The busy holiday travel season is behind us, but you and your loved ones might well have plans to squeeze in another trip in the coming months (think February or spring break). If you’re traveling soon to a place where you don’t know the language well (or at all), then you’ll want to download a language learning app to your smartphone before you embark on your journey. These apps can help you whether you’re on your latest family vacation, an unforgettable trip with friends or even a honeymoon.
“I always advise clients who book trips with us to use a language learning app if they don’t already know the language where they’re going. I’ve done it myself on my vacations,” says travel agent Liz Harnos, co-owner of Burr Travel, a Northport, New York-based travel agency. “These apps can help you learn enough that you’ll be able to order food, ask for directions and other basic things during your trip.”
Even if you have no travel plans in the near future and you just want to learn a new language for your own betterment, then using a language learning app on your smartphone or laptop can be the right choice for you. To find the best one, we tested five candidates over the course of five weeks. On our list were the premium (i.e., paid) versions of Babbel, Busuu Premium Plus, Memrise, Rosetta Stone and Super Duolingo. We tested each of them for ease of setup, design and features.
We learned two important things during testing: 1) some of the apps are easier to use than others, and 2) these apps can teach you the basics for up to 38 different languages, depending on the app. When all our testing was done, we found that Rosetta Stone emerged as the winner because of its easy-to-use design and the way it presented its lessons in the most logical manner.
There’s a good reason why the language learning app Rosetta Stone is the gros chien (that is, the big dog) of the apps we tested. It’s well designed, flexible and assumes you are an adult when you first log in. It worked well on our smartphone, although it appeared in landscape mode rather than portrait mode. It also worked well on our computer as a web app.
When we started testing Rosetta Stone, we were asked to provide our email address, then we were asked to choose a language to learn. In the French version we chose, we were welcomed in French and then we clicked on “Get Started.” At this point, we were asked about our level of fluency. We were given choices for Beginner, Intermediate and Proficient. We chose Beginner.
We were then asked about our goals for learning the language, including travel, family, work or “basics and beyond.” We started with Travel. From there, we were presented with the core lessons and a reminder that we had three days left in our free trial. We were offered the chance to sign up immediately to get a discount.
When we started using the app, the first question we were asked was to choose our gender and indicate if we were a child or adult. This helped the speech recognition engine understand our voice.
Next, we were asked to test our microphone by counting to five. And that’s it.
The next step started with “Bonjour,” which we repeated into our microphone, and then we were off learning French.
Rosetta Stone started us off with a few words and a few short sentences. The examples were paired with photos illustrating what each represents, which is one of the reasons why it helps to spend at least part of the time using the app on a large screen. Using a smartphone, we can imagine it could be tough for some folks to see if pictures of children are boys or girls.
Next, we were taken through conversational situations, such as what we might say in a café. We were also given the option to schedule a session with a tutor, study situational phrasebooks or listen to native speakers tell stories.
We found the progression in Rosetta Stone to be logical, and better yet, we found when we reviewed the lessons that we had retained the words, the grammar and the pronunciation. While we weren’t fluent by the end of the testing period, we were familiar enough with the language that we could order a coffee and lunch at a café without horrifying the waitstaff.
Rosetta Stone offers lessons in 25 languages, including Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), Dutch, Greek, English (American and British), French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Spanish (Latin America and Spain), Turkish and Vietnamese. You can use Rosetta Stone as both a web app and a mobile app for Android or iOS mobile devices.
You can sign up for a three-day free trial. Once you sign up for a paid account, the company offers a 30-day money-back guarantee. The paid account option starts off at $12 per month for three months.
How we tested
During our pre-testing research, we found there are many different language learning apps available. We selected our five candidates and made sure they were all subscription-based. We tested each of them with the following criteria in mind: ease of installation and setup, ease of use, design and features offered.
To start testing, we first created an account with each app and initiated the sign-up process. We downloaded the French version of each app to our iPhone 13 Pro smartphone. We chose French because all of the language learning apps offered it and it was a language that we didn’t already know. However, each of the apps we tested is available in multiple languages; most include English, French, German, Italian and Spanish.
The apps we tested ran on our smartphone, but they also could run from a tablet or as a web app run from a desktop or laptop computer. They all offered us some form of a free introductory lesson so that we could decide whether or not we liked them before committing.
While we found that each app is different in the details of how it approaches language learning, we learned that they shared certain characteristics. For example, they all showed us a picture of an object or an action and displayed the word associated with it. Each app presented us with the aural version of the word, and the app’s speech recognition feature listened to our pronunciation.
Some apps asked us to spell out words in order to answer questions, while others asked us to pick from a choice of words. They all let us revisit a lesson to improve our understanding.
Each of these apps tried to focus its approach to match our familiarity with the language being studied. When we started the app for the first time, we were asked how familiar we were with the language, and the app put us through a short test to get more details on our ability. This means that someone who has a rudimentary knowledge of a language won’t be forced through the basics unless they want to start there.
One factor we discovered during testing is that a smartphone may not be the best platform for these apps. While convenient, there are times when a larger screen is a real benefit and when a good microphone will help the software understand you. Each of the apps depended on images to illustrate words and actions, and the small screen of a smartphone made it hard for us to discern some important details.
Likewise, we found that each app had some speech recognition failures that could be attributed to either the quality of the microphone in our smartphone, or the fact that the microphone was being obscured by how the smartphone was held.
