This article was first posted in February 2020 and is updated at intervals with additional or corrected information.
In our connected times, an aspiring student of languages can find tons of different tools online and elsewhere that each promise to get one to speak 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. 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.
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.
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. Functionality details are provided as of the time of last use.
First, let me state the obvious
None of these tools deliver on their promise on their own.
The level of “basic tourist comprehension” can be attained in a matter of weeks if you bang upon a single app. It encompasses having a stuttering command of greetings and common courtesy phrases, being able to recognize directions and read restaurant menus, and knowing how to ask for help. 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 4 competencies:
- and understanding speech.
Various tools implicitly or explicitly emphasize some of these competencies over 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 a 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 regularly 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 time-boxed).
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 the opportunity 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.
So, let’s look at these apps.
Language Acquisition tools
These programs guide you in a way that allows you to acquire language skills beyond simple vocabulary. They are usually more comprehensive and among the more expensive ones.
Pimsleur used to be my starting point for every language. It remains my favorite approach to language studying: Guided acquisition of conversational proficiencies via an 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 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. All lessons are about 30 minutes long, which demands certain time and location management from you to be able to study (unless you completely do not care about disturbing those around you).
My familiarity with Pimsleur is mainly through CD-based offerings of yesteryear. These days, there is the online/app version which includes a number of other add-ons, such as flashcards, but I assume that you still learn most of the way through listening and repeating.
Biggest Pro: Undiluted focus on acquiring conversational proficiency.
Biggest Con: Not an insignificant monetary outlay for something that exclusively focuses on one aspect of language mastery.
For free: A teaser of the first lesson in each language. Full-access subscription includes a 7-day trial, during which you can cancel at no charge.
Last used in 2018 – French, Italian, Hebrew, Spanish, German (ranging from full courses to several lessons). Available Languages: Over 50.
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 extensively marketed. It is one of the most sophisticated and in certain ways challenging tools, at a reasonable price.
It is the only tool that I know that adheres to the concept of the “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 are 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. Although you are free to jump to future topics if you like, most people would stay on the guided path. Spaced repetition is involved within the context of each topical unit, which would have nearly 50 sessions emphasizing different competencies.
Biggest Pro: Comprehensive language acquisition.
Biggest Con: It is arguable how efficient this approach may be for adults, as visual recognition and occasional misinterpretation of visual clues get in the way of understanding language concepts.
For free: 3-day trial.
Last used: Early 2019 – Hebrew (full course), French (limited run many years ago). Available Languages: About 25.
One of my favorites, LingQ works on the concept that language acquisition is best accomplished through reading real-world materials, coupled with spaced-repetition vocabulary building. That approach makes it one of just a few tools that remain useful for those who are beyond the beginner level.
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 building your comprehension and vocabulary word-by-word and always in context; you choose which words to mark for studying and which to mark as known. Texts are almost invariably accompanied by sound, so you can complement your reading with podcast-like listening practice. Many lessons include videos as an additional layer of comprehension training; you will still focus on the script+audio as your main training mechanism. There is no visualization of vocabulary. Speaking the language is a significant afterthought – it is entirely up to you to work some speaking into your studies.
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. The algorithm is actually hard to discern when you daily add more new words to your study list than you can review in a vocab review session; but in any case, the review is not forced on you.
You can import your own content to study, including the sound portion (for instance, a text of a song and the accompanying mp3 file; a text of a book along with its audiobook version; a YouTube video accompanied by the script). The text-to-speech pronunciation engine is available even if you do not have the full audio accompanying the text; it is also used for all reviews. For languages with non-phonemic orthography, the engine is maddeningly inconsistent and even borderline detrimental to studies.
As you work with the texts, you do lose a significant amount of control over the input – many words that you don’t know but also don’t need will clutter your path. 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 lot of noise both in your actual studies and in the accompanying stats – 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.
Biggest Pro: Great integrated collection of tools to improve language skills with real-world materials.
Biggest Con: Focus on stats around individual language terms gets in the way.
For free: 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 allowance up within literally a few minutes. Access to the library is unfettered even after you run out of free LingQs.
Last used: Continuous use as of 2023 – Hebrew, French, Italian, Portuguese. Available Languages: 20 in the fully developed state (including all majors), 20 more in beta
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 a configurable tool that is absolutely free may be a strong attraction.
