiNative has a more serious community. Population 5.4M in 2020.
Not really fond of these, but some people might like them or find them useful:
🟡 Busuu — The very first language-learning app I ever tried! I wouldn’t use it again, but I found it much improved over what it was years ago. It can be tedious and annoying, but IMO better in contents and structure than Duolingo. Does it deserve his position up here? I’m not entirely sure.
🟡 Mango Languages — At first, I thought I’d like it, but now I’m more reserved (I even classified this app into the “red” category instead of the “yellow” one; now corrected). It looks suited for beginners (but one could also learn Shakespearean English!), and the UI is attractive enough. Some of its good points aren’t that well-thought though, e.g. while one can choose (when appropriate) between a literal translation and an equivalent (“normal”) one, I’d have liked to have them both simultaneously. The grammar is well-explained in English, but everything is too boring and slow to my taste. Voice: «What do you think is the right way to say “Excuse me, where is the square?” to an individual in a formal situation?» (10 seconds of pause follow; the pause can be skipped, the initial voice cannot!)–c’mon, I’ll grow a 3-ft beard before learning a language using this app! Their Space Repetition System algorithm is non-adaptive, and it will definitely kill your patience, unlike in Memrise or Lingvist, where if you stop making mistakes, the repetitions will decrease in frequency and number. Also, some cultural or lexical aspects are classified as Grammar Notes, which is absurd. Atrociously American in spirit, but in a much less attractive way than Fluenz, it might piss off some non-Americans. Still, the choice of languages is consistent (it even has Finnish, Icelandic, Hungarian, but also 4 flavors of Arabic). Trying to cover too many languages isn’t without drawbacks: the Russian module doesn’t make any attempt of teaching you the Cyrillic alphabet; the same could be said about the Armenian alphabet; also, how do you think you’ll learn Arabic? Mandarin, Korean and Japanese are only minimally adapted–I’m pretty sure I couldn’t learn any such language with this app. As for the section on the French argot, here’s Argot, Chapter 1, Lesson 1, Conversation: “On fait la teuf ce soir ?” “Clair !” “Ça va être trop de la balle ce concert !” “Mais ouais, il est chanmé ce mec en live. Je le kiffe.” “T’y vas en caisse ?” “Non mais t’es ouf ? Je vais pas picoler et prendre la bagnole après.” “On prend le tacos alors ?” “T’es sérieuse ? Tu crois que je suis blindé ou quoi ? Tromé, obligé !”). Too bad for the multicolored text, not for me.
🟡 LingoDeer — Initially designed for Asian languages (on Google Play it’s listed as “Learn Korean, Japanese or Spanish with LingoDeer”), now it covers about a dozen. Maybe the only app (except for the thorough video explanations of Fluenz) that includes proper grammar pages and tables! Still, despite their claim to bring you to B1, they don’t get you beyond A2. My objections? The structure is pretty good, yet the choice of words taught in the first lessons seems a bit random. And there isn’t much of a method other than “vocabulary + grammar” (its grammar notes are labeled “Learning Tips”).
🟡 Lingvist — I wanted to like it when it was still fully free (lots of screenshots from back then), and for a while I did like it, despite its limitations and its sometimes questionable translations. Nowadays, it’s become too expensive for what it is. Still, it’s extremely professionally designed, and somehow it manages to include a very decent amount of grammar, so it might appeal to those willing to pay as much as for both Netflix and Amazon Prime.
🟡 Speakly — Potentially better than Lingvist, with great methods, excellent (but incomplete) grammar notes and the ambition of making you fluent by only using a vocabulary of 4,000 words, this app has the unexpected idiosyncrasy of requiring you to answer all the questions viva voce, even if in Study settings, Learn vocabulary is set to “With multiple-choice answers”! WTF. Speaking is one thing, writing or selecting from a list is another one that is also part of any language course! (Funny thing, the initial placement test was a multiple-choice one.) Too bad, as the app also includes listening exercises and even songs in the target language! (Does anyone trust the speech recognition software to be accurate enough? I don’t, except for Dragon NaturallySpeaking, to which I can dictate in French and get surprisingly accurate results.)
