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Foreign language study resources

This article was first posted in February 2020 and has been periodically updated. Although I continue to regularly use my favorite tools, I no longer really test-drive language apps. The features and pricing of many tools evolve very quickly – while this compendium may remain useful as a starting point, specific details may no longer apply.

LingQPimsleurMosaLinguaMemriseDuolingoMondlyRosetta StoneiTalkiVerblingTransparent LanguageMangoBabbelClozemasterGlossika
FluentUInnovative LanguageYablaLingoPieTandemFluent ForeverAssimilBusuuDropsLingvistuTalk50 LanguagesMaster Any LanguageLinguaLift
BeelinguappParallel BooksEarwormsMimic MethodAnkiForvoTatoebaOmniglotOpen Culture

Introduction

In our connected times, an aspiring student of languages can find tons of different tools online and elsewhere that each promise to get you to speak a foreign language in no time at all. Studying languages is one of my hobbies, 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; functionality details are provided as of the time of last use.

Your personal preferences and idiosyncrasies may result in a markedly different assessment of a given tool from mine. Even though I will clearly name my favorites, don’t use this as a definitive 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.

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 using practically any single app. You will achieve a stuttering command of greetings and common courtesy phrases, a minimal ability to recognize directions and read restaurant menus, and will probably learn how to ask for help. The end result will be hardly much better than using Google Translate on your phone. 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: reading, writing, speaking, and understanding speech. Various tools implicitly or explicitly emphasize some of these competencies over others. 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 likely one competency that you can deprioritize 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 constructs) to your long-term memory in order to become proficient. Some apps are almost exclusively focused on that aspect of language learning, while others provide some form of flashcard mechanism as a supplemental tool.

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.

Types of apps

No apps are made the same. While some direct comparisons may be unavoidable, I have no intention to stack-rank tools. Nonetheless, I do have a personal stratification of the types of language apps which informs how I view their usability.

The biggest group out there is vocabulary builders. They offer little beyond memorization tools – flashcards, etc. – and rarely stay useful beyond the beginner’s level. Some focus on the most frequently used words, while others guide you thematically without too much thought of how useful a given word might be to you.

A smaller group is language acquisition programs. These apps, each with its own methodology, give you tools to build your command of the language in either guided or unguided fashion. This is my preferred format. These programs usually take you from being an absolute beginner to somewhere near intermediate proficiency.

At that point, your better bet is the programs that focus on comprehension. They usually teach you via native-speaker audio and videos and can rarely be used by someone who does not yet have a foundation in the language.

A separate shout goes to the live practice platforms, where you can find native speakers for either formal instruction or occasional practice. In my view, they become useful only when you achieve a certain level of proficiency with your target language, but anyone who prefers to study with a tutor can certainly benefit there as well.

In addition, there are supplementary tools that are not so much language-study apps but rather additional resources.

Other criteria

Most of the opinions in this article are based on little more than my personal likes and dislikes. However, there are several specific additional dimensions that I look at when evaluating a language app.

Availability of languages. Practically any app out there would have Spanish and French courses. Quite a few other languages can be found as well on most platforms (German, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese, Korean, Japanese, Russian). Although you would usually have a choice of at least a dozen apps even for less popular languages, the apps that go well beyond the “majors” in their offerings certainly deserve a special mention.

How much do you get for free? There are 4 flavors of free access: a time-limited full feature teaser that will completely cut you off unless you buy a subscription at the end; a lesson-limited teaser with no ability to continue beyond the first few lessons without a subscription; basic-feature access, where you can fully use the ecosystem but lack key parts of the toolset without a subscription; and standard-feature access, where a subscription removes annoyances such as ads or brings you non-essential “premium” tools. If you seriously like the app you should definitely pay for the full subscription. But remembering one of the earlier statements about needing a combination of tools, there is probably a limit for everyone how many different apps they may be willing to pay for. Therefore, an app that offers a lot of free features may be a better supplemental tool than an app that gives you almost nothing without a subscription.

Can you discern spaced repetition in the app’s approach? Memorization of new words bears fruit only with a methodical approach. Spaced repetition is a scientifically proven method; any app that utilizes it is likely to get you to a better outcome than an app that does not force any reviews of past material with regularity.

