In our connected times, an aspiring student of languages can find tons of different tools online and elsewhere that each promises to get one to speaking a foreign language in no time at all. I study languages as a hobby, and while I cannot call myself a true super-polyglot, I possess skills from basic tourist comprehension to fluency in more than a handful of tongues. Over the past year or so, I have given a large number of online tools a spin here or there. This post is a high-level summary of my personal reflections on their efficacy and usability.
Before jumping into these mini-reviews, let me state the obvious: None of these tools deliver on their promise on their own.
The level of “basic tourist comprehension” – having stuttering command of greetings and common courtesy phrases, being able to recognize directions and read restaurant menus, knowing how to ask for help – can be attained in a matter of weeks if you bang upon a single app. The end result will be hardly much better than using Google Translator on your phone (and by the way, for all its perceived faults, Google Translator has to be an essential app whenever you travel to a foreign country). But if your goal is to become somewhat proficient in a language – let’s define that as at least B1 level proficiency – you will need to focus on your studies for a non-trivial period of time and likely use a combination of tools.
Language mastery normally comprises four competencies: reading, writing, speaking, and understanding. Various tools implicitly or explicitly emphasize some of these competencies over the others. In my opinion, reading proficiency is the easiest to obtain – any tool that shows you the words on a screen will train you to read the language, regardless of whether there are defined reading exercises. Writing is one competency that you can deprioritize in your learning approach unless your goal is actually to correspond with people via letters; you will probably somewhat unintentionally practice writing anyway if you have a habit of making notes as you study.
Speaking and understanding are two competencies that combine to give you conversational proficiency. When you think about your ability to speak in the foreign tongue you most likely refer to these two. Almost all tools will train you to some degree or other to understand foreign words; not many will teach you to speak, and those that do will likely do so only in the context of standalone phrases. In any case, true conversational proficiency can only be achieved by speaking with native carriers of the language – don’t ever believe anyone trying to tell you that you can master conversational skills without some form of immersion (even if the immersion is periodic and timeboxed).
Underlying all of that is pure memorization. You simply have to commit words (and eventually phrases and grammatical constructs) to your long-term memory in order to become proficient. Here as well, different apps do things differently, although the spaced repetition method is clearly at the forefront for many, be it through classic flashcards or through cloze activities or some combination therewith.
What about grammar, you may ask. Some tools take a bit of time to point out specific grammar constructs when the first example comes along, while others leave it to you to absorb grammatical structure as you study spoken speech. In my opinion, if your goal is to start communicating in a new language, focusing on grammar should be way down your list of priorities. And a grammar book is going to be your best tool for that anyway, rather than any app.
Since no two tools are made the same, a direct comparison between them is not possible in most cases. But that is not the intent here anyway. As stated above, you need to use a combination of them to achieve your language learning goals. Your personal preferences and idiosyncrasies may result in a markedly different assessment of a given tool from mine. So, don’t use this as a definite list of recommendations. Use it as the starting point to pick the tools that you believe will give you the most bang for the buck.
This is surely not an exhaustive list. If you feel like I should look into something that is not listed here, please drop me a note. Prices and functionality are stated as of the time of last use.
Tools I used extensively
What it does: Guided acquisition of conversational proficiencies via audio call-and-respond approach, underpinned by spaced repetition. No visual input is involved, so it is the ultimate hands-free approach to learning. English-language prompts get gradually replaced by those in your target language, so as you progress, you eventually listen to just the language you are learning, with only new translations thrown in, bringing you as close to immersion as is possible without having a live person to converse with. Reading is covered in a very unsubstantial way as an add-on; writing is not practiced at all.
Notable bells and whistles: The online/app version includes a number of other add-ons, such as flashcards. My familiarity with Pimsleur is mainly through CD-based offerings of yesteryear, but I assume that you still learn most of the way through listening and repeating.
Pet peeves and drawbacks: All lessons are about 30 minutes long, which demands certain time and location management from you to be able to study (unless you are completely not caring about disturbing those around you).
I used it for: French, Italian, Hebrew, Spanish, German (ranging from full courses to several lessons). Last used: 2018.
Available Languages: Over 50.
What you get for free: A teaser of the first lesson in each language. Every full-access subscription includes a 7-day trial, during which you can cancel at no charge.
Full access cost: Premium version costs $19.95 per month. If you prefer to save a bit of money by forgoing add-ons, an audio-only version costs $14.95 per month. The CD-based single level courses are still offered at $345 for the 30-lesson pack.
Verdict: Pimsleur used to be my starting point for every language. It remains my favorite approach to language studying, although it is one of the more expensive tools around.
What it does: Guided vocabulary builder. Most of the practice is in the form of multiple-choice, focused on reading and listening, although there are speaking prompts as well. Further topics on your learning path are getting unlocked as you progress, so you cannot jump too much ahead of yourself. Spaced repetition is present very cursorily – you will be prompted to refresh a past topic, but purely as a suggestion.
Notable bells and whistles: The interface uses cartoon pictorials for visualization, which has a certain cuteness factor. There are virtual rewards that help further gamify the experience.
Pet peeves and drawbacks: Right from the very beginning, you come across words and phrases that are either of little use or are fairly nonsensical (“the cat boiled an egg”) – while they may still help you to retain the words and learn the structure of the language, I do not find the approach too productive.
I used it for: French, Spanish, Italian, Hebrew, Portuguese (ranging from a couple of months daily to a few days). Last used: Early 2019.
Available Languages: Over 30.
What you get for free: Everything.
Full access cost: If there are premium options at an additional cost, I am unsure why anyone would need to have them.
Verdict: I not a big fan of the kiddified and gamified approach, nor of the occasional silliness of the studied vocabulary. But as a free resource, it is definitely worth a look for new learners of a language.
What it does: Guided vocabulary builder, underpinned by spaced repetition. The repetition reviews are suggested in an in-your-face manner and you have to explicitly choose to skip them (as opposed to most other apps that simply alert you that a review is ready for you somewhere). You can technically jump ahead when you want, although most people will likely stay on their guided path. Activities vary between multiple-choice flashcards and unscramble questions; there is no visualization of vocabulary.