🟡 reword — It does help you to improve your vocabulary via flashcards, and it’s one of the few apps to offer Finnish, but I just don’t like it. WordBit is a much nicer product.
🟡 BeeLinguapp — A promising helper app, but it never tried to fix its flaws. The concept of having a text translated in the other half of the screen and read by real voices (not TTS) is great, but the contents is abysmal, even in Premium mode: most books are pathetic, “classics” usually means English books in translation, not books written in the target language and translated in English, French, etc., and the overall choice is very limited. The recent addition of news reports helps a bit, but not much. For bilingual easy reading, look for real books (or e-books). Also, the reading speed can be decreased, but not increased. A great idea, a very mediocre result.
🟡 HelloTalk — A better-looking HiNative, i.e. a social network in which you could get your questions answered by native speakers. Just ignore the audio lessons and stick to the idea of discussing with people. Beware, some might get quite flirty. Population 20M in 2020.
🟡 Tandem — A cross between HelloTalk and Tinder? A profile photo is required, as well as describing your ideal Tandem partner. Not for me, thanks. Population 10M in 2020.
I don’t recommend the following apps:
🔴 Assimil apps by Mantano — The apps suck big time. Screw them and stick to the 🟢 printed Assimil books with MP3 support. The most traditional method ever, not only from French to other languages, but also from English or Spanish. Sure thing, I very much preferred the contents their books used to have in the 1960s and the early 1970s, with magnificent illustrations by the fabulous Robert Gring (see this and this); the contents became less and less inspired following the revisions that took place in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, but even three reviews later, the method is still very good, even if “old-style” for some.
🔴 Duolingo — The most famous well-rated app I don’t like; preferred mostly by Americans, but this is not the reason I dislike it. I just find it made as for idiots. The explanations are lacking, the cultural context is ignored, and the whole seems designed by mediocre people for under-mediocre ones. Also, for many languages the audio uses TTS, which is just pathetic.
🔴 Babbel — Too slow-paced and repetitive IMO. In principle, similar to Busuu, but with a stronger focus on grammar; however, it takes a lot to get to grammar. Knowing me, you’d expect I ranked Babbel higher merely based on its grammar content. The problem is that grammar is not presented in an attractive form, so I’d rather use a printed manual and printed exercises rather than Babbel.
🔴 Mosa Lingua — A complex app well-packed with contents, and yet I didn’t manage to like it. Returning cards all the time drove me mad! One should need an eternity to reach the desired level. As for the grammar, I found the app lacking, but one could find some useful content in free access on their website under the tag grammar (with videos, more of which are under the tag video); their YouTube channel can also be of some help, such as the 8 videos on Italian. But then, there are countless YT channels much more helpful (here’s another idea on how to get free language courses in video form!).
🔴 Rocket Languages — While the course is a mix of traditional (including grammar and cultural notes) and modern (it’s interactive, meaning you’re supposed to answer back and your voice will be recognized), and the contents for each language is properly adapted to that language, not just a translation of the same English text, I’d never pay their prices: there are 7 modules for each language, but the price is only given for Module 1 ($99.95), Modules 1+2 ($249.90), or Modules 1+2+3 ($259.90), and it’s too high for what a module is. I’ve checked for German, Italian, Spanish and French, and even with all seven modules, you wouldn’t be very much beyond A1 in terms of grammar. This might not be essential for basic conversations, but not at such fees. Then, in almost each language, one of the two hosts would have a bad accent: for Italian, the guy is Italian-American, and even I could have a much better take at pronouncing Italian words and names. For French, the guy is British, and its French pronunciation is heavily affected by a British English accent. For Spanish, it’s the gal the one to feature an American English accent; besides, it’s about Latin American Spanish, not “the real” Spanish, so… Oh, for German the accent isn’t a problem. Back to grammar, even if we accept it not going too far, I’m not satisfied with the way they categorize and explain the concepts; nothing wrong, actually, but not the way it should be.