Transparent Language guides language acquisition through exercises involving all competencies. Studying progress is broken into lessons, each covering 15 or so words and phrases. Within each lesson are multiple activities to practice all language skills related to the lesson’s vocabulary. The practice may be structured as multiple-choice questions, classic flashcards, typing, speaking, etc.
There are several notable bells and whistles in the sophisticated and easy-to-use ecosystem. You can record saying the required words and phrases to be analyzed for “closeness” to the native speaker’s pronunciation. You can 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. You can simply skip activities and jump forward. And every 3 lessons are combined into a “unit”, at the end of which there is an assessment utilizing all types of activities.
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.
Biggest Pro: Comparatively comprehensive.
Biggest Con: Comparatively expensive.
For free: 14-day trial access to all languages.
Last tried: Early 2020 – French, Italian, and Spanish (years ago on CDs), Hebrew (within limits of the free trial online). Available Languages: Over 100.
Glossika advances the concept of 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 and no visualization is involved. Spaced repetition is not forced – your dashboard keeps a list of all the sentences you learned and alerts you when it’s time to review past sentences.
Among notable features is a multiple-choice placement test taken at the start of your studies which helps calibrate the material. There is also a hands-free mode that consists entirely of listening (although you can – and should – repeat after the native speaker).
While I like the idea of studying the language in context, 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. (This is not to contest the fact that writing things down helps you remember them.) And quite a few 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); any sentences can be marked “easy” and thus skipped, but I don’t understand why these would be in rotation in the first place.
Biggest Pro: Learning language in context.
Biggest Con: In a sense, you are focusing on spelling as the most important language skill.
For free: 7-day full functionality trial is available.
Last tried: Early 2020 – French, Hebrew (within the limits of the free trial). Available Languages: Over 60
Language acquisition through dialogues – Assimil has been offering that for 90+ years. 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. 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. There is no explicit repetition involved, so figuring out how to commit new words and phrases to memory is left entirely up to you on your own.
Biggest Pro: The one-time cost is lower than the yearly subscription for many other tools.
Biggest Con: I feel that it can only work as a supplementary tool – and only for beginners, since it remains on A1/A2 level for most languages.
For free: The app lets you try one lesson for free (not if you sign on through the website).
Last tried: Early 2020 – French (within limits of the free access). 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 if you do not speak French already. Also, non-major languages are available mostly only in book+audio versions.
Focus on Comprehension
These tools use podcasts or real-world materials – videos and texts – to train you to understand spoken language. In a sense, this could also be categorized as language acquisition, except that you probably need to have an existing foundation in the language in order to use even what is marked as “beginner-level” content.
FluentU offers 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 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.
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. And every day, you are offered a new “Ready for Review” flashcard set at the top of your contents list, which prompts you into spaced-repetition training.
It is an interesting concept that requires both a lot of self-direction and quite significant interaction with the software during studies. Speaking competency is an afterthought in this approach; you are left entirely at your discretion in terms of saying things out loud or not.
I expected a larger library (which I assume is continuously growing) and a more nuanced approach to the texts: 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.
Biggest Pro: “Watching TV” may be the most efficient way for adults to achieve language comprehension.
Biggest Con: Comparatively expensive (although significant “lifetime” discounts pop up throughout the year).
For free: In the website version, the free account gives you access to the entire library without any tools. Occasional items may be exposed as teasers for full functionality. With 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.
Last tried: Early 2020 – French (within the limits of the free trial). Available Languages: 10
Yabla is a direct alternative to FluentU, offering free-path language training through annotated videos, with similar functionality. Its library contains several hundred videos suitable for different proficiency levels; many are specially produced for Yabla.
There is a slightly better variety of exercises (branded “games”) as well as a separate “lessons” area, with each item focusing on a narrow grammar or usage concept, illustrating that with multiple examples from video clips. I like the selection of materials better than the one for FluentU, although the total number of videos is about the same. Speaking competency remains an afterthought in this approach, and there is no attempt to force you to review what you learned before in Yabla ecosystem. Nonetheless, it can be a nice supplemental tool if you are studying one of the major languages.
