The Best Language-Learning Software for 2020

How to Find the Right Apps to Learn a Language

What language do you want to learn? Have you already learned a little, or are you a blank slate? Is your goal to know the language so well that you can speak, hear, read, and write it, or do you want to start with just one of those outcomes? Does the language you’re learning use a different script? Is it hard for you to make unfamiliar sounds? All these questions are crucial to finding the right language-learning apps—yes, apps, plural. If you want to see real progress in learning a language—whether you’re trying to master it for school or just learn enough to get by as a tourist—you need a variety of tools.

As with all kinds of education, learning a language takes dedication, and picking the right tools sets you up for success. You have to practice consistently. A gap in exposure leads to loss in ability. That’s why it’s so important to find apps and resources you like. This is not the time to put up with tools that are annoying or frustrating. You don’t want to give up on learning just because you don’t like the tool.

Use More Than One App or Service

With apps and online services for language learning, you can learn at your own pace and wherever you’re most comfortable. The trick is figuring out what you need to work on at different stages. 

When you first start out, you might like a program that tells you exactly what to study for an intensive 30 minutes per day, something that Rosetta Stone and Fluenz both deliver. Pair that with a mobile app so you can test your memory in five minute bursts. Duolingo is especially good at that. So is the study aid Quizlet. Some people find that looking at written language trips up their pronunciation. In that case, you might be better off starting with an audio-focused program, such as Pimsleur or Michel Thomas.

If you’re already an intermediate or advanced speaker, one-on-one conversations with a tutor are an excellent way to keep learning. Rype helps you find inexpensive tutors who meet with you via video chat. Not quite ready to converse? Try Yabla, a site that’s flush with videos of native speakers, which can help you acclimate your ear and expand your vocabulary.

Sometimes you need resources that are specific to the language you’re learning. For example, not many language-learning programs offer American Sign Language alongside other tongues, although Rocket Languages does. There are, however, apps that focus solely on sign language, such as SignIt, which we have not yet reviewed at PCMag. (We focus on apps that offer multiple languages, but we check out others when possible.) The same goes for languages with a different script. You can find many apps that teach only the writing aspect of Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Mandarin, Hindi, and other non-Roman scripts.

What Are Your Learning Preferences? 

One of the hardest things about learning a language is that if you succeed 100 percent of the time, it’s not difficult enough. If it’s too easy, you’re not learning. This is uncomfortable for many people. It’s another reason you need to find language apps and resources that work for you. 

For example, if you like to listen to podcasts in a foreign language, something Babbel and Duolingo offer, and you can understand 80 percent or more, that’s right where you need to be. If you’re not into podcasts in the first place, you might get frustrated and give up.

Let’s look at some of the best language learning apps in more depth.

What’s the Best Free App for Learning a Language?

The best free app for learning a language is Duolingo, hands down. We highly recommend it no matter your level or language goals, as this app has tools for just about everything.

It’s available as both a web app and mobile app, and it works well whether you’re a total beginner or already have experience. You can study as many languages as you like on Duolingo. It has more than 30 languages with instruction in English, plus more options if your preferred language of instruction is something other than English.

If you’re not a beginner, Duolingo lets you take a placement test to find the right place to start. It also makes it easy to practice specific skills because it has lessons that focus not only on vocabulary themes (Family, Hobbies), but also verb tenses and grammatical rules (Past Imperfect, Dative Case).

You can practice exercises in bite-size lessons or explore content for intermediate and advanced speakers, including Stories and podcasts, which are only available for some languages. Duolingo also has some gamification aspects, too, so you can set a goal for yourself and compete against others. The more you hit your goal, the more bonus points you earn. It’s a wonderful app that’s totally free. You can support Duolingo by paying for a Premium account, but it’s not necessary to get everything this app has to offer.

What’s the Best Paid Language-Learning Program?

Rosetta Stone is the most polished language learning app, with plenty of extras. Among paid programs, it continues to be our top pick. It’s reliable, accurate, and thorough, with more than 20 languages. We like its rigor, especially for beginners. You know exactly which lesson to do every day, and you can count on it taking about 30 minutes to complete. If you follow this routine, Rosetta Stone has enough content to keep you busy for months.

Rosetta Stone is ideal for anyone new to a language looking to develop a strong base of vocabulary and grammar. It’s well structured, clear, and moves at a deliberate pace. Use Rosetta Stone faithfully for a few months and you’ll learn to speak, read, write, and understand basic words and phrases.

