Some people take to languages like a duck to water. Others, myself included, take to them like a yak in a bikini competition… I can survive, but it’s not pretty to watch. Check out my list of the best language learning apps of 2019 and let’s see if we can’t all get in touch with our inner ducks.
After visiting 40 countries I could theoretically hide behind the excuse of cultural overload, but not even I would fall for that nonsense. I think I recently came to terms with my reason for sucking so badly, but we’ll come to that later.
I’m currently trying to learn Brazilian Portuguese (whilst not forgetting my hard-earned Spanish), but the apps in this list cover all the big languages and some rare ones too. Want to learn English? Ever fancied learning to speak Maori? Let’s check them out. They’re available for Android and iOS, so everyone can join in the fun.
Best Language Learning Apps of 2019
(In no particular order)
Drops claims to be “the fastest-growing language learning app in the world” (over 10 million downloads to date). It was also voted as the Best Standout Startup App of 2018 in the Google Play Best of 2018 Awards.
High praise indeed, so what’s it all about?
It features 32 languages, with all the classics (French, Spanish, German etc) alongside others such as Esperanto, Hawaiian, Maori and Tagalog (spoken in the Philippines). The words are broken down into 98 different topics such as Food & Drink, Nature & Animals, Business & Tech and Science & Wisdom.
It combines “beautifully designed word games with mnemonic associations.” Roughly translated: images + words + games. You’ll learn no grammar, sentence structure or conjugations. This app is purely for vocabulary. I’ve come across some verbs but only in the present tense.
There’s a free and paid for version. The free version allows you to learn for 5 minutes per day (with bonuses if you get a streak going). The paid app costs a one-off fee of £139 (although it’s often heavily discounted), and this unlocks all languages/topics and removes the time restrictions.
5 minutes a day sounds like nothing, but it’s very addictive! You’re going against the clock so your brain is racing, it has a competitive feel and the UI (user interface) is really simple to master.
One of the highlights for me is the lack of English. You’re presented with an image, the English name briefly pops up (press on the image for it to return) and then you see/hear your target language. For the vast majority of your session you’ll see only images and the target language.
The beauty of this is that you learn to associate the new word with the image. This removes a step in the mental translation so now, for example, when you see a Brazilian bridge you’ll think “a ponte”, instead of seeing the bridge, thinking “what is the Portuguese word for bridge?” and then mentally translating.
It’s tricky to explain, but removing the extra step is a great move. Trust me.
It has a decent amount of stats, so you can track your journey from Newcomer up to Conversationalist and the streak bonuses will keep you coming back for more.
One downside for me is the lack of leagues, leaderboards or community. Learning a language can be a solitary battle, but throw in some competitive element between friends and that can be the difference between the app getting regular use or just gathering dust.
Check out the official Language Drops website here.
AnkiDroid (or Anki decks) has been around since the beginning of time (or the early 80s). “Anki” is the Japanese word for “memorization”
Absolutely zero frills, bells or whistles… it’s just a flashcard app which displays words, phrases and/or audio clips using spaced repetition. For simple word/phrases which you already know, mark it Easy and you won’t see it again for a few days. If it’s a bit tricky, mark it as Good and it will pop up again towards the end of the session to confirm that you remember it. When you don’t have a clue what the word means, click Again and it will keep popping back up until it sticks in your head.
You can either create your own decks of cards, or download pre-made sets from Ankiweb Shared Decks. This program is for learning anything, and so you can find decks about science, trivia, historical dates etc
Both the app and the decks are free, although you can find people selling pre-made decks (they take time to create, so it’s understandable).
Unless you create your own decks, you’re at the mercy of whatever’s available on the market. A search for Irish brought up an interesting choice of decks.
As it’s been around for decades it means there are thousands of decks available to download. This is a big positive. As they’re made by random individuals, the quality varies massively. This is a negative.
You can download 10 decks and end up deleting 9 of them as they’re junk, so it’s wise to look for reviews before downloading. But it’s free, so you’ve only lost the time it takes to download.
Some may see the UI as a downside, but it’s just stripped down and functional. Some classrooms are colourful and pretty and some are like prison cells, but it’s the content that really matters.
No list of best language learning apps of 2019 would be complete without Duolingo. Love it or hate it, it’s probably the most famous language app around.
Launched in 2012, it now offers ” 85 different language courses in 24 languages” with “about 300 million registered users across the world”. Now they’re impressive numbers!
Available languages include the big ones plus others such as Gaelic (Irish), Swahili and Navajo. They also kindly include Klingon and High Valyrian (should you wish to speak along with Game of Thrones).