Notable bells and whistles: “Learn with Locals” is the killer feature – short clips of native speakers saying the phrase in question mixed in with other activities. A recent addition to the app, called “Immersion”, offers daily one-to-two minute subtitled videos on a variety of lighthearted topics and functions a bit like podcast-based learning.
Pet peeves and drawbacks: The biggest drawback is that speaking skill becomes an afterthought in this approach; you are left entirely at your discretion in terms of saying things out loud or not. Although you practice three other competencies interchangeably, it is still overall no more than a vocabulary builder. And I have a personal dislike of unscramble-style questions, which are many in number.
I used it for: French, Spanish, Italian, Hebrew, Portuguese (at least a couple of months daily in each instance). Last used: Ongoing use.
Available Languages: Impossible to count. All of the major languages are covered with multiple levels, and a search for any relatively obscure language seems to produce results. The platform of Memrise apparently allows for the creation of any courses (not just language), so besides the “official” offerings you can take advantage of its vast user-generated content – which, admittedly, could be hit or miss. Note that the mobile app lists only 19 “major” languages for selection, but if you go through the website and add something beyond those 19 to your learning profile, it will become accessible in the app.
What you get for free: Practically everything. The “Learn with Locals” feature is listed as part of the paid subscription, but is seemingly included for free when it comes to major languages. “Immersion” may also be throttled after some initial tryout period.
Full access cost: Additional features can be unlocked for $39.99 a year, or for a single “lifetime” payment of $99.99 – and that covers the entire platform.
Verdict: A favorite of mine for building out the vocabulary, much more so than Duolingo. I continue to use free features extensively but may buy lifetime access eventually anyway.
What it does: Guided “natural” acquisition of a language. You associate visuals with words and phrases without ever seeing a translation or a grammar explanation – which is theoretically how kids learn to speak. All input and practice is of multiple-choice fashion; grammatical constructs are inferred through side-by-side visualizations. You are technically practicing all of the four competencies in a sophisticated ecosystem. You can jump to future topics if you like, but most people will stay on the suggested path. Spaced repetition is involved within the context of each topical unit, which would have nearly 50 sessions emphasizing different competencies.
Notable bells and whistles: For an extra fee, you can obtain actual conversational practice via individual tutoring.
Pet peeves and drawbacks: I am not convinced that this approach works for adults, since visual recognition quickly starts leading you in answering questions without actually mastering the language concepts. You can also misinterpret clues regarding the language grammar structure, which may cause you some grief in the future. Writing exercises block you from progressing if you typed a single wrong character.
I used it for: Hebrew (full course), French (limited run many years ago). Last used: Early 2019.
Available Languages: About 25.
What you get for free: 3-day trial.
Full access cost: Regular 12-month subscription for a single language is listed at $179 but there are always deals around that bring that down to under $100. Occasional lifetime access deals also pop up.
Verdict: As stated in the drawbacks block above, the “natural” way works for toddlers but may not translate into working for adults. Nonetheless, Rosetta Stone is one of the most well-known tools for language study, both because it has been around for a while and also because it continues to be fairly aggressively marketed. It is one of the most sophisticated and in certain ways challenging tools, at a reasonable price.
What it does: Language acquisition through reading and listening to texts, coupled with spaced-repetition vocabulary building. LingQ provides tools to dissect any text and to track which language terms (words or phrases) you know and which you have to study, so you are thus building your comprehension and vocabulary word-by-word. You choose which words to mark for studying and which to mark as known; vocabulary reviews include multiple-choice questions, dictation/typing, cloze, and classic flashcards; you can grade yourself on your knowledge of a given term, which feeds into the spaced-repetition algorithm. Texts are almost invariably accompanied by sound, so you can complement your reading with podcast-like listening practice. There is no visualization of vocabulary.
Notable bells and whistles: You can import your own content to study, including the sound portion (for instance, a text of a song and the accompanying mp3 file; or a text of a book along with its audiobook version). The platform works with videos as well, as long as you possess the script. The text-to-speech engine is available even if you do not have the full audio accompanying the text; it is also used for all reviews. There are options to integrate your studies with other tools, such as flashcard deck building, etc.
Pet peeves and drawbacks: (The first two issues may not be much of a problem for major European languages, which I am yet to try in the tool.) For languages with non-phonemic orthography, the text-to-speech engine is maddeningly inconsistent and even borderline detrimental to studies. Translation comes primarily via integration with Google Translator, which trips up on more complicated structures and turns of phrase; you often have to make use of other more trustworthy translating tools. There is no option to leave individual words in the “unknown” state – by default, every word that you encounter and don’t want to study becomes “known”, or you can change that default to leave every single word “unknown” unless it goes into your study deck; both of these options have drawbacks over long study periods of time. Speaking the language is a significant afterthought – it is entirely up to you to work some speaking into your studies. Spaced repetition algorithm is hard to discern when you add more new words to your study list than you can review in a vocab review session; and in any case, the review is not forced on you.
I used it for: Hebrew. Last used: Ongoing use.
Available Languages: 20 in fully developed state (including all majors), 20 more in beta.
What you get for free: Unpaid access gives you a teaser in the form of a small allowance of 20 LingQs – your learned words – to create and practice. This is entirely insufficient to get a feel for the tool, especially as a person not familiar with it is likely to fill that up within literally a quarter of an hour. Access to the library is unfettered even after you run out of free LingQs.
Full access cost: Subscription has a number of options, from $12.99 per month to $7.99 a month for a 24-month period.
Verdict: Although this is one of my favorites, I am not convinced that it can be more than a complement to other tools. The idea of language acquisition through reading real materials is not without merit, but you lose a significant amount of control over the input – many words that you don’t know but also don’t need will come up. Additionally, languages with complex grammar – with cases, declensions, conjugations, joining prepositions, joining possessives, etc. – will present every such variation of the same word as a separate term. This creates a bit of noise both in your actual studies and the accompanying statistics, since hardly anybody would find it useful to study different forms of the same word independently of each other. Nonetheless, LingQ offers significant help in breaking down foreign languages in real contexts.