Biggest Pro: “Watching TV” may be the most efficient way for adults to achieve language comprehension.
Biggest Con: Only a few major languages are on offer.
For free: A 15-day free trial is part of every paid subscription, during which you can cancel at no charge. Without a subscription, you can play around with a handful of teaser videos and browse the library.
Last tried: Early 2020 – French (within the limits of the free trial). Available Languages: Only French, Spanish, German, Italian, Chinese, and English.
LingoPie is another direct competitor with FluentU or Yabla, offering free-path language training through annotated videos. Its library contains a large selection of videos suitable for different proficiency levels. Beyond watching and examining videos, the only practice is via flashcards, very minimally diversified. You can also record yourself speaking the current phrase, with a near-instant rating of your pronunciation quality – which I did not find exactly useful, given that there is no real feedback except the “score”.
The library range looks to be smaller than in other similar tools, but still extensive enough that you have plenty of material as long as you are not too picky. I did not see any forceful mechanism for review of what you learned, aside from the count of words you added to your flashcards during the current video. I also found the navigation somewhat non-intuitive, even though the ecosystem appears well-developed. All in all, this could be a nice supplemental tool for major languages.
Biggest Pro: “Watching TV” may be the most efficient way for adults to achieve language comprehension, and this is the cheapest of similar tools.
Biggest Con: Only a few major languages are on offer.
For free: A 7-day free trial is part of every paid subscription, during which you can cancel at no charge.
Last tried: Early 2023 – French and Italian (within the limits of the free trial). Available Languages: 8.
Free-path listening comprehension tool – if you ever listened to a Pod101 podcast or YouTube video, you are familiar with Innovative Language. It is a definite leader in language podcasts for a fairly affordable cost, but I feel that this can be only a supplementary studying tool.
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. There are different levels and studying paths that you can choose in each language; literally thousands of hours of lessons to choose from. Additional study tools are available within the online ecosystem. At the most expensive subscription level, you can even obtain 1:1 language instruction with live teachers.
If you stick with podcasts only, 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.
One of my pet peeves is the English-language banter and standardized script connectors used by the hosts, especially in the lower-level series. Extremely 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).
Biggest Pro: Study anywhere.
Biggest Con: Focus on a single skill – understanding spoken language.
For free: When you activate the account, it gives you a 7-day free trial with full access. 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. If you choose not to sign up for a paid plan, your free account will allow you continuous access to some podcasts and limited tools.
Last used: Early 2020 – Hebrew (extensively), French (within limits of the free trial). Available Languages: Nearly 40.
Live Practice and Tutoring
If you are looking to practice your conversational skills with a native language carrier – or are interested in structured lessons – these marketplaces offer many such opportunities.
iTalki is the best-known marketplace for individual language tutoring and 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 platform is focused solely on connecting learners with tutors and handling the transactional aspect of the connection. The actual sessions will occur through Skype or another chat mechanism, and you will have to come back to your iTalki dashboard to confirm that the lesson took place and to provide feedback. When your tutor is not working from a set script that they can share with you after the session, you may have to figure out how to extract valuable bits from the chat archive if you, for instance, want to get new words and phrases into your preferred flashcards system.
Each tutor has their own teaching plan and approach, and you can try offerings before buying full lessons – that is great from the variety point of view but may become an extended trial-and-error process if you are after something very specific. There are no long-term commitments – you pay as you go.
Biggest Pro: 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.
Biggest Con: 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.
For free: Real people sell their language skills as a service here, so nothing beyond seeing profiles of tutors.
Last used: October 2019 – Hebrew (extensively with different teachers). 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.
Verbling is a significantly lesser-known alternative to iTalki, although the idea is exactly the same. Its differentiating feature is 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. Of course, you pay extra for that layer of sophistication of the ecosystem.
I’d go to iTalki first and look at Verbling only as a backup. I found the tutors on Verbling more rigid in their approach than people on iTalki, but my sample is small. Your need for a full ecosystem may dictate the opposite.
Biggest Pro: 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.
Biggest Con: 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.
For free: Real people sell their language skills as a service here, but trial lessons are usually offered for free.
Last used: October 2019 – Hebrew (extensively with one teacher). Available Languages: Over 50. The number of available tutors is proportional to language popularity.
