best language learning app for people who are not language noobs
March 26, 2020 11:37 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to work on one or the other of the languages I've gotten a start on but haven't gotten good at. I've tried this and that.

I believe the only real way to work on languages is with interaction, but meanwhile I'd like to do what I can sitting at home. In the past (since becoming not a student and not easily able to take classes) I have used

-Rosetta Stone. Hated it. Moves very very slowly and, as far as I got with it, didn't discuss grammar ever.
-Pimsleur. Had fun with it though it's formulaic and spends a lot of time on topics that don't interest me. Also absolutely never explains anything about grammar or pronunciation.

Maybe that's all. I definitely get the benefit of focusing on competence rather than memorized info about structure, but sometimes with both of those systems I'd want to say "ok, but could you at least tell me why the ending changed so I have some idea what's going on?"

This is rambly but basically I'm wondering what app people who consider themselves ok at languages (say, people who have studied more than one for example? and understand that an app that says it will teach you Spanish in three weeks is lying?) have found productive and enjoyable. Thanks!
posted by less of course to Education (15 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Might I suggest that an app isn't necessarily going to give you the experience you're looking for? I'd think that something like a language textbook might give more info on specifics, minus the interaction part. I just don't know if you're going to find an app, specifically, which provides what you hope for.
posted by Alensin at 11:52 AM on March 26 [2 favorites]

If it's a language that you just have a start on, I do like Duolingo. If you use it on the computer (vs a phone/tablet app) it includes grammar lessons, which is really helpful. It gives you that nice dopamine kick so it's pretty easy to stick with it.

Caveat: Duolingo is more useful for me in Russian and Irish (which I learned only a little of in a classroom setting) than it is for French and Spanish, which I studied for years. I've used Duolingo for those languages too and it's still fun, but you're not going to learn a whole lot; it's too basic if you have an intermediate grasp of the language already. I also think it would be a hard app to use if you don't have any background in the language at all.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 11:55 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]

I've really enjoyed using Mango to help me brush up on my Spanish. You can take an assessment test when you first start with it, and it will put you at a good starting point for you. Or you can go from the very basics and it builds up vocabulary and grammar across the lessons with some explanation. I like that it does regular reviews and also reading/listening exercises along the way.

I did the entire Duolingo course for French a few years ago and I know marginally more French than before, but definitely can't hold a basic conversation in it.

Some libraries will give you free access to Mango, so that might be worth looking into. I have access through NYPL.
posted by Fuego at 12:07 PM on March 26 [4 favorites]

Try Anki flashcards for language learning? The Android app is free, but the iOS app is paid. Depending on how popular your language is, you should be able to find available flashcard sets online, many of which already come with pronunciations added in! (For example, I took a flashcard set scraped from the Duolingo libraries, which means that the vocab on the flashcards corresponds with Duolingo pronunciations and meanings).
posted by devrim at 12:25 PM on March 26 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't even suggest an app. I've never had luck with any of them (duolingo, rosetta, etc). I'd do some research into the specific resources available in whatever language it is you want to learn. What are the best-rated books? Grammar books, "classroom" type books that take you through lessons? Any good audio resources? The best websites? Take a look at all those, find which ones work for you, and use them to mold the lessons to what you need.

I really don't think there is an app or any program that can provide the perfect learning strategy for anyone. I think you need to find the resources that work for you, but you also need some sort of guiding lesson plan (like the classroom books I mentioned above) that can help you make your way through in a logical order.

And seconding Anki! (I guess that counts as an app?) I think one of the problems with apps are that they take away the feeling that you need to study outside of the app. The app is not enough on its own.

So for example for French I have found the following combination useful:
1. "Classroom" lesson plan type book - don't love the book so I won't mention it but it's the one my school uses, so I'm sticking with it as I will eventually get back to taking lessons in school.
2. Grammar (and some vocab) resource with great explanations (what many of the apps don't do): Easy French Step by Step. I LOVE this resource and find it a lot more helpful that the "classroom" book, but I don't think it would be good on it's own. It's a very unnatural-way of learning French, but it has all the clear explanations that apps and my classroom book (which I think focuses too much in "natural" learning at the expense ofr explaing things) are lacking in.
3. Audio - downloads (ok, I guess this is kind of an app as well. It's touted as a complete package to learn French, and I think comes closer than any other apps, but I need other resources as well).
4. Other resources:, a few other blogs/books/references.

So to not-answer your question, I don't think an app can do this effectively. You need a whole toolkit from multiple resources, you need to study on your own outside those resources (anki flashcards, reading, speaking or conversation if possible). Most of the time these "best" resources will be different in each language. I'm skeptical of most websites that provide too many languages.