My favorites and other heavily used tools

LingQPimsleurMosaLinguaMemriseDuolingoMondlyRosetta StoneiTalkiVerbling

LingQ

Firmly a favorite, 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 long after you advance 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 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. The only true minus here is that speaking the language is a significant afterthought – it is entirely up to you how to work that into your studies.

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 unfortunately maddeningly inconsistent in offering correct vocalization.

As you work with the texts, you have no control over the input – many words that you don’t know but also don’t need will clutter your path so you need a measure of discipline to sift through. Additionally, languages with complex grammar – with cases, declensions, conjugations, joining prepositions and/or possessives, etc. – will present every such variation of the same word as a separate term. That 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, and here the methodology is probably not so useful to the complete novices in a given language.

Biggest Like: Great integrated collection of tools to break down foreign languages with real-world materials. Fair coverage of non-major languages.
Biggest Dislike: Focus on stats around individual language terms gets in the way.
For free: A time-limited full feature teaser with a totally insufficient allowance of “LingQ”s (the terms you choose to mark for study). Beyond that, basic features and full access to the library (if you can make do without integrated translation, all reading and listening materials are fully available without any ability to build review lists). I subscribe on yearly basis.
Last used: Continuous use as of 2024 – Hebrew, French, Italian, Romanian, Portuguese.

Pimsleur

Pimsleur used to be my starting point for every language. It embodies my favorite approach to developing conversational skills: Guided acquisition of speaking and understanding proficiencies via audio call-and-respond, underpinned by spaced repetition. No visual input is involved, so it is the ultimate hands-free method.

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 Like: Undiluted focus on acquiring conversational proficiency. Fair coverage of non-major languages.
Biggest Dislike: 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.
Last used in 2018 – French, Italian, Hebrew, Spanish, German (ranging from full courses to several lessons).

MosaLingua

Conceptually, this semi-guided vocabulary builder combined with podcasts is among the best that I ever used. 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 (or, by default, with a nod to frequency of use).  When you first come upon a new flashcard, there are several different angles you can work with it, including recording yourself saying the words.

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 Like: Combines vocabulary buildout with listening comprehension, with forced spaced-repetition reviews.
Biggest Dislike: The implementation is a bit clunky and unintuitive. Limited coverage of non-major languages.
For free: A time-limited full feature teaser.
Last used: Continuous use as of 2024 – French, Portuguese. I bought a reasonably inexpensive lifetime subscription in an early promotion.

Memrise

Memrise used to be my hands-down favorite guided vocabulary builder underpinned by spaced repetition. Recently, it started undergoing an uplift and a change in methodology, and the app became considerably worse in my eyes. What used to be key for me was that the repetition reviews were suggested in a manner where you had to explicitly choose to skip them (as opposed to most other apps that simply alert you that a review is ready for you somewhere). That is no longer the case in the new incarnation of the app.

In a mostly standard set of exercises involving flashcards, typed answers, and unscramble tasks, a great differentiating feature used to be the “Learn with Locals” bit – a type of a flashcard where the phrase in question was spoken by a native speaker seemingly approached at random on the street. That is apparenlty now being replaced by AI generation, which I also find disappointing.

Biggest Like: (no lonter valid) Comparatively extensive courses with in-your-face spaced repetition prompts. Extensive community-sourced content to cover non-major languages.
Biggest Dislike: Reimagining of the app, with most of my main preferences going away (forced spaced repetition, community courses, native-speaker clips). Limited coverage of non-major languages in the formal new ecosystem.
For free: Standard features with seemingly everything of value, ad-based. I obtained a not too expensive lifetime subscription as a goodwill gesture based on my extensive use of the app (and almost immediately the app has gotten worse).
Last used: Continuous use through 2023 – French, Spanish, Italian, Hebrew, Portuguese, Turkish (at least a couple of months daily in each instance).

Duolingo

Duolingo is a well-known thematic vocabulary builder that is largely free to use. It engages you in all language competencies, although spaced repetition is present very cursorily once you move to a new topic. The interface uses cartoon animation for motivational purposes, 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 is that right from the very beginning, Duolingo offers you 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 Like: An extensive and largely-free resource. Broad coverage of non-major languages.
Biggest Dislike: I am not a fan of the gamified approach, nor of the occasional absurdity of the studied vocabulary. I actually know quite a lot of people who find gamification one of the biggest draws of Duolingo.
For free: Standard features, ad-based. I did a couple of premium trial periods, and while removal of ads was welcome, did not find any of the premium features worth the expense.
Last used: Late 2023 – French, Spanish, Italian, Hebrew, Romanian, Turkish, Portuguese (ranging from a couple of months daily to just a few days in total).

