There was a point in time when exposure to a foreign language was limited to travel and the books at your local library. Those days are ancient history. Mobile apps now permeate the language learning landscape. Here we’ll discuss some of the advantages of language learning apps, and list some of the top choices for would-be language learners.
Benefits of mobile apps in language learning
Foreign language acquisition is no longer limited to the classroom. One of the chief benefits of using apps to learn a language is that they allow you to use the language in ways that simply weren’t possible before. You can easily read news and print media, or watch videos from anywhere in the world. You can use games and other activities to review grammar and vocabulary. You can quickly translate text and even in some cases audio. It’s even possible to speak with native speakers of your target language, even if they’re on the other side of the globe.
Apps allow you to set aside more time for language learning than would otherwise be possible. Whether you’re waiting in line, riding the bus, or perhaps on a lunch break, apps put language study in the palm of your hand. You can practice and develop your learning skills anytime and anywhere.
Of all the apps on this list Google Translate is perhaps the most essential. The translations on the app aren’t always accurate. Google Translate especially struggles with correctly translating longer portions of text or speech. Still, an app that can instantly translate basic words and sentences is a powerful learning tool.
Oftentimes it’s only a word or two that makes a sentence hard to understand when studying a foreign language. Google Translate is a quick, easy, and natural remedy to this problem. The app also comes in handy when a foreign word is on the tip of your tongue but you just can’t remember it.
The accuracy of the translation will differ depending on which language you’re learning. Google Translate does better when the language is more closely related to English, and it struggles when language is far removed from the English language.
Italki is the most popular entry in a long line of online tutoring apps for foreign languages. Italki functions as a global online marketplace, where language students can shop around and book lessons with a language teacher or tutor. Italki teachers are classified as anyone who holds some sort of certification to teach a foreign language. A tutor is simply a native speaker who teaches a language, but doesn’t hold any certification or formal education related to teaching. There are over 130 languages taught on Italki. Users can use the app to book one on one video lessons which range from 30 minutes to an hour and a half. Teachers and tutors follow their own programs and curriculum, so learners may want to browse the site for the teacher that’s best for them. Lesson prices are charged per hour, and the rates depend largely on where a teacher is from. Teachers from countries with a higher cost of living tend to charge more than those who live somewhere with a lower cost of living.
With Babbel users learn a foreign language through lessons centered around quiz-like exercises. In a typical Babbel lesson, you are taught new material and then you take a quiz to review and practice what you’ve learned.
The level of material ranges from absolute beginners (those who have little to knowledge of their target language, up to intermediate (those who can hold basic conversations in a foreign language). Courses for less popular languages sometimes have less lessons that course for more popular languages (like Spanish and French for example).
The Babbel app does a great job teaching core grammar and vocabulary. After working through the app, users won’t be fluent, but they will have a strong foundation in their target language. There are 14 languages available on Babbel. Asian and most middle eastern languages fail to make an appearance on the app.
Duolingo is without question the most popular app on this list. There are over 30 foreign languages on the app, including many minority languages, and even a couple fictitious ones like Klingon and High Valyrian. The Duolingo method teaches language in the form of a game. The app starts off by giving users a placement test. Based on their score the user can skip ahead over some of the preliminary lessons.
Each lesson focuses on either vocabulary or grammar. The apps show example phrases and users are then required to complete a range of activities using the vocabulary and grammar from those examples. Each time a user answers an exercise incorrectly he or she loses a life. The activities and exercises range from fill in the blank, listening comprehension, pronunciation, word matching, and more.
The effectiveness of Duolingo varies based on which language you are learning. An independent study found that a fully completed Spanish or French course on Duolingo is comparable to four semesters of a college level university course. However the app struggles with languages which aren’t closely related to English. Their Japanese course is a prime example, which you can read about here.
Memrise takes the idea of a language learning game and applies it to flashcards. Memrise starts out by showing users flashcards for basic phrases and vocabulary. Gradually the app incorporates more difficult vocabulary, and the user’s proficiency in the language goes up. While Memrise offers lessons tailored to specific lessons, users also have the option of creating their flashcard decks using images and audio. You can also browse flashcard decks other users have created and then published.
One of the most powerful features of Memrise is that it’s a spaced repetition platform. This means the app uses an algorithm to show more difficult cards more often than cards you easily remember. This allows users to study their flashcards in the most efficient way possible. The main drawback of Memrise is that it doesn’t teach much grammar. Users who regularly use the app will walk away knowing a lot of words and phrases, but they may not understand how to form sentences on their own, due to the lack of grammar taught in the app.