Alternatives: An entirely free tool called Learning With Texts (LWT) can be installed and configured on your desktop to provide largely the same method of language learning. It takes some effort to actually do so, and then all of the learning materials are entirely up to you to find and import into the tool; the interface is rather confusing. I am a very technical person and I quickly reached the limit of what I wanted to do on my own to facilitate my studies – but for some having the configurable tool that is absolutely free may be a strong attraction.
What it does: Free-path listening comprehension tool via podcasts. The easy-to-digest sessions each illustrate a specific topic and provide listening practice, together with vocabulary, a bit of grammar, some conversational pointers, as well as cultural context.
Notable bells and whistles: There are different levels and studying paths that you can choose in each language; literally thousands of hours of lessons to choose from. There are also additional tools that you can use to help you practice, such as building flashcard decks. 1-on-1 language instruction can be obtained if you pay for the most expensive level of subscription.
Pet peeves and drawbacks: In reality, you are mainly practicing a single language competency, aided by building your vocabulary through flashcards if you take advantage of that add-on. Reading is involved inasmuch as looking at the lesson transcript when you listen to the audio portion. Speaking practice is almost completely up to you to come up with on your own, although many podcasts leave space for you to repeat after the native speaker. On a separate note, the English-language banter and standard script connectors used by the hosts, especially in the lower-level series, is quite excessive; since this method of study necessitates going over the same material several times, listening to those conversation fillers feels counterproductive (it does get better at higher levels of competency, though).
I used it for: Hebrew (extensively), French (within limits of the free trial). Last used: Early 2020.
Available Languages: Nearly 40.
What you get for free: You sign up for a free account and get access to some podcasts and limited tools; the 7-day free trial with full access commences when you activate the free account. The first three podcasts in every set are nearly always free to listen to without any additional tools. At the time of initial sign-up, you are always offered a bundle of starter tools (which you can download to use offline) for $1 – that covers enough material to last new learners several months; your trial Premium access will be extended to 30 days in that case.
Full access cost: Basic subscription for a single language is $4 a month, while Premium is $10 a month (your personal “Word Bank” of flashcards is only available for Premium subscriptions). Premium Plus, which adds 1-on-1 instruction, is at $23 per month. There are frequently available discounts for Premium subscriptions.
Verdict: If you ever listened to a Pod101 podcast or YouTube video, you are familiar with Innovative Language. It is a definite leader in podcasts for a fairly affordable cost, but I feel that this can be only a supplementary studying tool.
Alternatives: There are plenty of podcast offerings online in individual languages. For Hebrew, for instance, I used HebrewPodcasts.com; for French, I have checked out FrancaisAuthentique.com.
What it does: Thematic vocabulary builder. Studying is done mostly through unscramble questions with an occasional multiple-choice thrown in. There is a visualization for one or two questions in each lesson; practically all of the interaction is of read-and-listen variety.
Notable bells and whistles: The UI is pretty snazzy. The app has a bot dialogue engine that imitates conversations you might have on given topics and provides limited speaking practice for the learner. You can also do lessons in a hands-free manner, also facilitated by a bot. Mondly also offers a VR application to study, which I have not tried.
Pet peeves and drawbacks: I could not discern any spaced repetition in the approach. I find the voice-recognition component of the bot engine rather lacking accuracy (going both ways – sometimes mispronounced words are accepted as correct, while on occasion no matter how much you try the system will hear a different set of words); highly unvaried nature of the voice prompts by the bot in the hands-free mode leaves a lot to be desired. Finally, it may sound like nitpicking, but it felt to me that the snazziness of the UI was a marketing goal in itself when building the app.
I used it for: Hebrew (daily for over a month), French (quick test drive). Last used: Early 2020.
Available Languages: Over 30.
What you get for free: A teaser of a limited set of starting lessons.
Full access cost: Subscription is either $9.99 for a single month or $47.99 for a full year for one language. There are frequent sales that offer you access to all languages for the single yearly fee. I came across a lifetime access deal for 5 languages for $65 as well.
Verdict: I am decidedly not a fan at present. Unscrambling sentences is not my preferred approach to learning. The bot feature can be a game-changer when it is polished up a bit more.
What it does: Live conversational practice. You can find a tutor in your target language from among hundreds of offerings, arrange for lessons based on your mutual availability, and conduct all necessary financial transactions. The actual sessions will occur through Skype, and you will have to come back to your iTalki dashboard to confirm that the lesson took place and to provide feedback. Each tutor has their own teaching plan and approach, and you can try offerings before buying full lessons. There are no long-term commitments – you pay as you go.
Notable bells and whistles: The platform is focused solely on connecting learners with tutors and handling the transactional aspect of the connection.
Pet peeves and drawbacks: When the tutor is not working from a set script that they can share with you after the session, your only tool for reviewing what you discussed on your own is the Skype chat archive, which will require quite a lot of extra work in order to get words and phrases into your preferred flashcards system. It goes without saying that each tutor has their own approach to instruction, which is good from the variety point of view but may not be as great if you have a specific goal in mind.
I used it for: Hebrew (extensively with different teachers). Last used: October 2019.
Available Languages: I did not count the number of options in the drop-down on the home page but I suspect it might be close to 200. Obviously, the number of available tutors is proportional to language popularity.
What you get for free: Real people sell their language skills as a service here, so nothing beyond seeing profiles of tutors.
Full access cost: One-on-one tutoring is obviously the most expensive approach to language learning; even with the cheapest tutoring options the cost will quickly add up.I paid between $15 and $25 per lesson. Trial lessons are usually half the cost of the full session.
Verdict: iTalki is the best-known marketplace for individual language tutoring. Practicing listening and speaking with a native carrier of the language is as close to an immersive experience as you can get without leaving your computer. For that, look no further.
What it does: Live conversational practice, with flashcards as an extra feature. You can find a tutor in your target language, arrange for lessons based on your mutual availability, and conduct all necessary financial transactions. Each tutor has their own teaching plan and approach, and you can try offerings before buying full lessons.
Notable bells and whistles: Verbling provides its own ecosystem, complete with the video connection between you and your teacher, your chat archives, and built-in flashcard learning tools. It adds a level of sophistication and convenience to the process.