Mondly

Mondly is another thematic vocabulary builder with a pretty snazzy UI. Studying is done mostly through unscramble questions with an occasional multiple-choice thrown in. Practically all of the interaction is of read-and-listen variety. I do not discern any spaced repetition in the approach. Every module includes a bot-driven hands-free segment that inexplicably re-teaches you the same words you learned in the main lesson as if you’ve never heard them before (it also ridiculously “quizzes” you every two new words – and never goes back to past words again).

I am not a fun of this app, but I inexplicably bought an inexpensive lifetime access in an early promotion, and that drove my relatively extensive use of the product; it would be in “Indifferent Test-Drives” section otherwise.

Biggest Like: Fair coverage of non-major languages. The bot engine was a differentiating feature when I first tried the app in 2020.
Biggest Dislike: Unscrambling sentences in a fancy UI is far from my preferred approach to learning.
For free: A time-limited full feature teaser.
Last used: Early 2024 – Hebrew, French, Romanian, Portuguese.

Rosetta Stone

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.

Rosetta 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 Like: Comprehensive language acquisition. Fair coverage of non-major languages.
On the other hand: 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: A time-limited full feature teaser.
Last used: Early 2019 – Hebrew (full course/one year), French (limited run many years prior).

iTalki

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 Like: 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. I suspect there may be close to 200 languages on offer; obviously, the number of available tutors is proportional to language popularity.
On the othe hand: 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).

Verbling

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.

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 Like: 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. Extensive coverage of non-major languages; obviously, the number of available tutors is proportional to language popularity.
On the other hand: 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).

Alternatives: I have not actually tried Preply or Live Lingua, but I understand that they work in a similar fashion.

Positive test-drive impressions

Transparent LanguageMangoBabbelClozemasterGlossikaFluentUInnovative Language

Transparent Language

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. There are various bells and whistles in the sophisticated and easy-to-use ecosystem, from recording and comparing your pronunciation to identifying vocabulary segments that you want to practice in a specific way. However, there is no discernible spaced repetition; each lesson deals solely with the vocabulary defined within it – practicing what you learned in past lessons is entirely at your discretion.

Biggest Like: Comparatively comprehensive. Very extensive coverage of non-major languages.
Biggest Dislike: Comparatively expensive.
For free: A time-limited teaser.
Last tried: Early 2020 – Hebrew (within limits of the free trial), French, Italian, and Spanish (years ago on CDs).

Mango Languages

Mango is a guided vocabulary builder with a bit of an 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 Like: A lightweight and inexpensive solution that focuses on speaking as the main skill. Extensive coverage of non-major languages.
Biggest Dislike: Remains mostly a vocabulary builder.
For free: A lesson-limited teaser. Additionally, a number of less-common languages are offered for free in their entirety.
Last tried: Early 2020 – French, Hebrew (within limits of the free trial), Yiddish (several lessons for a free language).

Babbel

One of the more aggressively marketed vocabulary builders in recent times, with an approach not too dissimilar to MosaLingua, although exercises appear more diverse beyond simple flashcards and also include more writing-like activities. 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 Like: Suitable for advanced beginners without having to go through the very basics.
Biggest Dislike: 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. Limited coverage of non-major languages.
For free: A lesson-limited teaser.
Last tried: Early 2024 – French, Portuguese (within limits of free access).

Clozemaster

Clozemaster 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. The interface is very retro and not very clean. The vocalization of the phrases is low-end synthesized.

Biggest Like: Almost entirely free in-context learning suitable for users beyond the beginner level. Fair coverage of non-major languages.
Biggest Dislike: Without a prior foundation in the language, it is challenging to get value out of the cloze exercises.
For free: Standard features, ad-based.
Last tried: 2019 – Hebrew (daily for a couple of weeks).