The basic lessons begin by linking words to images, but then it’s mainly just text. Select the correct translation from a list, choose the correct words to complete a sentence or find matching translation pairs. Earn XP, crowns and lingots (which can be used to purchase in-app upgrades).
All languages are free, with a paid option to remove adverts which pop up at various times. The paid option ($9.99 per month) also allows you to complete the lessons offline which can be handy if you’re travelling.
I personally haven’t found Duolingo to be helpful on my language learning journey (I find the lessons slow and repetitive), but I know others who swear by it. The achievements, leaderboards and daily streak have kept my girlfriend committed to her French lessons (currently on a 45-day streak), and the clubs offer more interaction/competition with other users in your community.
This is a completely different kind of language learning app. Beelinguapp focuses on sharpening your reading skills which help it stand out and earn its rightful place on the list of best language-learning apps of 2019.
Beginning life in 2016 as a Kickstarter project, it’s racked up plenty of accolades such as Huffington Post naming it one of the best 10 Kickstarter projects of 2016, being certified and added to the Educational App Store Catalog in 2017 and being selected by Google Play as an “Editor’s Choice” app. It currently has over 2 million registered users.
The app features 12 languages, including Turkish, Arabic and Korean. Select your language, level (Beginner, Intermediate or Advanced) and your category (travel, children stories, science and technology etc).
Last night I read The Tortoise and the Hare. You have the option to have your target language at the top of the screen and your mother tongue underneath (or only target language for the more advanced users). The audio plays while you read in a ‘karaoke reading style’, which means a karaoke-style animation will be shown in both the target and mother tongue.
I found it really useful to be able to glance down to the English below when I came across a word or phrase I was unsure of. It meant it didn’t break the flow of reading, and I was able to handle everything in-app, rather than looking elsewhere for the definitions.
Beelinguapp features several free texts for different levels, as well as paid content. £13.49 for a yearly membership entitles you to unlimited access to all texts and audio, no ads, offline access and new content weekly.
Mondly Languages was recommended to me by a friend, and I’m glad they did. Superficially it’s similar to Duolingo, but it has a few special touches that differentiate it and make it well worth considering.
The first app was launched in 2014, with MondlyVR following in 2017 and MondlyKids in 2018. The VR program was “the first virtual reality language app with speech recognition.” They’ve also got an AR (augmented reality) version, available on Oculus and Play Store, which features ” an avatar “teacher” who brings virtual objects – planets, animals, musical instruments, etc. – into the room as teaching tools, engages the user in conversations and gives instant feedback on pronunciation using the chatbot technology.”
This immediately sets it apart from everything else on the list of best language-learning apps of 2019. Making learning fun can be a struggle (I worked in a school for nearly 10 years… I still carry the mental scars), so adding VR and AR will definitely engage more youngsters.
It covers 33 languages, including Afrikaans, Bulgarian and Persian and you can learn directly from your mother language, so for example directly from Polish to Thai. Nice touch.
Most of the lessons are presented in a similar format to Duolingo – link words to images, choose the correct words to complete a sentence etc The course material is broken down into subjects like Core Vocabulary, Preparing a Trip, Doctor etc and they have a ton of material.
For me, where Mondly really stands out is the Chatbot. You get to have a real/simulated conversation with a chatbot (a computer program designed to simulate a conversation with human users). You’re presented with a scenario (at the restaurant, shopping, in a taxi etc, asked a series of questions and must converse with the bot. The app offers suggestions for how to reply, but you can actually say anything. You choose your own solution.
This tests your listening skills, pronunciation and sentence construction. Although in real life people may phrase the questions slightly differently, you should be able to pick out enough to answer and make yourself understood.
There is a free version of the app, but it’s very limited. You can access one short class called Hello, one chatbot session and the daily lesson. Everything else is locked unless you sign up for a membership (£9.99 per month but often heavily discounted, plus they have a 7-day free trial).
Aside from the chatbot, other highlights include the challenges. Complete all the daily lessons in a week and you can enter the weekly quiz. Complete all of them and you enter the Monthly Challenge. These small things definitely scratch a competitive itch and keep you returning.
There are also a nice amount of statistics to geek over (although I’m not sure if the coloured spots are anatomically correct. I’ll report back after my next MRI scan).
Check out the official Mondly Languages website here.
Fluent Forever is still in the final stages of Beta testing, but if it’s half as effective as the book Fluent Forever (by Gabriel Wyner) then it’s going to be a winner (pun intended).
