The best language-learning tool in the world is like the best diet in the world. There are lots of good ones, but the best one is the one that works best for you.
Before you choose one, think for a moment about how you like to learn and what you want to do. Do you like a study buddy or are you best in a traditional classroom? Are you spending a week in Italy or studying for a job in international finance?
Note: To get the best features of most of these tools, you’re probably going to have to pay from dozens to hundreds of dollars a year for access.
Rosetta Stone was the first language-learning tool to create a personal software version, or at least it’s the only one that I remember hearing about. They used to charge hundreds per language level, but strong competition in this area has driven down the prices and led the company to join many others with a subscription-based online version with (fairly) reasonable pricing levels. Thus, I’m going to go ahead and add it to the list of tools since the company is consistently on top of reviews in this category.
Oh, and perhaps more significantly, a study by Dr. Roumen Vesselinov from The City University of New York found that clocking 13 study hours of Spanish with Rosetta Stone for two months can help users complete the requirements for the first college semester of Spanish, which is the best result of seven other systems he had tested in the past decade.
In an earlier study, Busuu came out on top for conversational fluency. The premium version of Busuu includes very structured lessons coupled with community interaction. The system also includes tests certified by McGraw-Hill Education for English, French, Spanish and German. If you pass, you can share the achievement on social media and print out the certificate to put on the fridge.
If your primary learning goal is to read your first foreign-language novel, Beelinguapp will help. You’ll see your language and the new one side by side so you can listen and read while following along in your native language.
Duolingo changed the way people learn languages. Instead of listening to language tapes in your car during a commute, Duolingocreates mini-lessons with games and tricks to keep you engaged and encouraged. You get points for completing lessons multiple days in a row and hearts when you get answers correct. Your progress is synched between your app and the web, so you can sneak in a lesson anywhere. It’s free for the ad-supported version.
And JOY! In 2018 Duolingo finally released Klingon lessons. (If you have to look up “Klingon,” I’m not sure I can be Your Nerdy BFF.)
Word Nerds and Vocabulary Junkies
If you’re one of those people who still knows your multiplication tables and state capitals by heart, you may enjoy the word-by-word memorization tools for language learning. All three of these tools go beyond language learning, but they shine in this category.
Quizlet is my favorite because I like the way you can print out language (and other) vocabulary lists to create real flashcards. Memrise includes little language lessons with groups of vocabulary words. And TinyCards gets bonus point both for its cute interface (cute, tiny cards) and its developers… it comes from the makers of Duolingo.
Now that you’ve learned the basics of a new language, you need to find a practice partner. Tandem is a community of language learners who help each other practice and learn.
Like Tandem, HelloTalk has no lessons or quizzes. Instead the apps bring together millions of members to practice more than 100 languages. You can chat through text, audio recordings, calls (audio and video) and even sketches. In-app translation, pronunciation and correction tools help communication happen even for relative beginners.
A big drawback for both is that the quality of the learning is dependent on the quality of the members. And, as with all chat communities, you may encounter con artists, creeps and people you don’t want to be stuck talking to at a party.
Drops probably belongs in multiple categories in this section. It’s a fun learning tool that lets you play on your screens to connect words and phrases with their translations.
The reason Drops deserves a highlight in the World Travelers heading is because of the Travel Talk feature. Travel Talk focuses on helpful travel phrases, and in 2020, the plan is to partner with an in-flight entertainment provider to offer mini-lessons in the air. That means on your way to Italy you will be able to play games to learn common phrases that will be helpful as soon as you step off the plane.