The best language learning apps for creatives

Language learning apps are a great way for creatives to flex their brainpower. And learning a new language is also a great way to get more from, well, life. After all, one of the best ways to reset your creative batteries is to go abroad and experience new cultures, sights and sounds, and doing so is always so much better when you can communicate with the locals. 

The good news is that it’s easier than ever to get started learning a new language. In recent years, language learning has evolved from the days of blackboards, ancient textbooks and rote learning, to fun and flexible approaches that can be surprisingly effective. And of course, language learning apps – and apps in general – have also improved greatly. See our best iPad apps for designers if you don’t believe us. 

That doesn’t mean, of course, that using a language learning app will get you anywhere close to fluency, you’ll need to practise with real people in order to seriously conquer a language. But with a bit of effort, the latest language apps can certainly help you get from zero knowledge to a level that will make your trip a lot more enjoyable, and a lot easier.

And even if you’re still terrible, just making an effort to communicate in the locals’ own language can make all the difference to your trip. It can, in short, open a lot of doors (not quite in the same way as having a supercharged design portfolio, but it’s still definitely useful).

In this article, we list six of the best language learning apps on the market, and explain the pros and cons of each, to help you choose the right one for your needs.

01. Busuu

Busuu learning apps

Busuu replicates a traditional classroom syllabus (Image credit: Busuu)
  • Pros: Practices all areas of language learning, easy to track your progress
  • Cons: Could do with more repetition
  • Platform: iOS, Android, web
  • Price: Free, Premium from $7.99/£5.83
  • Download here

When you sign up to Busuu and choose one of its 12 languages to learn, you’re able to set your goals and the app will determine how often you need to use it. You can then work your way through a number of lessons that are structured in a similar way to a school textbook. There’s a bit of info to introduce a topic, then that topic is explored further in terms of grammar and vocabulary. With listening and reading exercises thrown in for good measure.

Then, you’re asked to write a short text around that topic. One of the cool parts of this app is that members of the Busuu community will then correct your work. You can also record yourself talking via the voice record function, so you’re also getting the speaking practice in too. The app will tell you whether or not you’ve passed or failed each section of the course, so it’s easy to track your progress. 

If you’re looking for a replication of the classroom experience, but can’t commit to attending a course two or three times a week, then Busuu is probably the language app for you. 

02. Duolingo

best language learning apps: Duolingo homepage

Duolingo is totally free, but that’s not the only reason it’s popular (Image credit: Duolingo)
  • Pros: Free. Fun and easy to use.
  • Cons: Lessons can be quite random. Lack of explanations.
  • Platform: Web, iOS, Android, Windows 10 
  • Price: Free
  • Download here

Duolingo offers 90 courses in 22 languages. It has over 300 million registered users across the world, and that popularity is not without good reason. Most importantly, it’s free. But that’s not all. It’s also nicely designed, especially in terms of functionality, and got a new look earlier this year.

Duolingo’s approach is to immerse you in the language from the word go. It does this entirely via a series of multiple choice questions based on text, pictures, and audio. Just like in the real world, when you’re in a country whose language you don’t know, you have to muddle through and find the right answer through educated guesswork. 

This might sound like a pain, but it’s actually fun and easy to use, and turns language learning into something that feel less like ‘studying’ and more like a game. You also get persistent reminders to log on to the service, which is useful if you need some extra motivation.

You can’t progress to the next stage until you get each round of questions right, and this is crucial, as it stops you from skipping bits and ensures you fully understand each lesson before you progress to the next. That might take a long time, and a lot of guesses, but that’s good too, because it encourages the kind of repetition that makes things stick in the memory. 

Duolingo is free, and has a lot going for it

But there’s also a downside to using Duolingo. Because the questions are randomly generated, they can come up with some pretty odd sentences, rather than the common conversational phrases most people wish to learn.

Also, the way the lessons progress doesn’t always seem logical. Suddenly jumping from basic vocab and sentence structure to quite advanced formulations seems to be a common theme of people’s experience, including our own.

That can make you feel like you’re missing important chunks of what you need to know, which can be disorientating. Also, because there are no actual lessons or explanations, it can also be frustrating when you just don’t get why a particular answer is right or wrong.

Having said that, Duolingo is free, and has a lot going for it. So we’d suggest you give it a try, and keep using it for as long as you find it enjoyable and useful.

03. Lingvist 

best language learning apps: Lingvist homepage

Lingvist only covers four languages, but does them all very well (Image credit: Lingvist)
  • Pros: Good explanations. Choose what you learn.
  • Cons: Only four languages. Free version is restrictive. 
  • Platform: Web, iOS, Android
  • Price: From free to £16.99/month
  • Download here

Another app that helps you learn through a series of challenges, Lingvist is a little more serious and better structured than Duolingo, which may be a good or a bad thing depending on your perspective.