🔴 Mondly — Or “Learn 33 Languages with Mondly” (by ATi Studios, based in Brașov, Romania). Technically superb IT-wise, the method sucks by the way it requires you to be a “false beginner.” I tried to learn Romanian through French: were I a Frenchman, I believe I wouldn’t have understood much. I then tried to learn Finnish through Romanian: were it not for the pictures, I wouldn’t have understood anything! Grammar is reduced to verb conjugations. Just pathetic. Unless you’re learning a language very similar to one you know well, or you already have some notions in the target language, don’t bother.
🔴 LingQ — Highly praised by some, I found it to be such a huge mess from a usability standpoint, that I simply can’t understand how could anyone release an app with such a stupid design! Poor design and bugs are competing to make the user have a stroke.
🔴 Lengo (by Nils Bernschneider) — Very mediocre in contents, structure, method (what method?), despite covering both vocabulary and grammar. Good luck understanding how to read a non-Latin script (both Hanzi and Pinyin are displayed, but this isn’t enough).
🔴 LinGo Play — Words, phrases, flashcards. Does it count as a teaching method?
🔴 uTalk — Over 140 languages (e.g. for Italy you can also learn the Neapolitan, Sardinian and Sicilian dialects, of which in Sicilian you’ll find some words surprisingly close to their counterparts in Romanian), but at which level? Words and key phrases, absolutely thrown at random, with no structure whatsoever. Just like Mondly, Lengo, and others, no clue on how to pronounce letters or combinations of letters, just full words. Too simplistic and chaotic even for a flashcard app. The native speakers in Memrise are much better (and you can see them talking). No grammar, obviously.
🔴 OptiLingo — One hundred “lessons” for each language. Sort of a conversation guide for travelers in the form of a slideshow. Despite not using TTS, but real pronunciations, for the languages I tried I found the pronunciation, intonation, accent in the word and in the phrase often wrong, and the voices robotic on occasions. I tried to “learn” Romanian, and I was shocked by what I heard; a reviewer has tried the PDF plus audio files for French, and he was horrified for different reasons; when the book with CD was available, some Americans willing to visit Italy got thrilled by this “method”–but they’re Americans, duh.
🔴 Drops — Only useful to learn new words with simple yet esthetic graphics. Grammar is nil, method is nil–just vocabulary practice in 5-minute sessions. Maybe for kids?
🔴 Fluent Forever — “Learn Vocabulary Through Images Instead of Translations.” Uh, right. It might work for some objects and animals, but beyond that… Also, is this picture for “old woman” or for “grandma”? “Learn Grammar Naturally Through Stories Relevant To You … you will naturally learn grammar through immersive stories, as opposed to boring lessons or complex conjugation tables.” I know there are stupid people on Earth, but not to this extent. Note that the 14-day trial requires you to give your credit card details and to choose a plan that normally follows the trial period.
🔴 Rosetta Stone — Much fame and ado for nothing; fully immersion might work for children, but not for educated adults. One of the oldest and most famous piece of software dedicated to teaching languages. Expensive crap, to say the least. Don’t touch it not even with a 10-ft pole.
🔴 Pimsleur — The worst of all, clearly targeting the illiterates or the dumbest possible public. As a principle, they don’t allow you to learn how words are written, pretending that if you wrote them down, you’ll be so stupid as to try to pronounce them as if they were written in your mother tongue (“in American”); but how could an adult learn a language without knowing the spelling, and how would they be able to recognize a word in print? Dr. Paul Pimsleur must have been the fraud of the last century. A similar “audio-only method” is the Michel Thomas Method (CD-based): extremely verbose (think of a set of audiobooks read in the form of a dialogue with a dummy and half-dumb student, with many inserted pauses to make it even worse), the latter might help those who don’t fall asleep during listening. So Pimsleur really is the worst of the famous language methods!