Our Favourite Language Learning Apps for fast learning

As we try to learn languages (right now: Jo brushing up on French, and Dana trying Korean again!) we have been trying different apps and finding how well they work for learning a language quickly. Here’s our brief review of our favourites so far.

Note: We might earn a commission if you purchase by clicking on some of these links. This doesn’t affect our reviews – we’d never recommend anything just for a commission, and often recommend things that earn us nothing. Clicking is up to you – but we’d appreciate it as a gesture of thanks.

Memrise – Learning with ‘Mems’

Memrise has been around for years – I remember it was on the scene (in much more basic form) in 2012 when I was learning Chinese. It has grown up a lot, and it has become a platform we really like.

Theory

Memrise’s philosophy is based on the concept of ‘mems’, which are associations you build in your head to remember things. 

In order to learn anything, you first have to connect it to what you already know. Memories aren’t stored nowhere, you know, they’re always made by creating connections to existing memories.

Memrise ‘About’ page

For a simple explanation, if I tell you (presumably an English speaker) that the word for ‘one’ in Korean is (transliterated) hana, then you might remember it with something like: 

“There’s only one Hannah.”

The next two or three times you hear hana or the word ‘one’ you might find it difficult to immediately think of the translation… but you might remember the sentence.

I really like this method, and find it to work quite well for the early stages, the 0-100 words phase.

Practise – does it work?

Memrise works both as an app and as a website. I like them both, and use them interchangeably. I’ve never noticed any sync problems.

The offline mode on the app works well, as long as you remember to download the course before you go on your trip or your flight!

I already knew maybe 50 words in Korean before I started, and already knew how to use Hangul. This was mildly annoying at first, but I could bypass things I already knew by marking ‘ignore’ on them, indicating I already know them. As you go on, Memrise will understand words it doesn’t need to hammer you on, and I’ve never had to manually tell it I’ve learned something that I’ve learned

After using Memrise for a while for Korean, I find that the pace is slower, but I am REALLY learning a lot of the content it teaches me. I also don’t find it repetitive, which means it’s only drilling me on content that I don’t know.

Weaknesses

I don’t feel like I’m often speaking with Memrise. It might be the Korean course, but there are very few instances where it asks me to say something and for it to check my pronunciation.

Similarly, I don’t engage in much dialogue. It’s fragments, like “Please give me a glass of orange juice”. 

Pricing

It’s $59.95 per year, but $29.95 for the first year. Get it here. I’d recommend it as part of your language learning portfolio

italki – The Easiest way to schedule language lessons

Conversation is indispensable to learning. One of the hardest parts is finding people to speak to. iTalki’s mission is to make sure we don’t lose the human element in language learning. From the website:

We built italki to make human connections between language learners and language teachers. On our platform, you can find a teacher from the US to tutor you in English, or a person in China to practice Chinese with you.

italki’s about page

Theory

There isn’t much to the theory, except that it provides a convenient marketplace for you to find teachers and schedule them. Nothing beats speaking to a person. No fancy app, no technology, no method of machine learning. You’ll always learn faster if you speak to a person who is a good teacher.

iTalki provides a convenient way of finding teachers for any language, plus providing everything you need to know to test them and make a booking

  • Pricing for each teacher, plus their intro ‘trial’ price
  • Schedule/availability, and a request/response system
  • Ratings
  • Reviews
  • Stats on number of lessons given

I found the process of using it a little clunky, as there are a number of steps (it’s far from one-click purchasing like Amazon). That said, it all worked and I was never lost, just a bit annoyed. But nowhere near as annoyed as I’d be setting up an appointment in real life!

Practise – Does it work?

Yes, it does work. But finding a good tutor isn’t that easy.

As I’ve said in other parts on this site, there is a science to finding a good language teacher. It’s not just someone who’ll send you textbook chapters. You have to try maybe half a dozen before you find a good one.

However, if you’re just looking for a dedicated language partner who speaks to you and doesn’t let you give up, then it’s a good place to start.

Downsides

It’s a bit of a clunky system. It’s a decent matching algorithm, but I never really know if my teacher is great ahead of time. I think that’s my biggest gripe with teachers in general… you have to grade teachers on long-term effectiveness, and there’s no general standard you can refer to for what makes a great teacher.

Major downsides are

  • It’s hard to form a bond with a teacher over Skype. I find this much easier in person.
  • The teacher pricing isn’t actually that low. It starts at around $8 per hour, and goes up to around $15 (maybe more, but fewer people are at that point). Now, this isn’t much money, but it’s more than I’d expect to pay for an online tutor.
  • The materials each teacher uses are arbitrary and random. It’s hard to know if the materials being used are good ones.

Pricing

Free to sign up, then pay per hour for lessons. You can also find language partners on there, but then you’ll have to swap between languages (and the instruction might not be as good). Click here to try it now.

Lingvist – AI and ML-driven word study

Lingvist is an app we came across primarily because we were in the region where its founders are based, in Tallinn, Estonia. At its core, it’s an app that uses Machine Learning and AI to accelerate the language learning process, making sure you don’t waste your time doing redundant study.