Alternatives: I have not actually tried Preply, but I understand that it works in a similar way to Verbling.
Self-billed as “the world’s largest language exchange community”, it connects people in a trade-your-skills manner. Theoretically, you and your partner both practice a language with a native speaker and teach that same person your native language in one-on-one interactions. There are a couple of learning implements (such as the ability to translate text or correct written sentences of your study partner), but the tool’s main purpose is simply to connect; conversations seem to migrate to WhatsApp or Skype once you establish reasonable rapport.
As with any social environment, there will be a certain waste in terms of connections, as some approaches will be rebuffed (or ignored) by the other side, and sometimes you simply will not click with the other person. Nonetheless, I have made a few good connections, both initiated by me and by others. It has to be said that I found myself helping people with English much more than practicing my target languages, but the bottom line is a measure of practice can be found by using this platform.
Biggest Pro: Connecting – and hopefully practicing – with native carriers of the language.
Biggest Con: Low percentage of quality connections.
For free: Practically everything you’d ever use on the platform, with small limitations. I cannot imagine the full cost – however negligible – to be worth spending.
Last used: Mid-2020 – Hebrew, French. 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.
Alternatives: There are several similar platforms, with different bells and whistles that purport to offer similar opportunities to trade language skills. I had absolutely no success at Hellotalk, and I only cursorily checked out MyLanguageExchange. Your mileage may vary.
Usually suited to complete beginners – although some are extensive enough – these tools use variations of a flashcard-centric approach to help you memorize words and sometimes phrases, with occasional features that address other areas of language mastery. None of them can be your singular tool for learning the language, IMHO.
Duolingo is a well-known thematic and gamified 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. Spaced repetition is present very cursorily – you will be prompted to refresh a past topic, but purely as a suggestion. The interface uses cartoon pictorials for visualization, which has a certain cuteness factor. Further topics on your learning path are getting unlocked as you progress, so you cannot jump too much ahead of yourself.
My biggest pet peeve with Duolingo is that right from the very beginning, you come across words and phrases that are either of little use or are fairly nonsensical (e.g., “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.
Biggest Pro: As a free resource, Duolingo is definitely the place for new learners of a language.
Biggest Con: I am not a fan of the gamified approach, nor of the occasional absurdity of the studied vocabulary.
For free: Everything.
Last used: Early 2019 – French, Spanish, Italian, Hebrew, Portuguese (ranging from a couple of months daily to just a few days in total). Available Languages: Over 30
Memrise is a guided vocabulary builder underpinned by spaced repetition. What is key for me is that the repetition reviews are suggested in a manner where 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). A favorite of mine, much more so than Duolingo. I have been using free features quite extensively.
The courses span multiple levels. You can technically jump ahead when you want, but most people will likely stay on their guided path. Activities vary between multiple-choice flashcards and unscramble questions. There is no visualization of vocabulary. Instead, interspersed with flashcards is the “Learn with Locals” feature – short clips of native speakers saying the phrase in question. An additional feature, called “Immersion”, offers daily one-to-two-minute subtitled videos on a variety of lighthearted topics and functions a bit like podcast-based learning.
Speaking skills are always an afterthought in this approach; you are left entirely at your discretion in terms of saying things out loud or not. In a bit of a nitpick, I have a personal dislike of unscramble-style exercise items, which seem to be aplenty.
Biggest Pro: Comparatively extensive – and the only tool with in-your-face spaced repetition prompts.
Biggest Con: Although you practice three competencies – aside from speaking – interchangeably, it is still overall no more than a vocabulary builder.
For free: Seemingly everything – I have not come upon something that I was not able to do without a paid plan.
Last used: 2021 – French, Spanish, Italian, Hebrew, Portuguese (at least a couple of months daily in each instance). Available Languages: The mobile app lists 23 languages for selection, but if you go through the website, search for something beyond those 23 (Hebrew isn’t one of them, for instance), and add what you find to your learning profile, it will become accessible in the app. The total availability is hard to ascertain since a search for any relatively obscure language seems to produce results. It should be noted that 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.