Pet peeves and drawbacks: You pay extra for that layer of sophistication of the ecosystem. I found the tutors on Verbling more rigid in their approach than people on iTalki. There are definitely fewer options here than on iTalki.
I used it for: Hebrew (extensively with one teacher). Last used: October 2019.
Available Languages: Over 50. The number of available tutors is proportional to language popularity.
What you get for free: Real people sell their language skills as a service here, but trial lessons are usually offered for free.
Full access cost: Many teachers offer multi-lesson packages at discount – that helps with the cost, and also locks you into a medium-term commitment that may force you to study more intensively. I paid $390 for a set of 10 lessons, which was a discounted bulk price.
Verdict: Verbling is a significantly lesser-known alternative to iTalki. I’d go to iTalki first and look at Verbling only as a backup. Your need for a full ecosystem may dictate the opposite.
Tools I only test-driven
What it does: Semi-guided vocabulary builder combined with podcasts. The training is essentially a flashcards system with a spaced-repetition algorithm. The new words and phrases are mainly suggested by setting your thematic preferences. Visualization of content is part of both flashcards and dialogue learning.
Notable bells and whistles: The built-in library of the words and phrases is huge; when you first come upon a new flashcard, there are several different angles you can work with it to memorize, including recording yourself saying the words. The dialogue library (in effect, the podcasts) is not too large and aimed at users beyond the beginner level (which appeals to me but may not be useful to people just starting out); you can add individual phrases from the dialogues to your flashcard reviews. There is also an available extension that allows you to add words and phrases to your study deck when you find something useful elsewhere on the internet.
Pet peeves and drawbacks: Navigation around the app and user features leave a lot to be desired – even after having used the app for a while, I am unsure about best ways to achieve some of the simplest things (such as taking a look at what exactly is in my study deck). I am also not a fan of the bare-bones hands-off mode or of the illustrating dialogues with sentence-based visuals.
I tried it for: French (not too extensively). Last tried: Early 2020.
Available Languages: Only 7 majors.
What you get for free: 15-day trial.
Full access cost: 12-month subscription costs $59.90. Lifetime deals for $99 one-time payment are occasionally available.
Verdict: Far from ideal implementation, but conceptually among the best I tried.
What it does: Guided vocabulary builder. You study via the read-and-respond flashcard method underpinned by spaced repetition. No vocabulary visualization. No writing exercises.
Notable bells and whistles: Phrases are learned by deconstructing them, and the auto-play mode turns the process into call-and-respond – these two features together come quite close to my favorite way of learning a language as epitomized by Pimsleur. There are frequent “culture tips” to help you get hang of the language. You can record your own pronunciation of the word/phrase and then adjust your recording so that it can be replayed simultaneously with the native pronunciation for comparison.
Pet peeves and drawbacks: Auto-play leaves too long pauses for you to respond, in my opinion, which stretches out the lesson unnecessarily.
I tried it for: French, Hebrew (within limits of the free trial), Yiddish (several lessons for a free language). Last tried: Early 2020.
Available Languages: Over 70. Some of the rare and more obscure languages are marked as “Free” – you can study them in full without any fee.
What you get for free: A teaser of the first lesson of each language (and you can get the first lesson of Specialty Units within a given language to play for free as well). Each full subscription includes a 14-day free trial, during which you can cancel at no charge.
Full access cost: Subscription goes for $7.99 a month for a single language or $17.99 a month if you want access to all languages at once.
Verdict: Definitely a contender for a very reasonable price.
What it does: Guided vocabulary builder with an emphasis on pronunciation, spelling, and ear training. In essence, this is a sophisticated flashcards app, heavily based on visualization and spaced repetition. You progress through lessons one at a time, unlocking subsequent ones. The lessons are, technically, flashcard-deck building activities – you build up your vocabulary deck by associating pictures with suggested words, and no translation will be provided to you when you practice. Your daily dose of learning always includes reviewing past flashcards.
Notable bells and whistles: Initial lessons contain short clips that run through pronunciation and spelling specifics. Some of the practice questions focus on specific sounds of the language and others attempt to train your ear to distinguish between similar sounds and words; yet others focus on spelling or in the classic fashion on translating (verified by the visual association). The home page of the app shows you every day what it expects you to do, as well as suggesting additional activities.
Pet peeves and drawbacks: Unlike other vocabulary builders, this one is focused on individual words – I have not seen a single phrase beyond the fact that “Grammar” flashcard builder uses example sentences to help you memorize words in context; the FAQs suggest that the full subscription opens up an area where sentences might be used. You do not choose which words are suggested for your deck – and there is no option to decline a suggestion; although the words may be useful in terms of practicing specific sounds, quite a few of them are not the words that an average person would think of as studying first (this goes in complete contradiction to the slide show on the home page of the app that suggests you will be studying the most frequently used words). The “training ear” flashcards use even more obscure examples, including distinct gibberish, which may be useful for the purpose in a scientific sense, but feels like a waste of time to go over. And in the category of my personal idiosyncrasies, the mobile app is sized only for a phone screen; I prefer to use a tablet – this is the only app that I used that has such limitation.
I tried it for: French (within limits of the free trial). Last tried: Early 2020.
Available Languages: 7 majors, but 6 more are listed on the home page as coming soon.
What you get for free: 14-day trial as part of a renewable subscription (if you cancel before the end of the trial, you are not charged).
Full access cost: Subscription has different options for a single language from $9.99 per each month to $6.99 a month if you subscribe for two years. There are frequent promotions that offer 50% discounts on longer subscriptions. Note that if you subscribe through the App Store, you will only have the monthly option.
Verdict: Credit for a different approach. If it was not so full of individual words that I have no interest to memorize, it would be more of a recommendation. Nonetheless, I may give it a longer try in the future.
What it does: Guided language acquisition through exercises involving all competencies. Studying progress is broken into lessons, each covering 15 or so words and phrases. Within the lesson, there are multiple activities to practice all language skills as related to the lesson’s vocabulary. The practice may be structured as multiple-choice questions, classic flashcards, typing, speaking, etc. You can skip activities and jump forward.
