I recently decided that I would embark on the bold endeavour of learning a language. So of course, my first instinct was to check for free language learning resources on the app store. Many people argue that an app cannot make you fluent in a language, and for the most part I would agree. What apps can do, however, is widen your vocabulary and encourage you to practice every day. I have tested a few of them and summarised my top recommendations below.
Probably the most popular of them all – Duolingo (and its frighteningly persistent owl mascot) is an industry titan when it comes to free language learning apps.
The app itself is interactive and rewarding, allowing the user to feel like they are progressing, with a points system to keep them motivated. The app also uses an efficient mechanism for tracking continuous use by telling the user how many days in a row they have completed language activities. This is a feature that many of these types of apps use and the combination of that (with a somewhat threatening owl pushing you to continue learning) provides plenty of drive to keep going.
Our very own training coordinator, Ann-Marie, uses the app regularly to learn German. Here’s what she had to say about it:
“I enjoy how interactive Duolingo is as it holds my attention. I also like how it incorporates all four skills – it’s a lot more comprehensive than just listen and repeat. The sentences can be a bit random (my cat sometimes plays the piano) but it does make you think!”
The issue that many linguists and polyglots have with the app though, is that it teaches you unnecessary words for beginners. For example, I don’t think I’ll ever need to know the Spanish for “The elephant eats the cake” in terms of general conversation (it’s “El elefante se come el pastel” for your information!). The fact that it doesn’t go into depth and doesn’t explain grammatical ins and outs makes it less ideal for beginners. It does, however, provide a good way to refresh your language skills if they’re a bit rusty. I know I like to use it for my Welsh (which I haven’t had to use regularly for 6 years) just to make sure I don’t lose it.”
This app takes a more conversational approach to learning, with most of the lessons being based on things you would need to say in a simple back and forth. All the lessons are short and snappy and are split by language skill level, allowing you to feel more experienced as you go on. Unlike Duolingo, Busuu helps you put what you learn into practice and form coherent sentences in your chosen language.
My favourite thing about this app, however, is that you can connect with native speakers using its social feature. You can link to native speakers of your chosen language and those who are trying to learn your native language. Through this, you can receive feedback on exercises from real people. I’m sure I’ll be using Busuu before my next holiday to Spain, ensuring I can order drinks in Spanish (“¿Puedo tener una Sangria?”/”May I have a Sangria?”). Priorities!
Speaking of real people, this app is all about speaking to real native speakers to improve your skills. The main feature of HelloTalk is the chat function, where people can correct your grammar or spelling, all while having a good old natter and getting to know each other. With the ‘Moments’ tab showing a timeline of other language learners, it works more like a social media platform that has everyone striving for a common goal: improving in their chosen language.
Services like HelloTalk are often called ‘language exchanges’ and most of the time cost money for the learner. Because they are beneficial for both sides, the service is free which makes it more appealing. If you can get over the initial intimidation of chatting in another language and the worry that you may get something wrong (a valuable hurdle to move past when learning a language!), this is a great tool to use when trying to better yourself conversationally in a language.
Bonus for Spanish learners
For my learning, my favourite free language app isn’t on this list but rather a more specific one. Although not useful unless you’re learning Spanish, SpanishDict is the most helpful language tool I have used. Whether you need to translate a sentence, find a conjugation, learn vocabulary, or master grammar, the app has it covered. I can’t sing the praises of this app enough as a one-stop shop for Spanish language learning.
I think it’s important to appreciate that there is no substitute for studying a language in a classroom, but these apps are a great way to supplement other work. Being immersed in a classroom is a great way to easily practice your speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills though, with the immediate and real-time help, support and motivation of a teacher, and it’s what Dialogue recommends.
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