A guide to the best language learning apps
Technology has a chequered history when it comes to teaching us foreign languages. Algorithms, databases and complex coding – no matter how sophisticated – have often never quite delivered the required results with certainty and consistency.
Are you asking the waiter for a green salad, or are you, like John Cleese in Monty Python’s famous sketch, simply informing him that your ‘hovercraft is full of eels’?
While technology might not be infallible, nor is any form of self learning. The traditional phrase-book was cumbersome and inflexible and far from slick. But modern digital technology, the processing power of today’s smartphones and the advent of free data roaming make a compelling case for learning French through the device in your pocket.
Why do we do it?
The desire to learn a language is nothing new, though of course it is well documented that we Brits are not very proficient (or is that just lazy?). For many, it’s the chance to add an indigenous, local dimension to the next holiday – order food in a restaurant, rather than relying on the waiter speaking fluent English or, worse, having to point at other peoples’ food.
For others it’s about feeling a little more cosmopolitan and being able to offer up some basic niceties in French to the hotelier or the taxi driver. Or it may just be the personal satisfaction of conversing in a different language as a paid-up citizen of the world.
A votre choix
There are various ways to get to grips with a foreign language – audio books from the likes of Audible (part of Amazon), old-school CDs and even, shock horror, classes involving human interaction. The choice is yours.
But here we’re looking at downloadable apps for your smartphone. Tools you can take with you in your pocket, whether walking, cycling or just doing the serious holidaymaking stuff like sitting in a café or ordering the plat du jour.
Six of the best
So head back to the (virtual) classroom for six of the best – six of the best readily available (and free) apps.
Most of these are available for both iOS and Android, some also for Amazon and Windows too. All are free at a basic level, though many do offer paid-for upgrades and add on packs which might be of interest as you progress.
Once logged in you can track your progress and learn from your own mistakes as it were. Using pictures, audio and text, Duolingo keeps pushing you forward to more difficult levels of complexity. If you feel you have a decent grasp of the language but want to brush up, the app will even modify the questions it asks you so you’re not wasting time.
Languages available include: French, Spanish, German, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Irish, Danish, Swedish, Russian, Swahili, Polish, Chinese, Romanian, Japanese, Greek, Turkish, Vietnamese, Hebrew, Norwegian, Ukrainian, Hungarian, Welsh, Czech, Korean and of course English. You can even learn High Valyrian, the fictional language featured in TV's Game of Thrones and Esperanto, an international auxiliary language spoken by those who don't share a common first language and the most widely spoken constructed language in the world.
24/7 Tutor This claims to be a virtual tutor constantly on call around the clock. If this appeals it’s simple: choose your language then you can start learning via various topics (eg family, health, weather and so on) using techniques and tools like memory games, spelling practice, flash cards and quizzes.
Rosetta Stone A well known name in the foreign language learning field. A free app helps with simple phrases, using images associated with commonly used phrases that improve your pronunciation through forcing you to repeat them. A basic phrase book function is quite useful when on holiday, and you can buy extras across a variety of themes.
Rosetta Stone offers all of the same languages as Duolingo as well as Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), Filipino, Hindi, Persian, Portuguese (Brazil) and Spanish (Latin America).
Google Translate Rather than coaching you as a teacher would, Google Translate simply translates whatever you ask it to: text, handwriting, even voice. It’s not particularly sophisticated but does work at a simple, convenient level when a quick translation, possibly even rough and ready, is required.
busuu Once your account is set up, you simply choose the level of ability and off you go. It’s quite intuitive and will help you with single words and phrases but will also test you retrospectively as you progress through the different ability levels, starting at Beginner.
Languages available to learn include: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, Polish, Turkish, Russian, Arabic and English. And according to an independent study, 22 hours of learning equates to 1 semester of language study!
Memrise A straightforward app but one which employs a slightly quirky approach. It offers up foreign language words in sentences with similar words in English to help reinforce the meaning. Multiple images are also used, as are techniques like teaching several new words at once, then testing you repeatedly in a different sequence to randomise the learning process.