Notable bells and whistles: Recordings of you saying the required words and phrases are analyzed for “closeness” to the native speaker’s pronunciation. You can also perform a specific type of activity or game outside of the constraints of a given lesson, by selecting which of your learned vocabulary specifically to practice in a given manner. Every 3 lessons are combined into a “unit” – at the end of it, there is an assessment, utilizing all types of activities. The UI is sophisticated and easy to use; the first use of any type of activity is accompanied by step-by-step instructions.
Pet peeves and drawbacks: No spaced repetition is involved; each lesson deals solely with the vocabulary defined within it; practicing what you learned in past lessons is entirely at your discretion.
I tried it for: French, Italian, and Spanish (years ago on CDs), Hebrew (within limits of free trial online recently).
Available Languages: Over 100. Last tried: Early 2020.
What you get for free: 14-day trial access to all languages.
Full access cost: Subscription is either $24.95 per month or $149.95 for a year-long option.
Verdict: I am not a big fan of an approach that does not force spaced repetition. It is also comparatively expensive. But it is quite comprehensive.
What it does: Guided vocabulary builder. Studying progress is broken into lessons, each covering a few words and phrases. You first attempt to record them in your own voice and then go through a series of exercises to learn their use. Most of the activities are either typing or unscrambling a given item in a cloze-like setting. Visualization is involved for all words and phrases. A separate area in the app is set aside for review which is expressly based on a spaced-repetition algorithm; it will alert you when you have items to practice, but not force you to do it.
Notable bells and whistles: You start by taking a placement test, which may move you up the learning path somewhat. Typing is tolerant of diacritics omission. Some of the exercises take a form of short dialogues, in which you are still filling in just a word or two in cloze fashion.
Pet peeves and drawbacks: I am not fond of linking images to phrases – a picture of a lovely young girl against a “How old are you?” phrase is at best a very unconvincing association. The interface is pretty clean and simple to use, but there is an extra click on the “Done” button in many instances; a lot of other apps automatically accept the correct unscramble answer when it is constructed.
I tried it for: French (within limits of free access). Last tried: Early 2020.
Available Languages: 14.
What you get for free: A single lesson on each level can be accessed for free.
Full access cost: The subscription options vary from $15.99 per single month to $84.99 for the 12-months option.
Verdict: It is one of the more aggressively marketed apps in recent times. Typing as the primary learning mechanism draws on the notion that writing things down helps you remember them, but it is not an approach I favor over others.
What it does: Free-path language training through annotated videos – in a way, a more technologically advanced mode of podcast-based learning. The library contains several hundred videos suitable for different proficiency levels; there is a mix of commercials, movie trailers, music videos, cartoons, snippets of news and entertainment programs, etc. As you watch a video, you are given line by line transcript and translation; you can pause, examine words that you are not familiar with, and replay videos in their entirety or in smaller pieces. Each video is accompanied by flashcards exercises to help you memorize words and phrases from the video. Practice activities include multiple-choice, cloze typing, unscrambling, and sequential sentence building.
Notable bells and whistles: You are offered a new “Ready for Review” flashcards set every day at the top of your contents list. Each word or phrase is offered in two or sometimes three versions of use for context; additionally, you can look up a specific word across all of the available videos to see its different uses. Diacritics options are offered as you type.
Pet peeves and drawbacks: Speaking competency is an afterthought in this approach; you are left entirely at your discretion in terms of saying things out loud or not. While the key words from each video are individually offered for study, every spoken line is bluntly considered as a unit in itself; that means that you have to reproduce the entire exact line – which may include proper names, conversational connectors, or sometimes have a grammatically incorrect word order; while doing the exercises. I found myself marking many sentences with “I already know it” as a way to remove them from practice rotation specifically because I did not care to study them as a unit.
I tried it for: French (within limits of the free trial). Last tried: Early 2020.
Available Languages: 13.
What you get for free: In the online version, the free account gives you access to the entire library without most of the tools. Occasional items may be exposed as teasers for full functionality. For the app, you cannot use it until you subscribe. A 14-day free trial is supposed to be part of every paid subscription – in my case it was effected as a refund of the first-month payment.
Full access cost: It is one of the more expensive tools around, although the subscription is not limited to a single language. It has two options: $30 per single month or $240 for a year. There are frequent promises of lifetime access discounts on an annual basis.
Verdict: It is an interesting concept that requires both a lot of self-direction and quite significant interaction with the software during studies. I expected a larger library and a more nuanced approach to the texts. It would be a nice supplemental tool if not for the sticker price.
What it does: Free-path language training through annotated videos – same concept as FluentU, i.e., a more technologically advanced mode of podcast-based learning. The library contains several hundred videos suitable for different proficiency levels; many are specially produced for Yabla. As you watch a video, you are given line by line transcript and translation; you can pause, examine words that you are not familiar with, slow down the tempo, and replay videos in their entirety or in smaller pieces. Each video is accompanied by a vocabulary review. Practice activities include multiple-choice and typing.
Notable bells and whistles: Each video is also accompanied by “games”, which are essentially additional exercises, ranging from cloze activities to transcribing the entire captions from hearing them. Diacritics options are offered on screen for all typing questions. You can build flashcard review decks by adding any word you encounter. There is also a separate “lessons” area, with each item focusing on a narrow grammar or usage concept, illustrating that with multiple examples from video clips.
Pet peeves and drawbacks: Speaking competency is an afterthought in this approach; you are left entirely at your discretion in terms of saying things out loud or not. Typing is intolerant of diacritics mistakes, so you are focusing on precise spelling a lot. There is no attempt to force you to review what you learned before.
I tried it for: French (within limits of the free trial). Last tried: Early 2020.
Available Languages: Only French, Spanish, German, Italian, Chinese, and English.
What you get for free: A 15-day free trial is part of every paid subscription, during which you can cancel at no charge.
Full access cost: Subscription options range from $12.95 per month to $99.95 for the year-long access.
Verdict: It is an interesting concept that requires both a lot of self-direction and quite significant interaction with the software during studies. I like the selection of materials better than the one for FluentU, although the total number of videos is about the same. It can be a nice supplemental tool if you are studying one of the major languages.
What it does: Guided language acquisition through sentence-based study. You are offered sets of 5 sentences that you practice by primarily listening and typing what you see and/or hear. Individual words are never used. No visualization is involved. Spaced repetition is an underpinning, but it is not forced on you.
