by Kat Black
Want to learn the etymology of greetings in Indonesian? Need to brush up on your culinary Danish? Thinking of joining a Swahili social club? You need to look no further than the app store on your phone. Here are six alternatives to supplementary language education that won’t break the bank, as tested by a former language teacher.
By far the most recognisable language app on the market, it makes the – somewhat disquieting – claim that “more Americans are learning a language on Duolingo than in the (US) public school system.” It’s easy to see why, with an appealing video game conceit where users can accrue “health” points and “lingots” by reaching language goals.
Pros: English-speaking users can choose from an impressive selection of 25 different languages, including Ukrainian, Swahili and even Esperanto. On the social front, users can add friends to compete with and join language clubs where they can play games, chat and participate in language scenarios.
Cons: Ads. More serious learners may find the gaming formula a bit tiresome.
Price: Free, though you have the option to buy “lingots” in order to unlock challenges. These range in cost from £1.99 to £99.99. You can also upgrade to “Duolingo Plus” to go offline and avoid ads.
Best for: Gamers, recreational learners
This is the only app that made me exclaim: “This is fun!” while using it. The interface is enjoyable, user-friendly and packed with a promising variety of future cocktail party topics from “politics and religion” to “art, history and traditions.”
Pros: The entertaining if gimmicky “translate” feature. Simply turn on your camera, scan an object in front of you, and wait for its translation to the language of your choice. (Surely it takes just as much, if not less time, to use Google Translate, but it’s a neat trick for the carpal tunnel-stricken among us).
You can also listen to native speakers pronounce vocabulary after purchasing the app in full.
Cons: Only the first lesson is free. At first glance, the app appears to offer a selection of less common language courses from Azerbaijani to Zulu, but these are apparently still in progress.
Price: starting from £36 a year.
Best for: Visual learners, complete beginners, younger students
Less visual than its counterparts, Lingvist’s learning system is purely flashcard-based. Users can choose to take a diagnostic test for a language to be assessed for different levels. It starts immediately with some basic grammar and verb conjugations but offers no recording function to practice pronunciation and conversation.
Pros: Specific challenges in the categories of speaking, grammar, listening and reading. Its grammar section includes short, clearly written explanations of grammatical points.
Cons: Only five language options: German, Spanish, French, Russian and Estonian. More visual learners may find it boring and repetitive.
Best for: Grammar aficionados, users with a previous grounding in the language
Price: Free, but you can upgrade to Lingvist Unlimited for more “words, challenges and features.” It’s quite pricey at £79.95 a year.
Reading like a language textbook, Babbel provides a learning experience that is immersive without neglecting basic fundamentals of grammar and writing.
Pros: Fun, interactive and visual interface. It also provides insights into the origins of various words and cultural niceties.
Cons: Only the first lesson is free.
Price: £57 a year.
Best for: More serious language students
This goal-oriented app is similar to Duolingo because it uses similar gaming terminology – such as “level up” and “evolve” – to motivate its users. Users can set their own language goals and keep track of words they learn. It has an extensive language selection with a greater selection of Asian languages than most.
Pros: For learners of languages not written in the Latin alphabet, it has a character recognition function and provides both phonetics and the literal meanings of vocabulary words. It also offers video of native speakers for users to emulate and helps learners to form sentences from the get-go.
Cons: Some functions are only available with subscription (such as Grammarbot, a chatbot that will explain the trickiest grammar rules to you, and the option to chat with real people).
Price: You can access a free trial for seven days. £59.04 a year.
Best for: Self-motivated learners, students of Asian languages
Like Memrise, Busuu is helpful with sentence formation right off the bat. It comes with the weighty claim that “22 hours of Busuu Premium is equal to one college semester of language study.”
Pros: In this quid pro quo app, you can “friend” foreign language speakers and correct their exercises or speech in exchange for the same.
Cons: You can only access one language for free.
Price: Comes with one week’s free trial. £69.96 a year.