Get beyond ‘bonjour’ this year with this crop of brilliant language learning apps and websites.

As a nation, there are many things we excel at (backing the underdog, self-deprecating humour, drinking tea like it’s a competitive sport for example). But there is one area, one glaring and slightly shameful omission in our national education, in which we collectively fall down: the art of learning another language.

It’s so bad, in fact, that it’s become a sort of national joke. We go abroad and inexplicably feel like we’re doing our bit by mouthing at the good citizens of that country slowly and loudly but still very much in our own mother tongue. We could drill down into the national psychology that drives this laziness or inability. But we’d be here all day.

Suffice it to say that it need not be that way, and never has it been easier to pick up a second language, with the proliferation of websites, apps and other resources that make it something you can do on your own terms and in your own time. Alors, then, we wish you bon chance, buona fortuna, viel gluck and all that. Not that you’ll need it with these brilliant resources.

FREE (with premium option available)

This website and app has revolutionised picking up a second language for millions of registered users worldwide. There are more than 20 different language courses; newbies begin with basic words and slowly build up to simple sentences, making this a natural way to lean. There are no gruelling grammar classes and students take lessons with native speakers, which are followed by quizzes to assess your progress. If you download the app, it will listen to you speak so you can ensure your pronunciation is spot on. There are even chat bots to enhance your conversational skills; you can talk with, say, a cook deciding what to eat and thus pick up the lingo in a natural (ish) setting. It’s not one for those wishing to hit advanced levels of language, but for the neophyte, it’s fantastic. Feeling extra ambitious? You can even learn two languages (or more, though that may be counter-productive) at the same time.

From £4.75 per month

Babbel promises to help its prospective students to ‘unlock a new world’. You can go at your own pace, with lessons in bite-sized 10-to-15-minute chunks; there’s voice recognition technology to check that you’re getting your pronunciation right; and lessons are ‘curated’, which in practice means that you review sessions, helping to reinforce them in your mind so that you commit your new skill to memory properly. The best bit about Babbel, though, is that you can choose your own areas of interest to build your language in. Want to concentrate on the lingo you’ll need for business? You can do that. Are you a foodie who wants to communicate with fluency when ordering food or browsing at a market? All that is available here.

Free for some features, pro version available

This is a great one for learning to speak casually in a foreign tongue, though it should be noted that it’s more for getting started rather than achieving true fluency. Its features allow you to play word games designed to make the vocab stick in your head, while also being fun. It is also customisable, allowing you to decide how many new words you think you can learn in a session. There is an offline version available, which is great for use on–the-go when you’re not connected to wi-fi.

Living Language
Various prices

Living Language offers courses in 20 different languages and you can pretty much make of it as you wish. If you’re trying things out, you could dip a toe in with its on-the-go games, flash cards and puzzles. The more serious-minded might wish to sign up for e-tutoring with native speakers – you can choose the length of the course, which, of course, impacts on the cost. What can you expect from a lesson? As well as the standard vocab and grammar, there are audio conversations and even helpful cultural notes. If you just want to pick up the basics, do check out the Free Resources section, where you can download a host of PDFs for anyone wishing to build a vocab.

Various prices

For a totally different model, try Rype, an app which enables you to learn direct from teachers in your own home. It’s more expensive, of course, since you schedule one-on-one 30-minute to one-hour sessions with a tutor, but for those dedicated to the cause and who prefer direct instruction, it could be the way forward. Unsure whether it’s worth the investment? You can try a seven-day free trial to make certain.

Free with premium options

This is a great little app, especially if you are a visual learner. It was Google’s Best App of 2018, and it’s not hard to see why. You need just five minutes each day to learn, with lessons walking you through 120 word buckets, covering all sorts of subject matter you might need (such as food, drinks, hotels) and games to play that feel fun, rather than dry. Appealingly designed, there are simple illustrations and clean block colour backgrounds. However, if you don’t pay the premium, you have to wait ten-hours between lessons, meaning that progress could be slow.

From $4 per month

If you loved language classes at school and want to get back to that kind of rigour, as opposed to stealth learning with games, then Mondly is the place to start. It’s no beauty, let us be clear, but it absolutely gives its students the building blocks of a language. Learnt a new verb? You’ll also get a conjugation chart. Want to brush up your chat on, say, travel or shopping? There’s roughly two-hours of instruction on each area. There are 32 languages to choose from and a rigour that should ensure that this method sticks – even if it’s not overtly fun.

By Nancy Alsop
February 2020


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Nancy Alsop


Nancy is a magpie for the best in design and culture.