Nowadays, it’s easier than ever to learn a second language, because you don’t need to attend school. You can self-teach in the privacy of your own home, choosing from an array of foreign language app programs on your computer or smartphone. You can often do the beginner lessons on these programs for free, and even as your skills improve, you generally pay nominal fees of a few dollars a month for more advanced lessons.
It’s easy to find and download these apps online, so if you’ve hesitated with trying to learn a foreign language, here’s your chance. Taking up a second language is one of the best ways around to energize your brain. Whether you start in childhood or at an advanced age, it will make your thinking more plastic and adaptable, vastly improve your global communication skills, and improve your overall cognition. Studies show you can learn a language at any age. If you start young, it will make your brain better able to use that language fluently throughout your life. If you start at an advanced age, it will keep your brain active and continually engaged.
Here, with the helpful counsel of professor Alexander Argüelles, one of the world’s most famous polyglots and former group director of immersion language programs at Concordia Lingua Language Villages in Bemidji, Minnesota, we point you to eight of the best foreign language apps available today.
Available on Web, iOS, and Android for free or for a nominal monthly fee if you want no ads and several extras (Duolingo Plus), this app is my personal favorite. My friend Veronica Barlow introduced me to it back in 2013, and I’ve been using it daily ever since. It has refreshed my knowledge of French and Spanish, making me fluent again after a 40-year hiatus. I also started Italian in Duolingo from scratch, and after a few years, I’m ready to try reading Italian stories, magazines, and novels. Duo is an extremely well-organized way to learn a language, with trees of lessons rising naturally from beginning levels to intermediate and beyond.
These lessons cover almost everything you need to gain fluency in a language — every aspect of grammar and vocabulary from every part of life (school, work, food, restaurants, entertainment, politics, etc.). You both read and hear the language from native speakers constantly, and you are endlessly tasked with translating from the foreign language to English and vice versa. Duolingo keeps you motivated by making everything a competitive game, with various rewarding point (“lingot”) systems. You get lingots for how many days in a row you learn and for “leveling up” to more complex lessons in each category. Those studying French, Spanish, German, Portuguese, and Italian can read dozens of truly amusing short stories in the foreign language with a cast of recurring cartoon characters.
While the most popular languages like French, Spanish, German, and Mandarin have had their learning trees keep growing, other languages with fewer millions of users have smaller content teams. Also, because so much competition is built into the app, says Barlow, “It is easy to treat it like a game instead of a learning tool.”
2. Rosetta Stone (rosettastone.com)
Also available on Web, iOS, and Android, Rosetta Stone has been around for three decades and has a big reputation. It may be the first thing people think of when they want to learn a language outside of academic settings. You get a few lessons for free, then you can pay a low fee per month to study a language, or $179 lifetime for unlimited languages. Rosetta Stone relies on complete immersion — the way I learned French at UCLA — where everything is taught in the language you’re studying, and you’re given no English explanation as a crutch to help you along. It’s an intense and well-tested way to teach language, where you’re hearing only foreign language and voices. There’s also a phrase book with close to 200 different entries that come in handy when you’re traveling or staying abroad, and a speech-recognition engine is designed to help hone your accent.
Some users find that with the immersive method, they miss being able to translate directly to their own language and vice versa, and feel a little adrift without English guidance. Argüelles says, “It’s still just a kind of entrée, good if you have no experience but if you have any background and you’re not terrified of grammar, it could be tedious and basic.”
3. Pimsleur (pimsleur.com)
Argüelles says that like Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur offers real language courses, but he believes it will take you further. Built around conversational learning, it’s largely hands-free so you learn on the go. According to Pimsleur, this reflects how people actually learn their own language, by constantly listening and responding. The app, available for Web, iOS, and Android, maintains that you can reach an intermediate proficiency with just 30 minutes a day for 30 days. You get a week free, then it’s $14.95 a month for just audio or $20.95 a month for unlimited access to its whopping 51 languages. Pimsleur has five levels with 30 lessons each. “You can get a real foundation and be able to use the language to some degree,” says Argüelles. As a bonus, it includes languages like Pashto and Levantine Arabic, which you don’t find elsewhere.
“It’s an all-audio course, so you don’t have any text to look at, and for an adult learner, it’s easier to learn by looking at things,” Argüelles says. Also, when all you’re learning is conversations, you don’t get a full context for grammar and the roots of the language.
4. Beelinguap (beelinguap.com)
Here you learn by listening or singing to audiobooks presented by native speakers, meaning the highlighted text is in front of you as you listen to the audio. Your first lessons can be free, and for $22.99 a year, you can keep listening to and reading narratives, news, and songs in iOS or Android at beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels in 14 different languages.
May be too advanced for true beginners.
5. Storylearning (storylearning.com)
This app is one of Argüelles’ four personal recommendations, and as its name indicates, it teaches you through reading stories in the language of your choice, with 12 languages to choose from. This program is extremely in-depth and intense. Italian, for example, offers more than 1,000 hours of instruction, and you can’t complete all that without gaining some fluency. There are also many extras like grammar lessons and a list with explanations of Italian’s 120 most important adjectives.
The creator of the app, Olly Richards, is a relentless self-promoter, continually extolling
his programs. And these programs are extremely expensive. Each set of lessons in Italian might cost you $297 or more, and if you buy the Platinum package, which includes ALL Italian lessons, it will run you $1,997. So don’t choose this site unless you are totally committed to investing yourself in a language and are ready to shell out big bucks.
6. Assimil (assimil.com)
Argüelles considers this the best place online to comprehensively learn a language: It offers true language courses like Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone, but it also offers bilingual audio texts like Beelinguapp. It features total immersion lessons that teach you grammar intuitively, with review sessions that make sure you incorporate it all. “It’s just a really nice mixture of all of these things,” Argüelles says. And Assimil offers high-tech improvements, including a digital format that you can plug into your phone.
Assimil features about 70 different languages, 20 or 30 of which are available for English speakers, including particularly good ancient languages like Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. People can start learning languages from scratch with this app and go straight through to more advanced levels, using the language on their own. “After four or five months with 30 to 40 minutes a day of work, you can read novels in, say, French, German and Spanish, though it may take longer working in more complex languages like Korean or Japanese,” adds Argüelles.
Like storylearning.com, this is an intense investment in time and a considerable investment of money.
7. Italki (italki.com)
Once you have gone through a more basic language app, it may be time to start talking with a native speaker. Here, Argüelles recommends italki, which supplies users with human tutors. Of course, there are free apps that enable such international discourse, but he feels paying the fee of a true private tutor will take you much further in a shorter period of time.
italki is not for beginners and it’s probably going to be a real financial investment. On the other hand, private tutoring can be invaluable.
8. Lingq (Lingq.com)
Co-founded by Steve Kaufmann, a Canadian ex-diplomat and polyglot, this app has a vast library of texts in different languages. Supplements include lessons teaching you words and phrases related to the texts and a measuring tool to track your progress. You can also import your own foreign language texts into the app of whatever you find interesting, from novels to YouTube videos. Once you input that text into the app’s “machine learning” program, it will analyze the vocabulary for you and provide a lot of other learning tools. A favorite in the polyglot community, this app is especially strong in Korean, Japanese, and Chinese.
Not the best entry point for rank beginners. Also, the more texts you read in the library and the more texts you enter into the program, the more you’re going to spend.
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, Supercharge Your Brain, in 2022.