Available for iOS and Android, and offering instruction in French, Spanish, German and Russian, Lingvist is largely focused on improving your vocabulary via flashcards. This is a tried and tested method used by language teachers all over the world, and works just as well in app form. 

In addition, and in stark contrast to Duolingo, Lingvistalso offers detailed explanations of grammar rules  and then sets challenges to make sure you understood them. 

Again in contrast to Duolingo, you choose what content you wish to access, which might be a plus or minus depending on the user. For example, if you need to fill specific knowledge gaps in your understanding, this makes it easier to do so. If, however, you’re a beginner who just wants to be given direction, it can be a little overwhelming.

Lingvist uses AI and machine learning to assess your language level automatically, so it’s suitable for everyone from beginner to advanced level. The free version limits you to 3,000 pieces of vocabulary in total, plus 50 new words and one challenge per day, but beyond that you have to pay. 

04. Babbel

best language learning apps: Babbel homepage

Babbel provides a unique course for each language (Image credit: Babbel)
  • Pros: Practical focus. Unique course for each language.
  • Cons: Not free. Not especially “fun”.
  • Platform: Web, iOS, Android
  • Price: From £4.75-£9.99/month
  • Download here

Babbel is a subscription-based service; there’s a free version but it basically just gives you access to the first lesson on each course. 

The app currently offers 14 languages: Dutch, Danish, English, French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Norwegian, Polish, Brazilian Portuguese, Russian, Swedish, Spanish and Turkish. 

Crucially, each course is unique, and tailored to the needs of that language and country. That might sound obvious, but many online courses duplicate the same lessons over multiple languages, diluting the actual relevance of what you learn. With Babbel, though, it’s obvious that everything has been carefully prepared to be useful when you actually visit the country. 

Like Lingvist and unlike Duolingo, you can move to different levels within the course at will. And so while we feel Babbell is most suited for beginners, it could also be useful for intermediate and advanced users looking to improve their skills and plug a knowledge gap or two.

The design is pretty minimal. The way you learn is pretty standard: a mixture of flashcards and multiple choice quizzes. And overall the tone of the app is a bit… well, dull. 

But on the plus side, there’s a real sense of academic rigour, seriousness and effectiveness with Babbell. And when you combine that with the practical and contextual nature of what you actually learn, that may be all you really need.

05. Rosetta Stone 

best language learning apps: Rosetta Stone homepage

The oldest name in the game, Rosetta Stone is still going strong (Image credit: Rosetta Stone)
  • Pros: Can access lessons offline. Option for one-to-one tutoring.
  • Cons: Expensive. Immersive approach may not suit.
  • Platform: Web, iOS, Android
  • Price: From £9-£16/month 
  • Download here

The great-grandparent of all language learning software, Rosetta Stone has been around for decades: its first CD-Rom was released in 1992. And because of its high name recognition, the company charges higher prices for its courses than pretty much anyone else.

Lessons are available both in the browser and via Android and iOS apps, which enable you to download lessons to follow offline. Also, if you want to pay more, you can add live online tutoring to your course, either within a group session or a private one-to-one session.

The approach to learning is much more straightforward and highly structured compared with the likes of Duolingo. That said, it’s not like school learning: Rosetta Stone take an immersive approach where there are no English translations, and you have to rely entirely on pictures and guesswork to follow the vocabulary and grammar lessons. The idea is to get you speaking another language from the word go.

As with Duolingo, this idea of immersion has its good and bad points. On the one hand, it’s the most natural way to learn a language, much like a child does, without overthinking. On the other hand, the lack of explanations about, say, a particular grammar point can become very frustrating.

 06. Drops 

best language learning apps: Drops homepage

Drops won’t teach you a whole language, but it’s great for picking up lots of vocabulary, quickly (Image credit: Drops)
  • Pros: Great for vocab. Beautifully designed.
  • Cons: Doesn’t teach grammar. Free version very limited.
  • Platform: iOS, Android 
  • Price: Premium version from £2.50/month 
  • Download here

Looking to learn vocabulary, in short bursts, whenever you can spare five minutes on your phone? Then Drops is for you.

The thing we love most about this app, which is available for iOS and Android, and covers an impressive 32 languages, is its design. No cheesy images here; all the colourful and minimalist illustrations are well crafted, and in our minds, that counts for a lot. 

It’s also a great example of the maxim: ‘Do one thing and do it well’. The app is centred on vocab, mostly nouns, so while it won’t teach you a language by itself, it will teach you an awful lot of words in that language very quickly.

The free version includes ads and offers you a five-minute session every 10 hours (so theoretically two a day, if you time it right). That doesn’t sound like much, and of course, it isn’t. But the very urgency of this short period can focus your mind wonderfully. Or you can pay for Premium mode, which unlocks unlimited time as well as removes ads and allowing offline access. 

Drops is only ever going to be one element of your language learning, but it’s great fun and we’d certainly recommend you at least give the free version a go.

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