Mango is a guided vocabulary builder with a rarely-found emphasis on speaking. You study via the read-and-respond flashcard method and then review according to a spaced repetition algorithm. What is key is that a large portion of the exercises asks you to record yourself saying the word or phrase in question for comparison with the native speaker’s pronunciation. There is no vocabulary visualization and no writing-based exercises. 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.
Biggest Pro: A lightweight and inexpensive solution that focuses on speaking as the main skill.
Biggest Con: Remains mostly a vocabulary builder.
For free: Three lessons of every unit in each language can be accessed for free, and there are “specialty units” within most languages that offer a free lesson. Additionally, a number of less-common languages are offered for free in their entirety. Each full subscription includes a 14-day free trial, during which you can cancel at no charge.
Last tried: Early 2020 – French, Hebrew (within limits of the free trial), Yiddish (several lessons for a free language). Available Languages: Over 70.
Mondly is another thematic vocabulary builder. Studying is done mostly through unscramble questions with an occasional multiple-choice thrown in. There is visualization for one or two questions in each lesson; practically all of the interaction is of read-and-listen variety. I could not discern any spaced repetition in the approach.
The UI is pretty snazzy, and even feels like it was a marketing goal in itself. One differentiating feature is 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, and there is even a VR interface, which I have not tried.
Biggest Pro: Conversational practice via bot engine. It can be a game-changer when polished up a bit more.
Biggest Con: Unscrambling sentences in a fancy UI is far from my preferred approach to learning.
For free: A teaser of a limited set of starting lessons.
Last used: Early 2020 – Hebrew (daily for over a month), French (quick test drive). Available Languages: Over 30
Conceptually, this semi-guided vocabulary builder combined with podcasts was among the best that I tried.
The training is essentially a standard flashcards system underpinned by the spaced-repetition algorithm. The built-in library of words and phrases is huge, and the new words and phrases are mainly suggested by setting your thematic preferences. When you first come upon a new flashcard, there are several different angles you can work with it, including recording yourself saying the words. Visualization of content is part of both flashcards and dialogue learning.
The dialogue library – in effect, the podcasts – is conversely 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 full 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.
Biggest Pro: Combines vocabulary buildout with listening comprehension.
Biggest Con: The implementation of a number of features leaves a lot to be desired; only a few languages are on offer.
For free: 15-day trial.
Last tried: Late 2020 – French (not too extensively). Available Languages: Only 7 “majors”.
A guided vocabulary builder with an emphasis on pronunciation, spelling, and ear training. You progress through lessons one at a time, unlocking subsequent ones. In essence, a sophisticated flashcards app, heavily based on visualization and spaced repetition. Each lesson is, technically, a flashcard-deck-building activity – you build up your vocabulary by associating pictures with suggested words, and translation will be mostly curtailed when you practice. Your personal dashboard shows the prescribed daily dose of learning that always includes reviewing past flashcards.
Initial lessons contain short clips that run through pronunciation and spelling specifics. Some of the practice questions focus on specific sounds of the language, while 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).
Credit for a different approach. Unfortunately, too many aspects of the overall approach felt wrong to me. In the early stages, the app is focused almost entirely on individual words; and many words that are suggested for your study deck – with no discernible option to decline a suggestion – are not the words that an average person would think of as studying first. There may be a scientific reason for learning them – possibly as good representations of specific sounds – but quite a few are simply not useful enough in daily conversation. Furthermore, the ear-training flashcards use even more obscure examples, including distinct gibberish, which again may be useful for the purpose in a scientific sense, but feels like a waste of time to go over.
Biggest Pro: Pronunciation and ear training are usually afterthoughts in vocab builders – not in this one.
Biggest Con: In complete contradiction to one of the promises of the app, your study path is cluttered by less-useful words.
For free: 14-day trial as part of a renewable subscription (if you cancel before the end of the trial, you are not charged).
Last tried: Early 2020 – French (within the limits of the free trial). Available Languages: 7 “majors”, and 6 more are listed on the home page as coming soon.
One of the more aggressively marketed vocabulary builders in recent times, with a fairly distinct approach. When you first use the app, you take a placement test, which determines your starting point. Studying progress is broken into lessons, each covering a few words and phrases. You attempt first 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; there are also occasional short dialogues, which require you to fill in just a word or two in the same cloze fashion. Visualization is involved for all words and phrases (which is a notable pet peeve of mine in the latter instance).