The book was launched in 2014 and became a bestseller, and then in 2017 a Kickstarter campaign was launched to create an app. It went on to become the most funded app in Kickstarter history, and it will be available to the public soon.
I loved the book. It offers a fresh approach to learning a language focusing on pronunciation to begin with. It was certainly a novel solution to the language learning problem after spending days/weeks/months of my life looking at conjugation charts and reading mind-numbingly dull textbooks.
I signed up to back the project and I’ve had the pleasure of watching the app grown and evolve in the test phasing. It currently features 8 languages (Spanish (Latin America), Spanish (European), French, Italian, German, Brazilian Portuguese, Russian, Korean) with many more planned for the future.
Pronunciation, spelling and ear training lessons are all available from the start. Select what level you’re working at and the course adapts – “the app continues to re-assess, and, if necessary, re-assign certain goals based on user progress”. This all sounds a bit Big Brother Skynet for me, but if it helps me to learn Portuguese then I’ll welcome the androids!
Fluent Forever will be subscription based, starting from $6.99 per month for a 24-month subscription to $9.99 for 1 month. I believe this reflects the target audience they’re hoping to attract. Based on the success of the book and the method, I think this is pitched at people who are serious about learning a language in a short space of time. No games or fancy animations… you study your 30+ minutes per day and you will see progress.
As I said, the app is still in the beta phase so I will update this as it changes, but I firmly believe that this will be one of the best language-learning tools of 2019.
Check out the official Fluent Forever website here.
Memrise was founded in 2009 by a Grand Master of Memory and a Princeton neuroscientist specializing in the science of memory and forgetting. Definitely a solid start!
Officially released in 2013, it caters for 23 languages and has 35 million registered users. In 2017 they were named as a winner of the Best App category in the Google Play Awards. While the app is only for foreign languages, the desktop version offers courses on a multitude of topics like Maths & Science, Trivia, Standardised Tests etc
I started using Memrise years ago in a failed attempt to learn Japanese. I used it primarily on desktop, and loved the UI. Bright, colourful and it was actually fun to study. I recently reunited with them and it’s grown up a little, but it still has that playful vibe.
While there’s nothing groundbreaking about this app – no VR, AR or space-age technology, it’s a solid piece of kit. The UI on the app can be a little confusing, but the technology behind it is great. It offers a level of detail you don’t see in Duolingo, as in the image below.
‘Permanent’ or ‘temporary’ are things which are guaranteed to trip up language learners, and Memrise handles them pretty well. It also handles them at a good fast pace (one of my major gripes with Duolingo).
The free version of Memrise allows you to learn new words and phrases and review them (the speed review is probably my favourite feature as it genuinely gets my heart pumping). The paid version goes from £8.50 per month, £17 every 3-months or £52 for a full year (often heavily discounted). They also offer a 7 day free trial.
The paid Pro service opens up a host of other features like the Grammarbot, learn with locals, pronunciation and a learn offline mode. If you just want to learn without all the fancy additions, the free version can keep you going and going.
There are some stats to keep you geeking, like words learnt, XP, a daily streak and badges to earn. They also have a leaderboard to help keep the competitive edge amongst friends.
They’ve recently received a bit of bad press when they announced they would be moving all the user-created content to a separate platform (not nice for all the people who recorded and uploaded new content to build/support/expand the brand). I’m not sure how much of an impact this will have on the core program, so I’ll keep my eye open for developments.
Whilst it’s not earth-shattering, the fact that all the language learning (and other courses on desktop) is free, comprehensive and delivered at a challenging pace makes it one of the best language-learning apps of 2019.
Check out the official Memrise website here.
I KNOW! I KNOW! This isn’t technically a language learning app, but I’m including it anyway!
The translations can be bad and it has no concept of sarcasm, but it can also be a lifesaver. Download whichever languages you like for offline mode and use it like any other dictionary.
But it doesn’t stop there. Aside from the 100+ foreign languages it supports, you can translate 37 languages via photo, 32 via voice in “conversation mode”, and 27 via real-time video in “augmented reality mode.”
I’ve used the photo translate feature more often than I can remember. In the pharmacy to check ingredients on a label, signs on the wall, PDFs from companies… it’s a great feature which a lot of people are still unaware of.
It’s simple, free and easy to use. For me, it’s an essential reference tool whenever I travel, so it’s going on the list.
So there we go. The best language learning apps of 2019. There are a gazillion other language apps on the market and I’ve personally tried hundreds of them. In the research for this post I had 22 apps on my phone. Most didn’t last a day due to either being boring, having terrible UI or questionable educational content. After wading through the others, I decided this to be the definitive list.