Theory

It was founded by Mait Müntel, a Swiss who grew up in the German side but who had been living in the French-speaking part for years, at the Higgs-Boson laboratory. After failing to learn using traditional methods, he built a prototype for Lingvist, and after 200 hours of study, passed some high school french exams (with flying colours). Nearly $10M in funding later, Lingvist now teaches French, Russian, German, Spanish and something else.

They have a highly analytical approach to language learning. The “About us” page is interesting, but I liked this quote and chart from one of their first blog posts most.

Using our data, we tried to figure out an average time estimate and found that over the last year, it has taken most people 17 hours to reach 2000 words.

From Lingvist, second post

That’s badass! Is it true? I’m pretty keen to find out.

Practise – does it work?

The languages they currently offer for English speakers are French, Spanish, German and Russian. While Russian and German are on my bucket list, they’re not a priority language now, so I can’t study it.

However, there IS a facility to my first 100 Estonian words. Ahead of an interview with them, I’ve decided to get after it.

Language learning apps for fast learning - Lingvist, the interface

After two days of study, I find myself pleased with the layout, and indeed some of the words are stuck in my head. I can conjure them up.

  • Cheers: Terviseks!
  • Mushrooming: Seenele
  • Three: Kolm

Fairly random words. I also realized Estonian is much more beautiful than I thought. It’s almost Elvish-sounding. If they flesh it out, maybe I’ll spend more time here.

Downsides

So far, it seems that Lingvist is structured entirely around single words. There’s no effort to explain grammar, context, or sentences. Also, the only way of prompting recall is getting me to type them into sentences (that sometimes vary). There’s no verbal-only prompt, image or association. I think it’ll work, and quickly, but I wonder if the associations are too weak to form lasting memories.

I’d love to see this kind of algorithmic approach implemented everywhere.

Pricing

Lingvist costs 89.95 euros a year, with some more expensive monthly or quarterly prices.

Duolingo

Duolingo’s web interface.

The grand-daddy of apps that make it fun to learn. Duolingo’s goal is to give everyone acess to a private tutor experience through technology. They aim to make learning fun, so using the app to learn a new skill is more fun than picking up a new game.

Theory

A huge business with hundreds of millions of VC investment, Duolingo is a heavy hitter in language learning theory. I like this blog post from a few years back.

Duolingo has millions of students who generate billions of statistics about language learning every day. So it didn’t take long for us to come up with the idea of combining modern machine learning and data science techniques with the psycholinguistic theory of forgetting curves!

Through our research, we invented a new statistical model we call half-life regression (HLR), inspired by other methods used in “big data” like logistic regression, but using an exponential probability function… (read more in our full paper if it looks exciting)! All this means is that we can learn to predict the half-life for each word in your long-term memory, by analyzing the error patterns of millions of language learners just like you.

From their blog. My emphasis (and editing to delete the theoretical part)
language learning apps for fast learning - Duolingo research on memory retention
From their blog again, this shows what your forgetting curve might look like for a particular word. Each time you remember correctly (green checks), h increases and your memory starts to decay more slowly (dashed line). But each time you make a mistake (red Xs), h decreases and you’ll need to practice sooner.

Makes sense. Don’t show me stuff I know; show me stuff I need to learn.

One more excerpt, from their paper:

[Half Life Regression]… combines a psycholinguistic model of human memory with modern machine learning techniques, and generalizes two popular algorithms used in language learning technology: Leitner and Pimsleur. We can do this by incorporating arbitrarily rich features and fitting their weights to data. This approach is significantly more accurate at predicting student recall rates than either of the previous methods, and is also better than a conventional machine learning approach like logistic regression.

Source: Science

Practise – does it work?

Duolingo is definitely fun. But do we learn?

According to them: Yes. According to an effectiveness study they published in partnership with New York University:

…for a completely novice user of Spanish it would take on average 26-49 hours of study with duolingo to cover the material for the first college semester of Spanish.

This is interesting, but why compare with college? People don’t learn that much in college. Also, that’s a lot of time! 

According to many others: No. For example, see this reddit thread. Our own experience is that Duolingo is like candy. Some words we absorb, some phrases we learn, but by and large as we get into the lower intermediate levels, it becomes very, very hard to keep up and keep learning.

Like most apps, Duolingo is best used in conjunction with other apps.

The downsides

Duolingo is great, especially as you have the option of using it for free. The major downsides are

  • You can’t mark off things you’ve learned. I can’t use the general training feature because it still wants to teach me the alphabet!
  • Unless you’re doing one of the established courses, materials can sometimes be a bit bare (e.g. for Arabic or Chinese) in comparison.
  • It won’t teach you everything you need to function in the language, like writing or speaking
  • Because of its addictive nature, it can exhaust you mentally and not leave room for other productive things you should be doing, like consuming media or speaking to a teacher

The hardest thing for me about Duolingo is that it’s brutal. Once you’re in the cycle, the penalty for leaving and coming back is high… there’s no easy re-introduction course.

Pricing

Duolingo has a free, ad-supported tier, that isn’t reduced in functionality. It’s fine. The fully paid option is not expensive at $9.99 a month or $99 a year.

What’s next?

Apart from apps, there are a few great online courses for many languages we’re going to go over, like the ‘101’ series, Rocket Languages and a couple of others.

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