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.
Biggest Pro: Suitable for advanced beginners without having to go through the very basics.
Biggest Con: 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.
For free: A single lesson on each level.
Last tried: Early 2020 – French (within limits of free access). Available Languages: 14.
Busuu is a guided vocabulary builder in which studying is done through a broad variety of types of exercises, including classic flashcards, multiple- and binary-choice questions, cloze activities, unscramble, and type-the-answer questions.
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. Some exercises explicitly demand community review of your work, so if you are not interested to be graded by strangers, you will have to regularly cancel out of that. Not my cup of tea.
Biggest Pro: The community aspect (for those who like that).
Biggest Con: The community aspect (for those who are lukewarm to the idea).
For free: If you are willing to deal with constant popup notices of the “in order to continue, please subscribe” kind, the free version supposedly allows you “unlimited” studying, even though there are functionality limitations.
Last tried: Early 2020 – French (within limits of free access). Available Languages: 12
Drops is a thematic vocabulary builder, underpinned by spaced repetition. In its basic free form, you get 5 minutes a day to practice, timed to a second. All words and phrases are linked to pictograms, and the questions span the range of binary-choice, multiple-choice, unscramble, and spelling, with some gamified variation.
I’ve seen a number of positive reviews of this app, and I cannot understand how timed practice – especially with such a small allowance – can be of any use. It forces you to rush – and it is certainly nowhere close to true 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. And pictograms are occasionally confusing in terms of what they reflect with respect to the linked phrase.
I strongly suspect that you need to progress onto a paid plan – which removes the time constraint – to make studying with Drops worthwhile, but my trial experience did nothing to induce me to do so. And I am certainly no fan of gamification – your mileage may vary.
Biggest Pro: A bit of daily study with minimal effort.
Biggest Con: Gamification with pictograms.
For 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.
Last tried: 2019 – Hebrew (free version daily for a couple of weeks). Available Languages: Over 40.
Linguist focuses on cloze reading comprehension activity as the mechanism for vocabulary building. The 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. What you get, in effect, is a flashcard system where you have to fill in the gaps in the presented sentences. The sentences – or sometimes word constructs – are presented to you in packs of 50, according to a spaced-repetition algorithm. When you answer wrong, the right choice is shown immediately so you can retype and memorize; the entire phrase is voiced once the right answer is provided.
One 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. Additional features include multiple-choice “challenges”; selecting a 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.
Biggest Pro: In-context learning suitable for users beyond the beginner level.
Biggest Con: I am not convinced that the cloze method – or any other approach used exclusively – can provide long-lasting value.
For free: 14-day unlimited use trial.
Last tried: Early 2020 – French (within the limits of the free trial). Available Languages: Only French, German, Spanish, Russian.
This app is a free-path vocabulary builder that exclusively utilizes the cloze reading comprehension activity. It is essentially a flashcard system where you have to fill in the gaps in the presented sentences. Sentences are offered for study according to a spaced-repetition algorithm; you only choose whether to randomize it completely or select from a certain percentile of the frequency of use within the language.
Unlike Lingvist, it is decidedly low on sophistication. The interface is very retro and not very clean. The vocalization of the phrases is low-end synthesized.
Biggest Pro: Completely free in-context learning suitable for users beyond the beginner level.
Biggest Con: Certain foundation in the language is required to get value out of the cloze exercises.
For free: Everything.
Last tried: 2019 – Hebrew (daily for a couple of weeks). Available Languages: Over 50.
An uncommon approach to audio vocabulary building is what makes Earworms different. Each audio clip is in the call-and-respond format between two speakers, with calls in English and responses in the target language. Everything is sentence-based; the sentences are deconstructed and repeated in chunks, and then combined. It all happens under the accompanying mood music in the background – which is considered the key to the method’s success. Repeating after the native speaker is clearly expected, but is left completely to you to fill in the short pauses when only music is heard.
Each lesson is focused on a specific topic and lasts about 6-7 minutes. 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.
The 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). Probably too superficial to be actually useful.
Biggest Pro: Audio-based approach in small bits.
Biggest Con: Beginner-only and far from extensive.
For free: A teaser in the form of a demo album that includes one track for each available language.