Other language learning apps we tested
$13 per month (for 3 months) at Babbel
The language learning app Babbel is another one of the major players in this space. While its approach is similar to Rosetta Stone in some ways, Babbel started us off at a faster pace, sometimes with words that weren’t previously covered in the course.
In addition, we experienced minor glitches with both its mobile app and its web app. The web app would lose contact with our microphone after screen changes at times, and the smartphone app didn’t seem precise in voice recognition. What we mean by that is, we would deliberately say a word incorrectly, but the smartphone app would still accept it.
Babbel says it tailors its course according to the language with which you’re starting, so a native English speaker would have a different experience than a native Spanish speaker when using the app to learn French.
Babbel starts off with only a few words, repeated often in simple contexts. This may be a good approach for someone who hasn’t studied a foreign language before or who has difficulties learning languages. Babbel also offers courses with live instructors in a group setting.
Babbel offers lessons in 14 languages, namely Danish, Dutch, English, French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese (Brazilian), Russian, Spanish, Swedish and Turkish. You can use Babbel as both a web app and a mobile app for Android or iOS mobile devices.
You can register with Babbel for free, and the first lesson in every course is free to try. If you sign up for the paid version, then the company offers a 20-day money-back guarantee. After that, it costs $13 per month (for 3 months).
Busuu Premium Plus
$14 per month (billed monthly) at Busuu
The language learning app Busuu Premium Plus was recently acquired by Chegg, Inc. Initially, you can get a free week of learning with Busuu Premium Plus, while learning in what the company calls “bite-sized lessons.”
During testing, we experienced Busuu’s approach to learning, which was to have us say basic words and phrases — such as “Excuse me” in French — followed by taking a short quiz where we answered a question about the phrase.
But there was little explanation offered to us as to what the actual French words we were using meant. We also received no real explanation of verbs or gender. As a result, we thought it’s an app that relies mostly on rote memorization, without much understanding on the user’s part.
One example of this was when we completed a fill-in-the-blanks exercise of a conversation; we didn’t receive much instruction about the vocabulary. It seemed to us that this method might be confusing to a new French learner without much exposure to the language. Adding to the confusion, it wasn’t easy for us to go back a little earlier in our lesson to clarify things or to review anything.
Busuu Premium Plus is probably an excellent approach for learners who have some prior exposure to the language, but overall, using it seemed to us to be like learning to swim by starting out at the deep end.
Busuu Premium Plus offers lessons in 13 languages, including Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Turkish. You can use Busuu Premium Plus as both a web app and a mobile app for Android or iOS mobile devices.
You can sign up for the basic version of Busuu, which is free. The company offers a 14-day money-back guarantee. After that, Busuu Premium Plus costs $14 per month (billed monthly).
$8 per month (billed monthly) at Memrise
The language learning app Memrise uses words and phrases spoken in short videos that we then got to select from a list. The selection of words and phrases was more advanced than it was in some of the other language learning apps we tested. If you’re planning to travel to France and use the French that you learned from an app, then Memrise’s approach might be better.
However, this app took more focus for us to use than with, say, Super Duolingo. Memrise says that its method uses “scientific memory techniques.” That may be the case, but we think this is one app where it appears that it will only pay rewards if you approach it seriously and with much concentration.
It’s also worth noting that many of the exercises in Memrise required us to actually type in the answer rather than pick out an answer from a multiple choice list. Because (like us) you’re probably using an American English keyboard, Memrise supplies the additional characters from the French alphabet for you to choose.
Overall, we thought this is a well-intentioned and well-designed app, but it required more work on our part to understand and use.
Memrise offers lessons in 23 languages, including Arabic, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English (US and UK), French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Korean, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese (Brazil and Portugal), Russian and Spanish (Mexico and Spain). You can use Memrise as both a web app and a mobile app for Android or iOS mobile devices.
Memrise is partly free, which means the basic instruction is there, but most of the really useful instruction requires an upgraded account. The company offers four subscription plans: Monthly, Annual, Quarterly and Lifetime. We tested the monthly version, which costs $8 per month (billed monthly).
$7 per month (billed monthly) at Duolingo
With the language learning app Super Duolingo (formerly Duolingo Plus), we started off on our smartphone, learning with cartoons. Most of the lessons began with single words or short sentences, each with English translations. Testing went smoothly during this time.
However, when we used the web app, we encountered problems with the voice recognition portion of some lessons. There were times when even simple words we said weren’t recognized, while at other times they were.
Beyond that, Super Duolingo took things in very small steps, both in terms of vocabulary and in terms of sentence complexity. The result of Super Duolingo’s approach was that our learning moved along steadily, if in small steps. But the app is designed so that these very small steps move along quickly.
The app also offered us trumpets and virtual confetti and the like whenever we got a correct answer; there were lots of celebrations when we completed a task. We thought this was something that might appeal to younger learners but perhaps not to most older adults.
Overall, we thought learning with Super Duolingo was fast and easy. It’s the sort of thing you can do day after day without feeling like you’re working, which is a real plus when it comes to learning a language.
Super Duolingo offers lessons in 38 languages, including Arabic, Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Polish, Romanian and Spanish. You can use Super Duolingo as both a web app and a mobile app for Android or iOS mobile devices.
The basic version of Duolingo is free. Super Duolingo — the upgraded version that we tested — can be tried for free for two weeks. After that, it costs $7 per month (billed monthly).
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