Simply open the app store on your smartphone and type “free (target language) app,” and you’re bound to get a lengthy list. Even obscure languages have their own apps; I’ve seen them for languages I’ve never heard of (High Valyrian is from Game of Thrones, right?). But some apps are better than others, even when you factor in learning style and skill level. Here are ten of the best free foreign language apps, according to multiple sources:
Duolingo is the gold standard of foreign language apps. Lessons in reading, writing, speaking, and listening are broken up into “bite-sized pieces”. The app works like a game, complete with losing a life each time you get an answer wrong and points determining your progress. An independent study found that 34 hours on Duolingo is equal to one semester of college. Available languages are English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Irish, Danish, Swedish, High Valyrian (is that like Klingon?), Russian, Swahili, Polish, Romanian, Greek, Esperanto, Turkish, Vietnamese, Hebrew, Norwegian, Ukrainian, Hungarian, and Welsh.
The designers behind Memrise believe that in order to learn a foreign language, you have to connect it to what you already know. Using “mems”, their word for “mnemonics, etymologies, amusing videos, photos, example sentences: anything which helps connect what you’re learning and bring it to life”, the app teaches you the language of your choice. The app is a game in which you are a spy sent to a foreign planet, accompanied by an alien who levels up when you get words right. Winner of “Best App” in the 2017 Google Play Awards, Memrise teaches French, Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Italian, German, Portuguese, Russian, Danish, Swedish, Polish, Norwegian, Turkish, and Arabic.
3) Learn (Language) Bubble Bath
Think Candy Crush with a foreign language. Designed for kids, it’s an easy-to-use relaxing app in which you pop a bubble and match the word in the bubble with its translation. Two words are presented at a time, so you have a fifty-fifty chance. As the levels progress, more options are unlocked, so you have to stop guessing and actually learn the words. When you tap the bubble, the word is spoken by a native speaker, but beware—in some levels there is no text in the bubble, forcing you to rely on your listening skills, and in other levels, the word is not spoken, forcing you to rely on your reading skills. The app, by Overpass Apps, features several languages, including less-popular ones like Somali and Bengali.
Tandem is an online community of foreign language students and teachers. You simply log on, choose a language, and connect with a native speaker. Tandem has more than one million users, so your chances of finding a native speaker of your foreign language are pretty dang good. One user wrote, “Learning Spanish on Tandem is great because I always have a chance to talk to native speakers. Now I have many friends from all over the world who help me learn, tell me about their cultures, languages, and lifestyles. Now I am much better at speaking in Spanish, I can think faster and know many things about different countries.’
HelloTalk was the first community language app, and you can learn more than 100 languages on HelloTalk. Key features include the ability to search for people whose needs match yours, the ability to practice your foreign language with native speakers via text, audio, and voice messages, free audio and video calls, a community forum in which you can ask cultural questions, learning features such as translation and transliteration to help you improve your skills in your foreign language, and an emphasis on communication.
A City University of New York study found that 22.5 hours on Busuu is equivalent to one college semester of your foreign language. However, Busuu kind of throws you in there with minimal preparation, so you’ll want to have a basic knowledge of your foreign language. Busuu won the Editor’s Choice Award and was nominated as one of the Best Apps on Google Play in 2015. Languages include English, Spanish, German, French, Italian, Portuguese, Turkish, Arabic, Polish, Russian, Chinese, and Japanese.
Babbel gives you the option to start at a beginner or an advanced level. Lessons last between 10-15 minutes and are interactive, ranging from fill-in-the-blank to multiple choice. In my advanced Spanish lesson, one topic included listing all the days in order before learning how to make plans for Saturday. You can synch Babbel with your computer to learn at home as well. Languages include Spanish, German, French, Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, Turkish, Dutch, Polish, Indonesian, Russian, Danish, and Norwegian.
Designed by and for international travelers, TripLingo emphasizes local language and culture. Communication is easy with a convenient interactive phrasebook featuring formal, casual, and slang phrases, or, worst case scenario, connection with an instant voice translator. In addition, there is a cultural and etiquette guide for several foreign countries, so your first impression will be a good one. TripLingo also includes emergency medical phrases, safety tools such as an emergency local conditions update, a currency converter and a tip calculator.
MOSAlingua uses the spaced repetition system to build your vocabulary. Spaced repetition is a science-based technique that theorizes our brains forget new information quickly, and therefore it is important to space out repetitions of what we’re learning in order to integrate it into our memory. MOSAlingua builds on what you’ve already learned, and features real-life situations in its dialogues. In addition to your cell phone, you can use it on a tablet or on your computer. Languages include English, French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Portuguese, with more languages to come in the future.
The HiNative app supports more than 100 languages, so you’re likely to find the one you want to learn. A global question-and-answer platform for language learners, HiNative allows you to ask, “How do you say ‘hungry’ in Spanish?” “What’s the difference between embarrazada and avergonzada?”(Guys, watch out on this one, or you may find yourself saying you're pregnant!), and, “Am I pronouncing espantapájaros correctly?” This app requires some knowledge of the language you’re trying to learn.
There are also countless apps dedicated to helping your pronunciation.
Some of these apps have in-app purchases or subscriptions after the initial free period, but are generally cheaper than a traditional language class. They have the added benefits of being portable, allowing you to study on your own schedule, and allow you to repeat a lesson you had trouble with the first time. Remember, strike while the iron is hot! Take advantage of these apps as a way to learn and practice and build your language “app-titude.”