Last tried: Early 2020 – French, Italian, Russian (quick test drive – a single sample track for each). Available Languages: 17.
uTalk is a thematic vocabulary builder. The approach is see-and-listen, with spelling, transcription, and translation provided as necessary alongside the visualization. There are 64 topics, for each of which 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.
Biggest Pro: Many rare languages in an easy-to-use interface.
Biggest Con: Limited features and far from extensive.
For free: A starter pack of the same words is included for every language. You earn in-app currency based on your game performance and can use that to unlock additional topics; your balance is shared across all of the languages you try, so theoretically there may be paths to accumulating non-trivial balances and, therefore, continuing to study for free. I did not use the app enough to prove or disprove that theory.
Last tried: Early 2020 – Hebrew and French (within limits of free access). Available Languages: Over 150.
This is a thematic vocabulary builder centered on a phrasebook. For each of its 100 topics, you can learn the phrases (and individual words in some cases), use flashcards, take tests, or play games. The majority of the material is in read-and-listen – or sometimes just listen – mode. 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).
Biggest Pro: A cheap alternative with plenty of materials and minimal structure.
Biggest Con: As befits a cheap alternative, too simplistic.
For free: Full access with ads. You pay a nominal fee to remove ads.
Last tried: Early 2020 – Hebrew and French (quick test drive). Available Languages: Over 60.
Master Any Language
Another thematic vocabulary builder, this one is centered on learning through game playing. Most of the games are of read-and-respond nature. The app provides no discernible learning path – you pick games to play on your own in different thematic sections. Tests and flashcards are available as extra features.
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.
Biggest Pro: For someone interested in a language that is not commonly taught, this may be a free resource to explore.
Biggest Con: For major languages, the app’s deficiencies are too big to overcome even at no cost.
For free: Everything.
Last tried: Early 2020 – Hebrew and French (quick test drive). Available Languages: Over 200.
A guided thematic vocabulary builder that offers practically no practice tools. Each lesson covers a topic with a number of words and phrases, plus related cultural and conversational tips. Each of the terms then appears exactly once in the multiple-choice review exercise (although you have to give the correct answer in order to proceed).
Biggest Pro: Clean interface.
Biggest Con: Too simplistic and too few languages.
For free: The first 3 lessons of each level of each language. The iOS app at the time of my brief trial had a bug that allowed me to get into “locked” lessons as long as I kept ignoring the prompts to upgrade to a paid plan.
Last tried: Early 2023 – French (quick test drive). Available Languages: Only French, Spanish, German, Japanese.
These are not language study tools, per se, but they may be very useful to assist you in your studies.
The Mimic Method
The materials on this website focus on mastering the elemental sounds of the language, with the idea that this is the essential first step on the road to fully understanding native speakers and communicating with them. The concept 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.
I used the old lecture-centric masterclass for an in-depth look into every elemental sound of a given language being produced in your mouth (and nose). A technique for breaking the recorded native speech down to syllables and sounds for practice was also explained. The practice part of the course consisted of drills for the pronunciation of every single sound, where you really were expected to mimic what you hear.
At the time I used it, the course was made in a fairly non-professional manner, and the audio clips for drills were of inconsistent quality. I wouldn’t be expressly recommending it, except that the author at some point decided to make all of his materials available for free, which certainly makes them more useful.
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 a 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, and 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.
Another crowd-sourced extended free library – of sentence translation in over 400 languages. I have not yet found a good use for it in any of my studies, but I suspect it could be a great reference.
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 on this not too 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
A story-based language comprehension course suitable for beginners. 9 major languages.
A book-reading-centric language acquisition method, for 14 languages including all majors. As of early 2023, the book library felt somewhat uninspired, but I still intended to try it, until running into a technical difficulty with app compatibility (my fault given that my principal device of choice is fairly outdated).
Ages ago, my wife tried this alternative to Pimsleur to improve her French. Available in 18 languages; according to reviews found elsewhere, very beginner-focused.
A textbook-and-audio approach, available in 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.
In the last few years, the internet has become awash in single-language courses offered by native speakers who look to monetize their mother-tongue proficiency. Some are podcast-based, while others sport sophisticated app interfaces, and all offer a wealth of everyday-life content. The search engine of your choice is your best friend to find them.