Erin Dunn, Staff Writer

There’s a Chinese saying: ‘The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.’ 

These words of wisdom apply equally to learning a language, and thanks to a host of apps, it has never been easier. The best part? A majority are free (for a trial at the very least), mobile-ready and addictive. As Ludwig Wittgenstein once said ‘the limits of my language mean the limits of my world’, and what better way to travel the world when you can’t go beyond your city.

1) Mango Languages

The ultimate standalone app

Unlike other learning applications, which need to be supplemented to fill the gaps in grammar, vocabulary or pronunciation knowledge, Mango Languages covers all aspects of the language in one convenient interface. Each chapter begins with a basic conversation and then focuses on individual words, broken down audibly by native speakers and supplemented with grammar notes.

Better yet, the app features a record function, which allows you to check visually and audibly how your pronunciation and cadence matches up to native speakers — this is especially important for languages like Chinese where tone is imperative. After each chapter is complete, the app gives you a quick quiz to assess your retention rate. If there are words you haven’t remembered, the app will return to them in future lessons.

ProsLessons can be downloaded for offline use and the app is available for a 14-day free trial.  

ConsIt requires an ongoing monthly subscription and there’s no real written instruction available.   

Available on: Web, iOS and Android.

2) Tandem

Ideal for learning directly from native speakers

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Hello to our Tandem community all around the world! 🤗 . We know you might be spending more time at home than usual right now, so Team Tandem just wanted to check in with you all to say “Hello” 👋. We’ve heard about some incredible stories of support in different communities, and so we’d love to hear from you too – our wonderful Tandem community. What are you doing to give yourself and others that extra boost; both on and off the Tandem app 👏. Send us a DM or email us at [email protected] with your story! You’ll not only lift Team Tandem’s spirits from our home offices, but with your permission, we’d love to spread the good vibes by sharing your story 📢. In a time full of uncertainty, one thing we do know is that our community is more welcoming, open, and inspiring than ever! 💐 . Don’t forget to see if your elderly neighbours need help, to support small business if you can, to follow your local health officials recommended guidelines, and to keep sharing those positive stories with the world and your Tandem partners 🤝! Stay safe and all the best, Team Tandem 😊

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If you’ve ever wanted a foreign exchange pen pal, Tandem is the answer. This question-and-answer app allows you to text, voice message or video chat with native speakers who are trying to learn the language you’re native in. The charm of this app is that it’s mutually beneficial and at your own pace. By correcting each other, you can learn where you need to improve and create organic friendships that span countries.

Pros: It’s free, allows you to choose what level of knowledge you already have with the language (beginner, intermediate, advanced) and allows you to select specific sentences to correct and highlight changes in red.  

Cons: Each profile is individually reviewed before it’s accepted into the community — the wait can be up to several days, and some communities might not be as active as others.  

Available on: Web, iOS and Android

3) Pimsleur

Ideal for nailing pronunciation

Focusing on pronunciation and speaking, rather than grammar — which is introduced gradually and naturally — Pimsleur helps you perfect your conversational skills with audio from native speakers. Available in a hands-free mode (ideal for when the morning commute resumes), this app allows you to learn without having to input — simply listen, repeat and learn.

The premium version includes advanced features such as flashcards to help you master essential vocabulary, quick match games to challenge yourself and a speakeasy function where you can view conversation transcripts to refine your cadence and accent.

Pros: Lessons can be downloaded for offline use and there’s a hands-free option which allows you to learn without physical input. 

ConsIt’s fairly expensive and needs to be supplemented by a written content app such as Duolingo or Memrise, unless you purchase premium or the reading and writing subscription. 

Available on: Web, iOS and Android.

4) Drops

Ideal for learning basic conversation and phrases

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Irankarapte! Today is a special day for us as we celebrate our launch of another indigenous language. We partnered up with the UN-proclaimed @indigenouslanguages to bring Ainu to the Drops app! This is the first time that Ainu has been digitized on an app, which is a huge step forward in the process of helping to keep this incredibly endangered language alive. We couldn’t have done this without the help of associate professor Jirota Kitahara of @hokkaidouni and our voice talent and certified Ainu language instructor, Kenyu Yamamaru. Download the app today to start working your way through the 211 Ainu expressions available! 📱. . . . . #ainu #ainulanguage #hokkaido #iyil2019 #indigenouslanguages #languagedrops #languagelearning #japantravel #japan #edtech #languageapp #learning #learnwithdrops #alwaysbelearning #japaneseculture

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Word by word, Drops takes the ‘boring’ out of any language by skirting around grammar and tying any word or sentence to a picture. Ideal for visual learners, Drops used puzzles and mnemonic association to make learning feel like a game rather than a chore. If you’re unsure of any word or spelling, you can tap to hear them pronounced again (by native speakers) and see them written. Since the emphasis is on five-minute sessions, it’s the perfect introduction to the foundations of your chosen language without the huge time commitment.

Pros: You can choose from more than 35 languages and monitor your progress, including words learned and questions answered correctly and incorrectly.

Cons: It lacks grammar lessons and you can only access one free five-minute lesson per day.

Available on: Web, iOS and Android.

5) Duolingo

Ideal for learning to read and write

Revolving around written content, Duolingo starts off by teaching you the alphabet and basic phrases before progressing to sentences. The interface is simple and gentle, easing you in with games to match the image to the corresponding translation. Duolingo translates from your mother tongue to the new language and back again, with most questions offering the option to tap and translate any words you’re unsure of, mute when you can’t talk or listen. The app also offers a comment feature, which allows you to discuss the question with other users.

If you struggle with motivation, the app’s game-like design will help, giving you little nudges to maintain your daily streak, earn points, level up and compete with others globally on the leaderboard. Oh, and badges. Lots and lots of badges. Plus, if you complete several rounds without errors, you can fast- track to the next tier of your lesson.

Pros: It’s free, supports lots of languages, allows you to learn multiple at once and set your own daily point and time goals.

Cons: Grammar is added without explanation or dedicated lessons, pronunciation can be difficult to follow, and the motivation nudges can become irritating if you’re struggling with the content.

Available on: iOS and Android.

6) AnkiDroid Flashcards App

Ideal for boosting retention

Not necessarily a language app, AnkiApp is an interval repetition-based flashcard program that’s designed to refresh your memory when you’re about to forget a word. You can make flashcards with text, sound and images and the app will train your brain to put something into long term memory by periodically testing your knowledge.

Pros: It helps you store words you struggle to remember long term.

Cons: It requires you to actively enter and update content to keep up with your progress.

Available on: Web, iOS and Android

We also love…

+ Learn language with Netflix

Ideal for subconsciously learning a language

Who knew learning a language could be as easy as watching your favourite series on Netflix? This free Chrome extension allows you to learn new vocabulary and breakdown sentences by displaying two sets of subtitles simultaneously.

The words are highlighted as they’re spoken so you can listen to the dialogue phrase by phrase and pause and replay as needed. When you hover over a word, a pop-up dictionary allows you to compare the translation with the audio and written text.

Pros: It won’t cost you a dime and you can hover over the word to trigger a dictionary pop-up. 

Cons: It requires an active Netflix subscription, is limited to the language content available and is still being fully developed.   

Available on: Web — Chrome only.


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