Notable bells and whistles: You start using Glossika by taking a multiple-choice placement test which helps calibrate your studies. There is a function to record your own pronunciation. There is also a hands-free mode that consists entirely of listening (although you can – and should – repeat after the native speaker). The dashboard keeps the list of all the sentences you learned and alerts you when it’s time to review past sentences according to the spaced-repetition algorithm.
Pet peeves and drawbacks: Having to type and retype the same sentence is not what I consider an engaging mode of study, especially when a single typo makes your answer invalid – in effect you are focusing on spelling as the most important language skill. The voice recording functionality is seemingly an afterthought – you can listen to your recordings in your dashboard, but not when you actually record them upon hearing the native speaker. Many of the suggested sentences contain proper names that are irrelevant to your language study, which started to annoy me very quickly (I do not need to learn the phrase “The Kremlin is in Moscow” when I study French); you can mark sentences as “easy” and thus take them off your list, but that’s a band-aid.
I tried it for: French, Hebrew (within limits of the free trial). Last tried: Early 2020.
Available Languages: Over 60.
What you get for free: 7-day full functionality trial is available.
Full access cost: It is one of the more expensive tools around, although the subscription is not limited to a single language. A single month’s cost is $30, which is reduced to $24.99 a month if you pay for annual access.
Verdict: I like the idea of learning sentences and, thus, the language in context, but focusing repetitions on writing is not how I prefer to study even though I do not contest the fact that writing things down helps you remember them.
What it does: Guided vocabulary builder using cloze reading comprehension activity. This “learning in context” concept suggests that you retain the words of the foreign language better if they are not presented to you as stand-alone memorization bits. It is essentially a flashcards system where you have to fill in the gaps in the presented sentences. The sentences – or sometimes word constructs – are presented to you in the packs of 50, according to a spaced-repetition algorithm. If you provide a wrong answer, the right one is shown right away for you to retype and memorize; the entire phrase is voiced once the right answer is provided.
Notable bells and whistles: The interesting feature is that the system “analyzes” your knowledge and can automatically bump you up to a higher level if it recognizes that you are not a beginner. Other additional features include: multiple-choice “challenges”; selecting thematic focus or two to your studies to emphasize phrases in that topic; and most intriguingly, an ability to import a text or a list of words/phrases and thus create your own focus of studies.
Pet peeves and drawbacks: This approach emphasizes reading and vocabulary at the expense of all other competencies (although you technically are also practicing writing, with the system being forgiving of incorrect diacritics use).
I tried it for: French (within limits of the free trial). Last tried: Early 2020.
Available Languages: Only French, German, Spanish, Russian.
What you get for free: 14-day unlimited use trial.
Full access cost: The monthly subscription option is $15.99 (which is listed as a discount to $19.99). The annual subscription, though, is significantly cheaper – it is listed as normally going for $79.99, but can be had for $63.99.
Verdict: I am not convinced that the cloze method can be the principal approach to learning, but as a supplementary tool Lingvist might be an option. There is an obvious dearth of languages that it offers.
What it does: Guided vocabulary builder. Studying is done through a variety of exercises, including classic flashcards, multiple- and binary-choice questions, cloze activities, unscramble and typing questions. You have the ability to jump ahead if you like.
Notable bells and whistles: You start by taking a placement test, which may move you up the learning path considerably. The differentiating feature is the community of native speakers who can participate in your learning by correcting some of your exercises, or by directly connecting with you to communicate in your target language; you are expected to reciprocate in your own native language. The paid version also gives you access to your personal “study plan” to help you motivate yourself and check your progress.
Pet peeves and drawbacks: The interface is not bad, per se, but I found quite a number of things to be not intuitive and requiring too much interaction with the app. Typing is unforgiving for diacritics in French spelling. I am not fond of the mix of exercise activities, especially when it comes to true/false questions. There are also some exercises that explicitly involve “the community”, such as recording voice answers to questions, so if you are not interested to have your work reviewed by strangers, you will be regularly canceling out of that.
I tried it for: French (within limits of free access). Last tried: Early 2020.
Available Languages: 12.
What you get for free: The free version has a number of limitations of use, and it constantly pops up notices of the “in order to continue, please subscribe” kind. If you are willing to deal with that, the free version supposedly allows you “unlimited” studying.
Full access cost: The subscription costs $9.99 per month for a single language or $13.99 for all languages; however, buying an annual or bi-annual access brings that down to roughly $3 a month in different configurations.
Verdict: I am not into studying with the community and the other features of the app do not make it overly attractive to me. But the cost of the premium subscription can make it a contender for some.
What it does: Focus on mastering the elemental sounds of the language, on the idea that this is the essential first step on the road to fully understanding the native speakers and communicating with them. The lecture-centric masterclass gives you an in-depth look into every elemental sound of a given language being produced in your mouth (and nose) and offers practice for being able to consistently reproduce them. A technique for breaking the recorded native speech down to syllables and sounds for practice is also explained.
Notable bells and whistles: The practice part of the course are the drills for the pronunciation of every single sound, where you really are expected to mimic what you hear. Access to the lectures also gives access to online reading materials covering each of the elemental sounds.
Pet peeves and drawbacks: You are listening to long lectures and then are on your own in terms of doing the drills. The course is made in a fairly non-professional manner, and the audio-clips for drills are of varying quality as well.
I tried it for: French (full course). Last tried: Early 2020.
Available Languages: 10.
What you get for free: The sales pitch.
Full access cost: “Special” 50% off discount is available at all times – but it comes to $197 which is still way too high, in my opinion. I spent $47 on the course as a “Black Friday discount”.
Verdict: Mimic Method does not truly teach the language, although the material is technically useful. The concept of mastering pronunciation as the critical step is questionable, as any former Soviet Union émigré successfully living and working in the United States despite their heavy accent might attest. However, listening comprehension skills might benefit from this foundational work. The course is too amateurishly made for my taste.
What it does: Language acquisition through dialogues. Each lesson contains a dialogue that you study in every which way possible, including recording yourself saying the same sentences. There are standard exercises within each lesson that can be done in the multiple-choice or typing-the-answer manner, plus cloze activities.