New bonus material ranges from short instructional videos to live streaming classes. You can also find games plus small-class tutoring via video call for an extra fee.

Best Program With a Virtual Teacher

Some learners really do best when they have someone to guide them. When you’re first starting out with a language, seeing another human being speak it, watching their facial movements and seeing their smile, can make it feel less intimidating. Fluenz gets it. This program uses videos of a teacher to introduce new lessons and review concepts, then follows them up with learning exercises. It’s as rigorous as Rosetta Stone, but it has a completely different learning approach, which some people may prefer.

As Fluenz progresses, the instructor walks you through lessons in not only pronunciation and grammar, but culture, too. If you learn best when you see a familiar face, Fluenz is a great program to pick. The company also sells an enticing Spanish immersion program, which can be virtual or live in Mexico, travel restrictions permitting. 

Fluenz offers seven language courses: Chinese (Mandarin with Pinyin writing), French, German, Italian, Portuguese (Brazilian), Latin American Spanish, and European Spanish.

What’s the Most Challenging Language Instruction App?

One app stands out for having lessons that are harder than others: Babbel. While testing this app, we kept a notebook by our side and quickly filled it with notes just to keep up. Not everyone can jump into tough language learning content, but some people can. 

For example, if you’re learning a language that’s linguistically close to one you already speak, such as German and Dutch or Spanish and Portuguese, tougher content might be best for you. Additionally, experienced language learners might find Babbel’s content just the right speed.

Babbel has 13 languages, assuming your language of instruction is English. You can learn Danish, Dutch, French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, and Turkish. There’s also a course for learning English, with instruction available in French, German, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish.

If you’ve studied a language before and find that most language-learning apps are too easy, try Yabla. Imagine a video on demand service that lets you easily find content in the language you’re learning. It has options to show closed captioning in the native language as well as English subtitles. You can also look for content from a particular country or region for times when you need to acclimate your ear to a certain accent.

The app incorporates exercises, too, but the videos are the hook. Many of the videos were not produced specifically for language learners: They’re real video footage with native speakers using a natural pace and accent. Yabla offers six languages: Chinese, French, German, Italian, and Spanish, plus an English program for Spanish speakers.

Best Audio-Focused Language Apps

If you’re the kind of person who can get immersed in podcasts and audiobooks, you might consider an audio-focused language learning program. Two that stand out are Pimsleur and Michel Thomas. Each is named after the person who created the learning technique used in the program. Both were once sold as tapes, then CDs, and now in apps.

Pimsleur, named for Dr. Paul Pimsleur, uses a spaced repetition method. In other words, the program uses specific intervals of time between when you first learn a word and when you’re asked to recall it, and these intervals are designed for maximum language retention. Each lesson takes about 30 minutes, and you’re supposed to do exactly one lesson per day. For select languages, you can find a version of the Pimsleur app with interactive exercises, too, but the heart of the program is audio. It’s incredible at teaching pronunciation, and the material is solid.

The method used in Michel Thomas is different. Michel Thomas was a polyglot who developed a method of informal teaching. It involves putting people into a classroom and teaching them words that can be used as building blocks. That way, you get to speaking quickly and can mix and match the words you’ve learned to say a number of sentences. When you buy the Michel Thomas program, you hear the recording from one of these classrooms, and you’re supposed to play along as if you were there in person, too.

Best Apps for Boutique Languages

Most language-learning software is available for Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Portuguese. What do you do if you need to learn Igbo or Ojibwe?

When you’re in a bind to find an app for a language you want to learn, there are two sources to try: Transparent Language Online and Mango Languages (which didn’t make the cut for this list). Transparent has programs for more than 100 languages. Some of those programs are short, but the company is adding to them over time. Mango Languages is an option if you’re stuck, though it’s not an app that I recommend highly. For some languages, however, it may be your only option.

Best Language App for Travel

Not everyone needs a language-learning app to study a language. For example, maybe you need an app where you can write down vocabulary you want to review. The free app Quizlet is exactly that. The software lets you create unique content that you want to study, and it’s excellent with foreign languages.

Though Quizlet may sound like yet another boring flashcard app, it offers different tools to mix up your study sets and how you review them so your learning never gets stale. You can work on fill-in-the-blanks questions or even play games with your unique study sets. The tools are nicely animated, and the app offers speech-to-text features for pronunciation help, too. Be sure to indicate the language you’re studying for the best pronunciation.

Keep Moving

However you choose to learn a language, stick with it! Don’t be afraid to change the app you use as you progress. When an app feels too easy, it’s time to stretch yourself in new ways.