Glossika

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. 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 Like: Learning language in context. Extensive coverage of non-major languages.
Biggest Dislike: In a sense, you are focusing on spelling as the way to learn a language.
For free: A time-limited full feature teaser.
Last tried: Early 2020 – French, Hebrew (within the limits of the free trial).

FluentU

FluentU offers free-path language comprehension training through annotated videos. The library contains several hundred items 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 of different types to help you memorize words and phrases from the video. In addition, you are offered a daily “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. It is also suitable only for people who are beyond beginner’s level, even if some of the material is marked as aimed at beginners. Additionally, speaking competency is an afterthought in this approach; you are left entirely at your discretion in terms of saying things out loud or not.

One of the biggest sources of annoyance of this method is that 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 that entire exact line – which may include proper names, conversational connectors, or even grammatically incorrect constructs found in everyday speech – 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 Like: “Watching TV” may be the most efficient way for adults to achieve language comprehension outside of live practice with native speakers.
Biggest Con: Comparatively expensive (although significant “lifetime” discounts pop up throughout the year). Only major languages.
For free: A time-limited full feature teaser, and then access to the entire library without any tools. Occasional items may be exposed as teasers for full functionality.
Last tried: Early 2020 – French (within the limits of the free trial).

Innovative Language

This is a free-path listening comprehension tool – if you ever came across a Pod101 podcast or 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 Like: Study anywhere. Fair coverage of non-major languages.
Biggest Dislike: Focus on a single skill – understanding spoken language.
For free: A time-limited full feature teaser, and beyond that the first three podcasts in every set are nearly always free to listen to without any advanced 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.
Last used: Early 2020 – Hebrew (extensively), French (within limits of the free trial).

Indifferent test-drive impressions

YablaLingoPieTandemFluent ForeverAssimilBusuuDropsLingvistuTalk50 LanguagesMaster Any LanguageLinguaLift

Yabla

Yabla is a direct alternative to FluentU, with similar functionality. Many of its videos are specially produced for Yabla. I score it slightly higher on the selection of materials, but slightly lower due tot the seeming absence of any spaced repetition. Only a handful of major languages are on offer.

For free: A time-limited full feature teaser. Beyond that, you can play around with a handful of teaser videos and browse the entire library.
Last tried: Early 2020 – French (within the limits of the free trial).

LingoPie

LingoPie is another direct competitor with FluentU or Yabla, with smaller library, fewer bells and whistles, and only major-language coverage.

For free: A time-limited full feature teaser.
Last tried: Early 2023 – French and Italian (within the limits of the free trial).

Tandem

Self-billed as “the world’s largest language exchange community”, Tandem 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 Like: Connecting – and hopefully practicing – with native carriers of the language. Theoretically, every language of interest is present, but obviously speakers of the major languages are seen in larger counts.
On the other hand: Expect a low percentage of quality connections.
For free: All standard features, with negligible limitations. I cannot imagine the full cost – however negligible – to be worth spending.
Last used: Mid-2020 – Hebrew, French.

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.

Fluent Forever

A guided vocabulary builder with an emphasis on pronunciation, spelling, and ear training. In essence, a sophisticated flashcards app, heavily based on visualization and spaced repetition. 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 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 (in complete contradiction to the app’s premise that you need to focus on the most frequently used vocabulary). Furthermore, the ear-training 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.

Biggest Like: Pronunciation and ear training are usually afterthoughts in vocab builders – not in this one.
Biggest Dislike: The study path is cluttered by less-useful words. Limited coverage of non-major languages.
For free: A time-limited full feature teaser.
Last tried: Early 2020 – French (within the limits of the free trial).

Assimil

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, and then performing various exercises. 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.

Over 80 languages are available for study, but that is if your base language is French. Twelve 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.

Biggest Like: The one-time cost is lower than the yearly subscription for many other tools.
On the other hand: 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: A lesson-limited teaser.
Last tried: Early 2020 – French (within limits of the free access).

Busuu

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 Like: Variety of exercises.
Biggest Dislike: The community aspect (as I am lukewarm to the idea). Limited coverage of non-major languages.
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 with standard feature set.
Last tried: Early 2020 – French (within limits of free access).

Drops

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, but 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 near the truth 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.

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.