Notable bells and whistles: Plenty of tips and grammar and usage notes are provided along the way. The full course has 100 lessons in the app version and 113 lessons in the book+audio version; it also has defined “weekly review” lessons once every 7 modules.
Pet peeves and drawbacks: Since there is no explicit repetition involved, figuring out how to commit new words and phrases to memory is left entirely up to you on your own. The exercises feel pretty superficial (based on a tiny sample of one free lesson review). The app design leaves a bit to be desired, although getting used to its quirks does not take long.
I tried it for: French (within limits of the free access). Last tried: Early 2020.
Available Languages: Over 80, but that is if your base language is French. 12 other mostly major languages are listed as possible base ones, but the availability of a target language is significantly smaller you do not speak French already. Also, non-major languages are available mostly only in book+audio versions.
What you get for free: The app lets you try one lesson for free (you cannot get that on the website).
Full access cost: The full version for a single language is usually €49.90, while book+audio versions cost in the range of €65.
Verdict: Assimil has been in the business of language instruction for 90+ years, so they must be doing something right. I feel that it can only work as a supplementary tool – but the one that you have to use from the beginning of your studies, since it remains on A1/A2 level for most languages. The one-time cost is lower than the yearly subscription for many other tools, so it is definitely a contender as a supplement, as long as you can find the base/target language combination that works for you.
What it does: An uncommon approach of audio vocabulary building with music in the background. Each audio-clip is in the call-and-respond format between two speakers, with calls in English and responses in the target language. In every lesson, there is a small “challenge” where the roles are reversed and the English-speaking host has to respond in the target language. Everything is sentence-based, but the sentences are drilled in separate parts and then combined. It happens under the accompanying mood music in the background – which is considered the key to the method’s success. Each lesson is focused on a topic and lasts about 6-7 minutes.
Notable bells and whistles: There are occasional elements of conversation and infrequent “a-ha”-type grammar bits, but most of it is pure repetition, with some variation in intonation. Accompanying printed materials are available, and if you use online app, there is a live transcription of each lesson.
Pet peeves and drawbacks: Repeating after the native speaker is clearly expected, but is left completely to you to fill in the short pauses in the audio. Some of the background music is not smooth enough, in my opinion. Overall efficacy of the method is hard to ascertain from sample clips, but the short duration of each clip raises suspicions over how much material is covered in total (each level has only a dozen lessons by my calculations based on the total audio time provided in some descriptions).
I tried it for: French, Italian, Russian (quick test drive – a single sample track for each). Last tried: Early 2020.
Available Languages: 17.
What you get for free: A teaser in the form of a demo album that includes one track for each available language.
Full access cost: In the online app, each level for each language normally costs $9.99, and there are 3-level bundles that are offered for $24.99. You can also buy these courses on CDs, which will cost more.
Verdict: Intriguing but probably too superficial to be useful.
What it does: Thematic vocabulary builder, underpinned by spaced repetition. In its basic free form, you get 5 minutes a day to practice, timed. All words and phrases are linked to pictograms. The questions are binary-choice, multiple-choice, unscramble, spelling, with some gamified variation.
Notable bells and whistles: “The Dojo” creates a dedicated area for you to practice words and phrases that you want to focus on mastering.
Pet peeves and drawbacks: Timed practice, especially with such a short allowance, forces you to rush – and it is certainly a stretch that you can get any level of mastery of anything in just five minutes a day. Additionally, some types of activities are simply too much into the gamified aspect at the expense of actual learning. Pictograms are occasionally confusing in terms of what they reflect with respect to the linked phrase.
I tried it for: Hebrew (free version daily for a couple of weeks). Last tried: 2019.
Available Languages: Over 40.
What you get for free: Free 5-minute-a-day version is theoretically unconstrained in terms of how many days you can use it, but it limits the available topics, so you will after a while run out of new things to learn.
Full access cost: The paid version unlocks all topics, removes ads, gives you a few additional practice tools, and most importantly removes the time limit. Monthly access is for $9.99, while yearly option reduces that to less than $3 a month; you can also buy lifetime access for $160.
Verdict: I am not a fan of the gamified approach in general and not of this particular implementation. It is possible that the fully paid access makes it more worthwhile, but the free version does not entice me to consider it. Your mileage with respect to gamification may vary.
What it does: Live conversational practice. It connects people who want to practice language skills with native carriers; you theoretically both learn a language and teach a language in one-on-one interactions with the same person.
Notable bells and whistles: This is not exactly a tool but rather a community of people who are keen to reciprocally help each other with practicing their target language skills. There are some social media elements to it and some additional learning implements, but the main idea is to connect one-on-one and thus find a partner for practice.
Pet peeves and drawbacks: The “native” language that you picked upon signing up cannot be changed at all unless you get full-access version.
I tried it for: Hebrew. Last tried: 2019.
Available Languages: Over 150. I suspect the number of users native to a given language is in large proportion to the popularity of the language worldwide.
What you get for free: Access is free for a single language, with minimal feature limitations but with ads.
Full access cost: VIP version allows you to have multiple languages in your profile, both in terms of proficiency and learning, and it removes ads and all limitations; the cost is $45 a year, and there are lifetime options on offer occasionally.
Verdict: My try was limited and concerned not the most popular language, so it may not be indicative, but it was a definite fail. None of the people I reached out to responded back. I may try again for a more common language.
What it does: Free-path vocabulary builder using cloze reading comprehension activity. Sentences are offered for study according to a spaced-repetition approach; you only choose whether to randomize it completely or select from a certain percentile of the frequency of use within the language. It is essentially a flashcards system where you have to fill in the gaps in the presented sentences.
Notable bells and whistles: Unlike Lingvist, it is decidedly low on sophistication.
Pet peeves and drawbacks: The interface is very retro and not very clean. The vocalization of the phrases is synthesized.
I tried it for: Hebrew (daily for a couple of weeks). Last tried: 2019.
Available Languages: Over 50.
What you get for free: The app is completely free.
Verdict: It may help you memorize the actual phrases used in each item – many of which would be fairly useful to memorize – but barely anything beyond that. As a supplementary tool, cloze method could be useful, and this tool is completely free.