If any of the apps in this list sounds right for you, click the link for an in-depth review. If you’re looking to study subjects other languages, you should also check out our roundup of the best online learning services.

Where To Buy

  • Duolingo

    Pros: Free

    Excellent podcast for Spanish and French

    Clear structure

    Lets you test out of lessons that are too easy

    Offers many languages

    Cons: Quantity of material varies among languages

    Bottom Line: Duolingo is the best free app for learning a language. Unique features and a clear structure make it a reliable place to learn new languages or sharpen your skills.

    Read Review

  • Rosetta Stone Language Learning

    Pros: Excellent user experience
    Highly intuitive
    Polished interface on desktop and mobile
    Optional online tutoring sessions
    Great bonus content

    Cons: No placement test
    Repetitive at times

    Bottom Line: Rosetta Stone remains the best premium software for building a foundation in a foreign language. It’s excellent for beginners, and it has a ton of additional content for more advanced learners, too.

    Read Review

  • Babbel

    Pros: Useful and challenging content
    Inexpensive
    Helpful instructional blurbs for true beginners
    High quality lessons that are unique to each language
    Podcasts available for some languages

    Cons: Total amount of content varies by language
    Needs a better visual layout of Topics and lessons completed

    Bottom Line: Language-learning app Babbel teaches phrases and vocabulary you’ll actually use. While the exercises can get dull, a low subscription price makes up for it.

    Read Review

  • Fluenz

    Pros: Excellent core content
    Well suited for beginners and for long-term use
    Thorough
    App design prevents distractions

    Cons: Limited number of languages
    Only basic voice recording
    No live web classes

    Bottom Line: Fluenz recreates aspects of classroom learning in its foreign language instruction. It’s one of the best in its class, but it only offers a few languages.

    Read Review

  • Rype

    Pros: Inexpensive one-on-one tutoring
    Good tools for finding instructors

    Cons: Short sessions
    May take time to find the right instructor

    Bottom Line: Rype is an online marketplace where language learners can find tutors for one-on-one video-call sessions. The price is extremely low, although the sessions are only 30 minutes each.

    Read Review

  • Simon & Schuster Pimsleur Comprehensive

    Pros: Excellent for learning to speak and understand spoken languages

    Superbly structured

    Programs for 50 languages, plus ESL courses

    Cons: A primarily audio-based service, with PDFs; doesn’t teach reading or writing

    Expensive

    Digital version with interactive exercises only covers eight languages

    Bottom Line: Pimsleur is one of the most accurate and effective programs for learning to speak and understand a new language. This audio-based system won’t teach you reading or writing, however, nor does it have any games or interactive exercises for many of its languages.

    Read Review

  • Transparent Language Online

    Pros: Offers instruction in more than 100 languages
    Clear learning path and structure
    Excellent speech analysis
    Appropriately challenging

    Cons: Writing and spelling exercises could be more polished
    Some languages have more content than others
    Pricier than others

    Bottom Line: If you need to learn a language, there’s a good chance Transparent Language Online teaches it. It’s not the flashiest app, but it offers excellent education in a huge variety of languages.

    Read Review

  • Yabla

    Pros: Excellent for sharpening language-listening skills
    Provides exposure to new words and expressions
    Uses a variety of speakers and accents
    Videos with conversational pace

    Cons: Lacks structure

    Inconsistent quality

    Few languages offered

    Bottom Line: Yabla strengthens foreign language listening skills with thousands of videos and exercises based on them. It’s excellent for people with prior language experience, but not ideal for novices.

    Read Review

  • Rocket Languages

    Pros: Materials are online, downloadable, and in mobile apps
    Courses in 12 languages
    Blends audio instruction with interactive exercises
    One-time fee for lifetime access

    Cons: Clunky practice exercises
    Doesn’t provide enough structure for mastering non-Roman scripts

    Bottom Line: If you want to be able to say a few phrases quickly, and hate subscription fees, Rocket Languages is a good language learning app.

    Read Review

  • Michel Thomas

    Pros: Teaching method forces you to fully recall words.
    Emphasizes listening and speaking high-frequency words.

    Cons: Minimal reading and no writing.
    No interactive materials.
    Confusing purchasing options and prices.

    Bottom Line: Michel Thomas’ language-learning method is designed to give you functional skills.
    The audio courses bring you into the world of the spoken language, but it doesn’t teach reading or writing.

    Read Review


About the Author


September 11, 2020

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