If there’s anything I can encourage someone traveling to do, it’s to start learning a new language. Studying abroad, moving abroad, traveling abroad — doesn’t matter. Wherever you’re going, spending just 20 to 60 minutes a day learning some basics of your host country’s language will go a long way in enriching your experience. After all, what makes a trip special is meeting fellow travelers, locals, and sharing stories.
To help get you started, I’m sharing some of the best language learning apps I’ve been able to find. First, I’ll give you some background on my language learning background (feel free to scroll on if that sounds terribly boring) and then we’ll cover MindSnacks, Coffee Break with Radio Lingua, iTalki, DuoLingo, Babbel, and Memrise. I’ll update as I find new apps that interest me.
Admittedly, I might not be the best person to be giving advice. My background in language was minimal as recent as a few years ago. I had about three months of German, French, and Spanish in 8th grade to determine what I’d want to focus on. In retrospect, this was way too late to start.
My brother was already blowing through Spanish, so I went with that. Plus with my limited worldview, I at least knew it was the second-most spoken language in the United States. Still, I was in a very homogenous school and world events were taught with a basic understanding that we — the United States — are the best. Not just the best, but awesome. Super awesome. SUPER AWESOME FANTASTIC (insert Rambo-esque explosion) AMAZING-SAUCE!
So if we’re that special, why should I bother learning those sounds you’re spewing from your face?
As you can imagine, I never took language learning seriously until I got my worldview kicked in its stupid head. Now I actually find that I love language learning, even though I’m not at all fluent in Spanish and am still working my way through German while occasionally dabbling in French and Italian. (Before traveling Japan, I tried that as well.)
To improve my language skills (or get started in a new language), I switch from app to app. Some are great for beginners, others require a bit more background.
Let’s dive in.
Where would I be without that goofy little alien? MindSnacks made language learning fun for me, something I badly needed after traditional schooling bored me to tears. Plus in its learning-through-games approach, it made me feel like I was actually accomplishing something.
Huzzah! I’m winning at… Spanish?
I’ve found that Mindsnacks is great for starting a new language because it gives you a collection of words and phrases that you’ll recognize later on when you use different programs to start putting sentences together. You can try it for free then purchase a language for just $5. After spending hundreds on your flight, the extra five bucks to make yourself seem less alien to wherever you’re traveling is worth it.
Coffee Break is a podcast series put on by Radio Lingua with the opportunity to purchase additional content. At its most basic level — that is, free — you get podcasts with a delightful Scottish host working you through the language in manageable 20-some-minute episodes. Their Coffee Break German program had been especially helpful for me since I was going into German with minimal experience of actually hearing the language.
I started Coffee Break German after finishing MindSnacks German, but I would recommend pairing this with MindSnacks. Play the podcast during any commutes you have and save Mindsnacks for when you’re sitting still. Considering they both start with the assumption that you’re brand new, they pair rather nicely. Plus Coffee Break gives you the benefit of hearing those words you’re learning in Mindsnacks in a conversational format.
iTalki is basically the Facebook of language learning. You can pay professional instructors to do video chats with you, regardless of your level. Or — again, for free — you can find folks who want to trade languages with you. You can schedule video chats or if you’re busy, I’ve found it helpful to keep a google chat window open with ongoing conversations.
Through iTalki, I met an incredibly kind Salvadoran who ended up showing my wife and me around her home in Santa Tecla when we coincidentally visited a couple of months after chatting for the first time. We still chat from time to time, and I know I can go to her with any number of stupid Spanish questions, and she knows she can come to me with any stupid English questions.
Ah, DuoLingo. How I love, thee.
DuoLingo starts to bring it all together. Those basics words and phrases you learned in MindSnacks and Coffee Break? Now they’re showing up in sentences. This started as an iOS app but has since evolved to an online program where you can go beyond the app and have your hand at translating articles others have uploaded. Or you can upload articles you’re interested in reading and have a go at those. If you’re struggling, someone will inevitably be by to help you out and give notes on your translating.
Did I mention this is all free?
Of course, nothing beats talking with a native speaker, which is why the aforementioned iTalki always comes in handy, but I had the tools to have basic conversations and take care of chores, like grocery shopping or buying a bus ticket. And I gained these abilities all from the comfort of my apartment in downtown Cleveland. Incredible.
Babbel takes a more traditionally academic approach, but I still enjoy using it much more than I’ve ever enjoyed learning a language in a classroom. The game-like atmosphere isn’t here like in DuoLingo or MindSnacks, but if you’ve gotten this far in a language, then chances are you’re rather committed to learning. That’s great because Babbel focuses more on grammatical concepts than any of the aforementioned apps.
Don’t let that scare you away. I know grammar can be a synonym for the kind of palpable boredom experienced when you were a small child and had to follow your parents as they did grownup chores, but Babbel makes grammar approachable while you still learn new words and phrases. (After all, what’s the point of knowing the grammar if you can’t say anything?) So far, I’ve used it for German and French.
Babbel is the first one on this list that isn’t free. You get a sample lesson, but after that, you need to break out the credit card — though it’s incredibly affordable. You’re looking at about €10 per month if you sign up for a month or €4.95 per month if you sign up for 12 months. Their best seller is three months for €6.65 which should be plenty of time for you to figure out if you’re making use of Babbel.
Memrise might just be my favorite language learning app at the moment. The amount of content they offer for free is absurd. I haven’t even felt the need to look at their paid plans because I seem to be getting more than enough with the free content.
With Memrise, you can start wherever you like, which is great if you’ve already been using some of the above-mentioned apps. No idea to start with “my brother” if you’ve already been playing around with a language.
Once you pick your level, you’ll find a tree of chapters that looks similar to DuoLingo. Each section teaches you somewhere around 12 – 25 words. First, you’ll hear the word, then you’ll be presented with the word six more times before you have it memorized. Over those six times, you’ll have to spell it, hear it and select the right phrase, translate it from English to the language your learning and vice verse.
What I especially enjoy is getting follow up emails of words that are “ready for review.” I can open it, do a quick scroll, and continue on with my day. I typically do about two sections per day rather than set a points goal. Thus far, it’s been a great addition to both my German and Italian study.
HelloTalk is a language exchange app with more than 100 supported languages, allowing you to find native speakers and professors from around the globe to fulfill your linguistic needs. In many ways, it’s Facebook for learning(like iTalki, but only for mobile) in that you have your profile featuring basic information, primarily the language you’re interested in learning and what you can offer in exchange.
Pro members ($8.99 per year) can add an extra language to their roster as well as get a number of other goodies, like unlimited translation and transliteration — perhaps two of my favorite features. Basically, if someone sends you a message and you need a little help, you can click that message and get a translation. If someone sends you a voice recording that you have trouble making out, the transliteration feature will spell it out for you. Still, have trouble? You can even translate that text, too. This all works across different alphabets, too. So when a Japanese person sends me something beyond simple pleasantries, HelloTalk will graciously save me.
The only negative I can mention is the lack of a desktop option. I don’t need a desktop option for most of these apps (and obviously it wouldn’t make sense with a podcast), but the point of HelloTalk is to have a conversation. I find that difficult to do on my iPhone, texting back and forth. I write, put my phone down, it buzzes, I unlock it, write back, put it down, and this repeats to the point where I just stop responding. If there were a desktop option so I could more easily (and quickly) respond, that’d be fan-freaking-tastic.
You can read more about my experience with HelloTalk here.
That’s it for now! What have I missed? What are some of your language learning apps? Leave a comment below.