What it does: Thematic vocabulary builder. The approach is see-and-listen, with spelling, transcription and translation provided as necessary along the visualization. For each of 64 topics, you go through relevant words and phrases and then play games to reinforce what you learned. No defined spaced repetition is involved and you choose your own path through the topics.
Notable bells and whistles: Nice and easy-to-use interface. Everything is voiced by a male and a female speaker – sometimes individually and sometimes consecutively. You can record yourself pronouncing the same terms for comparison; some games require you to do so.
Pet peeves and drawbacks: The pictures are not always the clearest in meaning. Since the same word/phrase is linked to a single picture in all instances (and across languages), visual recognition quickly takes the lead when playing games. The positive reinforcement in the form of “Yes” when you answer each game question correctly is actually one of the biggest sources of annoyance.
I tried it for: Hebrew and French (within limits of free access). Last tried: Early 2020.
Available Languages: Over 150.
What you get for free: A free starter pack of the same words is included for every language. You can earn “uCoins” based on your game performance; your balance is shared across all of the languages you try. If you earn enough uCoins, you can use them to pay for individual topics at 40 a clip; there is seemingly a possibility that enough time spent on each topic may pay forward for the next topic, but I expect that eventually, the program will start throttling your earnings. I did not use it enough to prove or disprove that theory.
Full access cost: Beyond using earned uCoins, you have multiple options. You can buy uCoins for $2 per 40, or with further discounts if buying in bulk, and then convert those into individual lessons or packs of lessons. You can buy an entire language pack for $40.99 (which is at a discount to buying topics in bulk via purchased uCoins). Or you can subscribe for a monthly fee of $10.99 that will unlock everything for every language.
Verdict: A nicely executed app that is probably too expensive for the simple features it provides. Having many rare languages makes it more attractive to some.
What it does: Thematic vocabulary builder centered on a phrasebook. The majority of the material is in read-and-listen – or sometimes just listen – mode. For each of its 100 topics, you can learn the phrases (and individual words in some cases), use flashcards, take tests, or play games. No spaced repetition is involved and you choose your own path through the topics. No vocabulary visualization is involved in the main studying area, but in a separate vocabulary section, you can practice with pictures (kind of an add-on to the main program).
Notable bells and whistles: Everything is voiced consecutively by a male and a female speaker – slower by the male and at normal speed by the female. You can also record yourself pronouncing the same terms for comparison. There are a couple of additional not really necessary bells and whistles, such as in-app linkages to Google Translate and Google Maps.
Pet peeves and drawbacks: The UI is fairly primitive and requires a bit too much interaction to move along. The double vocalization gets a bit annoying after a while.
I tried it for: Hebrew and French (quick test drive). Last tried: Early 2020.
Available Languages: Over 60.
What you get for free: Free version has no limitations but constantly pops the ads.
Full access cost: All-languages paid version removes the adds and costs a negligible one-time fee of $9.99.
Verdict: A cheap alternative in the space of thematic vocab builders with plenty of materials, minimal structure, and simplistic features.
What it does: Thematic vocabulary builder centered on learning through game playing. Most of the games are of read-and-respond nature. No discernible learning path – you pick games to play on your own in different thematic sections.
Notable bells and whistles: Tests and flashcards are available as extra features.
Pet peeves and drawbacks: I found the games impossible to enjoy: the tasks and instructions are often unclear and the screen is incredibly cluttered, and beginner-level questions are sometimes mixed in with tasks that require fairly advanced knowledge of the language. The UI, in general, is a bad intersection of primitive and confusing.
I tried it for: Hebrew and French (quick test drive). Last tried: Early 2020.
Available Languages: Over 200.
What you get for free: The app is entirely free to use.
Verdict: For someone interested in a language that is not commonly taught, this may be a resource to explore. For major languages, this app’s deficiencies are too big to overcome.
Anki is not specifically a language-learning tool, but rather one of the first and most well-known systems that utilize flashcards to facilitate memorization. Spaced repetition heavily underpins using any Anki deck. There is a vast library of decks shared by other people, so you can always find canned study materials (of varying quality, of course). You also have complete ability to build your own decks, if you so choose. One way or another, a Spaced Repetition System has to be part of your studying arsenal, and this is a free option that asks you to do some of the preparatory work. For reasons that escape me, the iOS Anki app costs whopping $25, even though it is free on every other platform; there are free alternatives for iOS that integrate well enough with the same decks.
Alternatives: Quite a few are mentioned in the SRS Wikipedia article linked to in the Intro section. Of those, I have very briefly tried Brainscape and Quizlet. Both are snazzier, both require subscriptions for unfettered access, neither bowled me over with their bells and whistles.
The audio-library of native pronunciations of words and phrases in 400 languages. Because it is crowd-sourced – and you, too, can provide pronunciations in your native language – the quality is rather uneven, but it is still a very good tool if you want to learn how a specific word sounds, especially for words that may not be covered by the audio aspect of your favorite study resource. You can even download the audio clip to use for your Anki deck.
The tagline of this site calls it “the online encyclopedia of writing systems and languages”. It is not a study tool in itself, but an interesting reference resource. The wealth of information about languages, including some free instruction and various lists of terms and phrases, is quite impressive at this not very modern-looking website.
This is a simple compendium of free study resources for 48 languages. Some of those resources are already mentioned above, and not every resource is made equal, but it is a very handy list if you want to do some studying without monetary outlays.
Other tools I am aware of
Self-billed as “the world’s largest language exchange community”, this might be a good alternative to other live practice tools mentioned above.
A story-based language comprehension course suitable for beginners. 9 major languages.
A story-based language comprehension course, for French and Spanish only.
Ages ago, my wife tried this alternative to Pimsleur to improve her French. Available for 18 languages; according to reviews found elsewhere, very beginner-focused.
Teen-focused set of podcast-based courses for French, Spanish, German, and English. I seem to own CDs of installments dated over a decade ago, but I never tried it.
A textbook-and-audio approach, available for over 70 languages for those who prefer that type of study.
One of the more recognizable names in language instruction, but not one that I ever tried. Over 60 languages are available.