This takes away the ease of working through one app/program, and the app dopamine rushes, but if you find a good lesson-plan type program to guide you, tweak or jump around as you need, study outside of that program, and have good other resources to back you up, I think you'll make a lot more progress. I've found that in the longer term (but not even that long once I really got into it), I've been much more successful and that makes up for any short-term dopamine rushes. It can be hard to guide yourself though.
posted by sillysally at 12:49 PM on March 26 [1 favorite]

Seconding Mango Languages. It teaches new vocabulary in phrases and explains/illustrates grammar in a way that makes it easy to learn. Mango is also great for learning non-Romance languages. I loved DuoLingo for French, but Mango's Arabic and Japanese courses were MUCH better than DuoLingo's.

You could probably get more specific answers if you said which languages you're learning.
posted by Penguin48 at 1:48 PM on March 26 [1 favorite]

I have been using a site based on Kwizik for French and I really like it. It teaches grammar points -- so I like it better than DuoLingo -- and uses spaced repetition to test and reinforce the rules. It only does French and Spanish right now, though.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:53 PM on March 26 [1 favorite]

You could probably get more specific answers if you said which languages you're learning.

Yeah true. I haven't made up my mind I guess. I have like a year's worth of Mandarin and wouldn't mind giving that another go (it was Mandarin that I did some Rosetta Stone with) but I am also interested in doing Italian, which I have some reading knowledge of but really don't know the grammar well.

(My Spanish is in a weird place where my grasp of the grammar is as good as I need it to be but I really need conversation practice and vocab building in a way where it's mostly conversation that would help.)
posted by less of course at 2:30 PM on March 26

I've been learning Italian via Duolingo, but my only other true language learning experience was 7 years of middle school and high school French. I do not have an ear for languages, but I do have an "eye" for language, in general, so my written Italian is improving much more quickly than my spoken Italian. However, I only use it on my computer in the browser, so I get no practice speaking Italian; if you use the app, you get quite a bit.

My friend, who is adept at languages, has taught herself Spanish through Duolingo well enough that all of her pediatric patients and their parents understand her, and she hasn't used any other method. She's also used Duolingo for French, German, and Mandarin.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 3:08 PM on March 26 [1 favorite]

Italki is a website that does very affordable online lessons with tutors.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 5:04 PM on March 26 [4 favorites]

For solitary vocabulary building nothing beats old-fashioned reading - a book, or just news articles gotten online - with a mono-lingual dictionary at hand. A close second is watching tv shows or movies in the target language. Spanish is really well served in this, with lots of material available on netflix, and more at Spain's In the US local television often has telenovelas to watch.

For Chinese you might consider an audio-lingual course like DeFrancis' series. It's driven by the audio response drills, so it's closer to an app than a book alone would be. Audio is free and the books can be gotten not too expensively online, try at There's also the free audio-lingual style Coyote Chinese course.

edX has online language courses for Mandarin Chinese, Italian and Spanish.

(Audio-lingual courses of pdf text + mp3 audio from the Foreign Service Institute are available for many, many languages free online. Here, amongst other places.)
posted by bertran at 7:36 PM on March 26 [3 favorites]

Once you're past the Duolingo stage (you have a handle on all the main grammar, and you have a little bit of vocabulary under your belt), take on some texts with a pop-up dictionary. ReadLang is my personal favourite tool for this, but there are lots of others (and there are programs specifically for Mandarin which are also very good).

Traditional favourite starting points are The Little Prince or Harry Potter, since the stories are familiar and they've been very widely translated. But you can do it just as well with a simple book in your target language, or newspaper articles, or any material that interests you.
posted by Glier's Goetta at 2:47 AM on March 27 [1 favorite]

Don't use Duolingo via a phone app. To try to get people to move to the subscription version - and I don't think the quality of tuition is high enough to justify the cost of the subscription, £12.99 per month last time I looked - they've made the basic version more and more of a pain to use, including docking you a life every time you make a mistake and showing video ads after roughly every third lesson (static ads after the other two). Two out of the three languages I've been using it for don't have any grammar help whatsoever through the app either; I don't know if the desktop version is better in that regard, but I gather it does at least save you from the awful, counterproductive lives thing.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 3:30 AM on March 27

Don't just use the app, but also find additional sites, such as slow Mandarin, and a site that lays out the grammar, and work with those. It's much more fun if you have a choice of exercises and you can spend longer doing it without getting bored. Going beyond just one app will make a huge difference to increasing your understanding.

If you work with a grammar site and simply write down the rules and declensions and conjugations in plain old long hand you will remember more than if you simply type your exercises on cue. Writing out a table of pronouns for example and and then writing out the patterns you perceived, "Me, te, le and se all end in E, but the other two pronouns are lo and la that both begin with L never end in E," will help you remember if you should be using se or lo later on and make it less likely that you will try to use le as a pronoun. Doing this type of analysis is a fundamental key to remembering and becoming intuitive.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:52 AM on March 27

Love the Duolingo app for brushing up [or actually relearning] the two years of French I took 4 decades ago in high school. It's fun, takes about 10 minutes out of my day, and I have a 40+ daily streak going. Still on the free version so I watch a few surprisingly interesting ads and watch that I don't click to upgrade to Plus.
posted by Gino on the Meta at 10:13 AM on March 27

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