I genuinely use all of the above apps and I believe they each bring something special to the party. Whether you’re an Android or iOS user, these apps will absolutely help you with your studies.
If you only have limited time in the day/week then you may want to select the most relevant to your needs, but I’m happy to bounce between them all for a rounded learning experience that helps keep me engaged and motivated. They’re all tools to help on your journey.
Are they perfect? No. Will you learn a foreign language just by downloading them? No. Are any of these apps the solution to all your problems? No.
You need to put in the effort whichever you choose. Whether it’s 5 minutes a day with Drops or 30 with Fluent Forever, you have to invest time. The more you put in, the bigger the reward and the more engaging your next foreign travel experience will be.
So grab your Android phone, your iPad, iPhone, tablet or whatever your weapon of choice and get studying!
So what was my revelation? My actual lightbulb moment was realising that I’m afraid. I’m afraid of sounding silly.
Let me offer some context. I spend the majority of my days behind a keyboard, sharing my travel knowledge with all you beautiful people. While I try to be concise, I’ll hold my hands up and admit that I love my flowery language. It’s not sprinkled in for pomp or pseudo-profundity… I just love the English language. I’m a language geek.
And then it hit me. When I speak Spanish or Portuguese, I’m no longer flowery, eloquent or learned… I speak like a simpleton. And I think, deep down, that scares me.
By no means do I crave attention or closer examination, but I do like being understood. I can survive perfectly well in any Spanish speaking country, but there’s no subtlety or elegance to my speech; It’s crude and ugly. I understand topics and themes, but no nuance or wordplay. I miss jokes, irony and sarcasm, and this frustrates me.
The solution is clearly to throw myself deeper into my studies and commit to finally master the language, thus eliminating these fears… but it’s hard!
In 2017 I took the Add 1 Challenge, and that enabled me to raise my game and build up to holding a ‘conversation’ for 15 minutes. The challenge lasts 90 days, and it’s structured with some great lessons and strategies to keep you on track.
I don’t have 90 days before I meet my Brazilian girlfriend’s mum again, hence why I’m setting myself the 50-day challenge!
The first time I met her I was silent and mysterious (because I couldn’t understand a single word anyone said). This time will be different. This time I want to understand and be understood. It’s not going to be pretty, but I will succeed!
I’ll be using each of the apps on this list every single day as well as practising in real life. 50 days from now I will be fluent!
I shall be holding myself to account, and I’d love for you to join in too. Keep me honest, keep me motivated and hold me responsible. Ask me for updates and challenge me. Don’t let me slack off!
I’ll also be recommending another program in the coming weeks. The Mimic Method helped me out of my Spanish stagnation and it’s a system I truly believe in. The only reason it’s not on this list is the lack of an app, but that could change soon.
Do language learning apps work?
Up to a point, yes. If you already speak a language then they can be a fantastic supplement. You can improve your vocabulary whilst reinforcing your current skills. If you are completely new to the language then it can give you a real flavour of what to expect. Staring at your phone/iPad is no substitute for actively practising with a native speaking. Tech cannot replace human interaction, but it certainly has its place.
How effective are language learning apps?
As with everything in life, you get out what you put in. Form a habit by practising daily and your skills will improve.
How many language learning apps are there?
Thousands! Which is the right one for you? The one that keeps you coming back for more. If it’s a chore, you’re not going to stick with it. If it’s too hard, you’ll likely give up. Find one that’s stimulating and challenging enough whilst providing useful, practical lessons.
Do you have to pay for them?
There are in-app purchases with many of the apps… they are businesses after all. Some purchases unlock extra categories, modes of play or extended learning sessions. I wouldn’t recommend paying for any of them until you’ve given each of them a good test. While buying the full app could give you the motivation to continue, the initial excitement could fade quickly meaning you’ve just wasted your money.
Can you become fluent using only apps?
I would say no. No app, no matter how intelligent can be a substitute for a real-life conversation. People don’t speak like machines. Language is fluid and littered with colloquialisms, slang and new creations (I’ve never found an app that teaches “cray-cray”… thank god!). Once you’ve gained some confidence then either get out there and practice in real life, or find some online software that allows you to speak with people over the web (I personally recommend iTalki as I found some excellent tutors and had some great classes).
I hope you got some value from this post. If you did, feel free to share it on Social Media. If you loved it, hated it or have some other contenders for best language learning app of 2019 then please leave your comments below and we’ll get straight back to you.
Good luck with your language learning journey.
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