I have tried countless “learn a language” apps. Like most people, I started with Duolingo, but I soon found it to be absolutely useless. I tried several other apps, but all of them ending in me losing interest and not really learning much in the end. But alas, finally I have found something that works for me. I’ll start by talking about several apps that I did try, and finally talking about what did work.
Duolingo: I didn’t like how there wasn’t much of a focus on grammar and a lot of grammar concepts weren’t really taught. For example, in French, there is no verb tense to say “I am eating” and instead you would always say “Je mange,” which directly translates to “I eat.” (This is unlike another Latin language like Spanish where you could say “estoy comiendo” which is “I am eating). The problem with Duolingo is they will also translate “Je mange” as “I am eating.” Following along? Yeah, I don’t like Duolingo. I also don’t think making a sentence like “The pink elephant is eating a pie” is a useful sentence either.
Memrise: This was the second app I had tried to learn a language, I used this a lot while in Italy and trying to learn Italian. I was recommended it by a friend and I ended up paying for it for a couple months so I could download my sets. I found a really good vocabulary set that focused on basic Italian grammar and I was able to use that to learn a lot of phrases that helped me in my day-to-day life while in Italy. I eventually stopped using it after I left Italy, but I tried using it for French and I found that I did not have the patience to learn vocabulary so slowly and constantly review and go over very basic vocabulary. I had a lot of trouble finding a good word list that wasn’t just the basic words and was more of the useful words I wanted to learn. I didn’t like that I couldn’t quickly review the words I was learning, similar to flashcards.
Babbel: Between my time in Italy and France, I was in Texas and I wanted to improve my Spanish. I was experimenting with my resources and found Babbel through, I believe, an ad online. I downloaded it and tried some of the free lessons. I enjoyed the various activities, the grammar lessons it included, and real-life conversations and examples that were used with the Spanish words. I also liked how they had structured lessons, but they also topics you could focus on as well. For example, beginner level 1, intermediate level 1, Vacation in Mexico, The Past Tense, etc etc. I received a promotion in my email for “buy 6 months, get an extra 6 months free” and decided now would be a good time to try Babbel out for real. I used Babbel for a while and learned quite a bit of Spanish. At some point, I began to get bored of the structure and it felt repetitive. Each lesson was structured the exact same way, just with different words and phrases, and I started to lose focus and get bored. Eventually, I just stopped using it and forgot about it. When I visited Colombia I downloaded a bunch of lessons since I figured I would have a lot of free time. I started doing lessons and I learned several new verb tenses, but the same cycle repeated and I quickly got bored of the monotone structure.
Mango: I used this app through a library subscription which allowed me free access to its program. I tried some of the basic programs but found it was too basic and thus I again, got bored easily. I couldn’t quite figure out where in the program I belonged and even the final units seemed simple. Sure they used various tenses, but I had already read a grammar book in French and learned the basics of what I needed to know. Overall, Mango was too slow and too basic. I really need something with more substance that challenged me a little more.
uTalk: I also started using this program because the library offered a free subscription. I signed up and began going through the lessons. What I liked at first about this app is there are both phrases and words to learn and you learn them through a series of activities. At first, you complete activities that would connect the word or phrase to an image, which in theory is the best way to learn the language (i.e. not through direct translation and instead the general concept). One of the activities actually required you to say the word into the microphone, which is good in theory, but difficult if you are working on the activities during your commute. This app was good for vocabulary, but lacked teaching and explaining the grammar and the language. In fact, I was beginning to see a pattern and similarities between all these failed apps.
What These Apps Failed To Do
Most of these apps focus on giving you phrases and words to memorize. They provide somewhat of a script and the tools to help you memorize and repeat-back words. Some apps teach grammar better than others, but the overall problem with these apps is it doesn’t actually immerse and integrate you with the language! Sure you can maybe ask for directions or order something at a restaurant, but these apps are all based on a script and make it difficult for you to break from the app and explore the language on your own.
If you just skipped to the bottom of the page and are reading this now, I’m sorry for the clickbait headline. My solution isn’t actually an app, it’s more old school than that. I recommend a book. And not just any book, a method book that is written only in your target language. For me, I have been reading through a “Version Originale” French book and it has helped much more during my language journey than any other app I have tried. Since there is no English, I start to think a lot more in French and after reading more and more in French, the language starts to come naturally. There is no switch in my head that disrupts the target language. If I don’t know a word, I can always add it to my quizlet deck to look up and save for later. Furthermore, the book includes listening activities, writing activities, and more hands-on activities, for example, a layout of a room and a description of where and what everything in the room is. “Il y a quatre chaise et une table au milieu de la pièce.” The book includes grammar lessons and even videos to watch for further practice and comprehension. I’m lucky in that the Paris libraries offer a plethora of method language books in French. Previously I would always have picked the one that is both English and French, but I’m happy knowing that I have found a solution that works for me. Sorry again that this wasn’t actually an app, but at least this article wasn’t an ad for the next app to fail you in your language journey.
Let me know what has worked or hasn’t worked for you. Leave a comment or contact me.