This last week or so I’ve been looking at and assessing notable apps for language learning (Czech). These are really awesome, probably the best way to study a language on your own—fun, engaging, and easy to get into. They include lots of spoken content, start at a basic level, elicit positive knowledge in a variety of ways, and used spaced repetition and other cognitive techniques. All of these are better for absolute beginners intereted in self-study than nearly any book, podcasts, CD, or other software I have seen. They are heavily gamified, and are relatively fun and easy to come back to, an ideal way to study a few minutes a day or more. This is a relatively new format, though, with a bunch of competition, and there is a lot of variety.
So far I’ve tested these with languages that I have some knowledge of (French, which I studied in high school/college, or Czech, which I have been learning over the summer), so they are very easy for me at present. However, I would like to also test them with languages that I am unfamiliar with, such as Irish or Indonesian. I avoided tools that didn’t have Czech (such as Babbel and Busuu, which offer other popular European languages as well as Indonesian and Turkish/Arabic respectively), except Duolingo, which I had an old French account for from some time ago.
- Duolingo has the best software. The iOS app is slick and works well. Duolingo is free to use; their original business model was based around crowdsourced translation, but they have shifted to language certification. The content appears to be very high quality, but it has a relatively limited number of languages relative to some of the other software below. However, this would be fantastic for the mostly large international languages Duolino covers (Irish, Danish, Swedish, Russian, Esperanto, Turkish, Norweigian, Ukrainian, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch). Here’s the Duolino intro video. “Lessons” are broken into tiny chunks of a dozens questions or so, and involve varied translation-based activities that involve listening, speaking, typing, and identifying words and sentences (although there is a bias towards listening and reading/typing). According to an in-house study, it only takes a Duolingo user an average of 34 hours to learn the equivalent of a first college semester’s worth of Spanish ( PDF ). Now take that with a grain of salt: a single freshman college semester amounts to about 45-48 hours of in-class instructional time, and does not constitute a particularly high level of proficiency. This is still an average of 16 minutes per day for 18 weeks, that you schedule on your own.
- Mondly Languages has a Web and iOS app with an interface approach similar to Duolingo’s, although the software is much more flaky. Sometimes the lessons fail to progress, so you may accidentally repeat levels unless you quit and restart the app. There is plenty of translation, but words are also matched to pictures and there is much less typing and speaking. It’s also, at the early levels, much “easier” than Duolingo (since many of the answers are fairly obvious). Mondly has a different business model than Duolingo, and the app costs $15-20 past the trial levels. Still, it has many of the benefits of an app like Duolingo: interactivity, integrated audio, extensive gamification. Moreover, it supports more languages, including Czech (as well as German, French, Spanish, Hebrew, Romanian, Hungarian, Portuguese, Italian, Danish, Dutch, Norwegian, Korean, Swedish, Finnish, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Greek, Portuguese, Indonesian, Turkish, Vietnamese, and Afrikaans). The Czech app consists of about 18 eight-section lessons organized by topic, as well as a daily vocabulary lesson.
- Memrise is somewhat different, and is a freemium Web and mobile app with advertising and premium features. Memrise comes out of the spaced-repetition arena, but includes most user-generated content. So, it has some similarities to Anki, without the expectation that you spend a lot of time making your own cards and hours reviewing flashcards. Its software also leaves SRS way behind. The Basic Czech course, for example, is highly gamified, including flash cards, exercises, spoken audio recordings, and other interactive content, and there is plenty of other Czech material. Since Memrise is older and has user-generated content, there is a very wide selection of languages and courses (probably of very varying quality)—for example, there are a number of courses on Native American languages, and user-generated adaptations of textbooks like Complete Czech. See also this discussion of the app, Plant a New Language in Your Mind.
AFTER A WEEK
After a week, Duolingo remains very good. Mondly’s problems are increasing. Mondly’s execution is not as good: Mondly’s content more closely resembles a phrasebook, and the learning curve a few lessons in goes up quite steeply. Mondly also doesn’t have a clear interface to review old material. And for exercises that require the user to speak speak a phrase, Mondly’s speech recognition is very frustrating for more complex words and phrases. Memrise is the only one that doesn’t require any speaking (only headphones). Memrise is probably better, at least until Duolingo Czech comes out.
All of these are essentially old-fashioned translation exercises dressed up in interactive, gamified apps with audio.