Biggest Like: A bit of daily study with minimal effort. Fair coverage of non-major languages.
Biggest Dislike: Gamification with pictograms.
For free: Basic features with the 5-minute-a-day limit.
Last tried: 2019 – Hebrew (free version daily for a couple of weeks).

Lingvist

Linguist focuses on cloze reading comprehension activity as the mechanism for vocabulary building. This learning-in-context concept is manifested, similar to Clozemaster, as, effectively, a flashcard system. 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. There is a bit more sophistication to this app than to Clozemaster and a few additional bells and whistles, at a cost.

Biggest Like: In-context learning suitable for users beyond the beginner level.
Biggest Dislike: I am not convinced that the cloze method can be anything more than a supplemental tool at a slightly advanced stage of your studies. Limited coverage of non-major languages.
For free: A time-limited full feature teaser.
Last tried: Early 2020 – French (within the limits of the free trial).

uTalk

uTalk is a thematic vocabulary builder operating via the see-and-listen approach, 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 Like: Large number of rare languages in an easy-to-use interface.
Biggest Dislike: 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).

50 Languages

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.

Biggest Like: A cheap alternative with plenty of materials and minimal structure. Extensice coverage of non-major languages.
Biggest Dislike: As befits a cheap alternative, too simplistic.
For free: Full access, ad-based. You can pay a nominal fee to remove ads.
Last tried: Early 2020 – Hebrew and French (quick test drive).

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 Like: For someone interested in a language that is not commonly taught, this may be a free resource to explore: huge coverage of non-major languages.
Biggest Dislike: 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).

LinguaLift

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 Like: Clean interface.
Biggest Dislike: Too simplistic and too few languages.
For free: A lesson-limited teaser. 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).

Niche and supplemental tools

BeelinguappParallel BooksEarwormsMimic MethodAnkiForvoTatoebaOmniglotOpen Culture

Beelinguapp

Beelinguapp advances the concept of language acquisition through parallel reading. A limited but growing collection of book excerpts, current-events articles, and specially-created texts with voiceovers in your target language give you the side-by-side translation as you progress through them, in addition to a couple of simple review and practice tools. There are even songs that you can incorporate in the same studying approach (except that the sound for them is the original English, which probably makes them far less useful).

The texts are marked with the competency level, which drives the “normal” speed of the voiceover. The speed was my biggest pet peeve – far too slow regardless of the level. I could not find any features in the app to compensate for that.

Biggest Like: Current-events texts seem to be very recent, so there is potentially a steady flow of new material being added.
On the other hand: My general feeling is that continuously looking at translation is not the greatest approach to acquiring language comprehension. Limited coverage of non-major languages.
For free: A time-limited full feature teaser. Beyond that, a small subset of materials is labeled “Free”, so you can use them without any subscription, but no additional tools will be available. You are also limited to a single language unless you subscribe.
Last tried: Mid-2023 – French (within limits of the free access).

Parallel Books

A small library – just a couple of dozen books – that can be read side by side in two languages. You can choose to read in one language without translation. All titles are available in English, and eight foreign languages are represented with at least one selection, but only German offers a reasonable variety, with French coming a distant second; all other languages have at most three titles available. Although Beelinguapp continues to carry forward the parallel reading concept, the idea did not really survive the advent of integrated translation tools, and it definitely looks like the PB app had grander plans which have been seemingly abandoned by now.

Earworms

An uncommon approach to audio vocabulary building is what makes Earworms entirely different on this list. 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 Like: Audio-based approach in small bits.
On the other hand: Beginner-only and far from extensive. Limited coverage of non-major languages.
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).

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. He has lately morphed his offerings into something called the Flow School, which I believe involves face-to-face instruction and which I do not intend to try.

Anki

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 if your main study tools do not offer that themselves, this is a free option that you can manage on your own. (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: There are many SRS tools out there, Of which I have very briefly tried Brainscape and Quizlet. Both are snazzier than Anki, both require subscriptions for unfettered access, and neither bowled me over with their bells and whistles.

Forvo

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.

Tatoeba

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.

Omniglot

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.

Open Culture

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.

Never tried but aware

Uncovered

A story-based language comprehension course suitable for beginners. 9 major languages.

Michel Thomas

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.

Colloquials

A textbook-and-audio approach, available in over 70 languages for those who prefer that type of study.

Single-language courses

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.

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