This story has been updated. It was originally published on May 31, 2017.
It’s easy to think of our phones as time wasters. But you might be surprised at how much you can gain from the apps on this pocket computer. With five minutes here and five minutes there, you can even pick up a new language, or polish up your existing knowledge. Plenty of apps offer to act as personal language tutors, and most of them will give you lessons for free—though you’ll usually have to pay for upgraded access to premium features.
We’ve chosen five of the most comprehensive options, apps that take you from beginner level up to at least slight fluency. And you can complement the programs on this list with more specialized apps as well: FlashAcademy (free for Android and iOS) offers some great games and exercises, while HiNative (free for Android and iOS) lets you chat with native language speakers to brush up your skills.
Most language-app roundups give Duolingo a spot near the top of the list. And it’s not hard to see why: it boasts a simple, intuitive learning system, easy progress tracking, and access on an internet browser as well as through your phone. Plus, Duolingo makes all these educational features available for free. If you want an ad-free experience and other extras, you can pay for Duolingo Plus.
The app really shines in the way it encourages you to keep going, even if it’s just for a few minutes each day. You really can jump in at the very beginning without getting overwhelmed. The exercises are varied and interesting as well, switching between different types of practice in order to test your reading, writing, listening, and speaking as you progress.
Rosetta Stone is one of the biggest names in language learning, and its app is as polished as you would expect. This program excels at getting you up to speed in conversational words and phrases. Unlike Duolingo, which allows users to work for a few minutes at a time, Rosetta Stone will better suit people who have time to sit down and dedicate blocks of time to language learning. Each approach will work best for different types of learners.
We like this app’s clever and intuitive use of flashcards, as well as its pronunciation training exercises. On the negative side, it’s locked in landscape mode, which can be a bit awkward for learners who are on the move. Unfortunately, you won’t get much in the way of free lessons—just enough for a taste of whether the app will work for you before you pay for it.
With a colorful, friendly interface and a very gentle learning curve, Memrise is perfect for the complete beginner who wants to learn the basics of a language. As users progress through the exercises, they encounter helpful video clips that demonstrate the spoken dialect in action. Many of the app’s offerings are available free of charge, though with a premium plan or a one-time $140 payment, you’ll unlock everything, including a personalized learning plan and the ability to learn from native speakers.
What impresses us about Memrise is the way it keeps language learning interesting and fun even when you’re cycling through the same basic words over and over again: It maintains a nice balance between different types of exercises. And as a little confidence booster, Memrise displays summary screens at the end of each exercise, tracking your progress to fluency.
Busuu has a lot going for it, from its pop-up grammar and context tips to the way it gently eases beginners into their chosen language. When you first get started, you’ll find it very difficult to make a mistake, but even if the exercises are straightforward, you’ll still feel like you’re learning a lot. Then, as you increase in competence, the difficulty ramps up.
This is one of the best language apps for combining different types of exercises, covering reading, writing, listening, and speaking. On the downside, you will need to pay to get some of the app’s best features, including more advanced quizzes, grammar exercises, and samples of audio from natural speakers. Busuu not always as fun as some of the other apps, but it’s extremely comprehensive.
Babbel provides a mix of conversational topics that teach you how to navigate real-life situations, not how to learn a random assortment of unrelated words. Its combination of repetition and variety has been carefully calibrated. However, the app’s interface is not quite as polished as some of the other options on this list.
This app aims to get you learning quickly: Available on both phones and web browsers, Babbel will take you all the way from beginner up to a good level of fluency. And it gives you the added bonus of a pronunciation trainer. But you can’t get far without paying Babbel a subscription fee, which may put some people off. Before you shell out the cash, try sampling the free content to see if Babbel’s lesson styles will suit your particular way of learning.