TOP-23 Language Learning Apps

    There are hundreds of language learning apps and hundreds of reviews and comparisons. Actually most of the comparisons are about the same programs. Are the apps really helpful or this is only ad and marketing? Yes, and Yes.

    I have been studying English using various methods and resources over five years. Language learning is not my greatest talent but I have achieved B2 level (from A2) using only my smartphone and PC. I found a set of features that really helps you study a foreign language. Some of them are crucial, others are just useful. Under the cut you will find a rating of the language learning apps that I composed by analyzing these features, As Objective As Possible.

    Methodology


    If we want to get an Objective rating then we need Objective metrics. The rating is not about nice design or cute helping animals, as I mentioned before there are a set of features in apps that helps you to study languages. Each feature can be implemented in several ways and not every way is useful. So, each way can be estimated according to the next table:

    image

    Let's look at each feature in detail.

    1. The most important functions


    1.1. Repetition system

    You need to repeat words every day and the repetition system is crucial. Only one way is efficient: Spaced repetition (50 points). Unfortunately a lot of apps offer you to repeat all words that you know randomly (15 points) and this is a waste of time. Any repetition system will help you learn 1000 words but if you need 8000 or more then Spaced repetition is mandatory.

    1.2. Prepared cards

    If you want to become a fluent foreign language speaker then you need to know several thousand words and the same amount of words in your application (50 points). Books and movies are not as efficient as cards because rare words are rare, only apps force your education. Many popular apps provide you with only 3000 words (25 points), so be careful. Some apps does not contain cards at all and they are useless (-100 points).

    1.3. Multiple meanings

    The word «green» is not only green but also green and green. Good apps give you all popular meanings. The best apps should give you rare meanings at a higher level (50 points). Unfortunately a lot of apps provide only one meaning for one word and this is enough only for beginners (10 points).

    1.4. Examples for words

    Examples of using words are very helpful in most cases. «Acquisition» and «Virtue» were incomprehensible words for me without accompanying phrases. Good apps contain the examples for the most word meanings (25 points). The best app here is Lingvist: words are always in examples (50 points).

    1.5. Idioms and phrases

    Knowing words is not enough, you need the ability to speak and some apps are extremely useful for this skill. Trainings with phrases and idioms (translation of cards with them) let me speak without thinking (50 points). This feature is crucial.

    1.6. Grammar — Syntax

    You can study grammar with textbooks or with cards in an application. The second way is usually more efficient because you really don't need to know what is «adverb» but you just need to use it correctly (25 points). This is very similar to the cards with phrases but focusing on grammar.

    1.7. Grammar — Morphology

    Sometimes you need to practice how to make a plural form from a singular and this type of tests is helpful (15 points).

    2. Negative factors


    2.1 Useless lessons

    This is a pain! Tapping test for words and phrases is extremely popular and absolutely useless (-100 points). If you need to learn how to write a word then just type it using standard keyboard. If you need to translate a phrase then just do it in your mind and check the result with the answer in the card. Unfortunately only a few apps do not contain the tapping test or allow you to disable it (-10 points). The best application must contain all types of tests (even tapping) but allow you to disable any of them (0 points).

    2.2. Voices — words, phrases

    Without voices the application is useless (-100 points). A lot of apps use robots instead of professional speakers and this is enough for words (0 points) but not for phrases (-10 points). The robot will read a single word and the same word in a phrase similarly. This won't prepare you for real life situations. Ideally you need several voices from different speakers (including non-professional speakers) for every word. It is very expensive to collect all the voices but not for Yarrow.

    2.3 Custom start level

    If you know a language a little then you don't need to study trivial words and grammar. The application should adjust itself to your level (0 points) or it will waste your time (-25 points).

    3. Nice features


    3.1. Speaking — words, phrases

    Speaker voices for words are usually enough for pronunciation training (0 points) but if an application can also listen to you it is very helpful (10 points). The best application should detect and indicate your accent (20 points).

    3.2. Uniform training

    When you have a lesson of grammar, another lesson of new words and a third repetition lesson there is always a chance that you will forget about one of them today (0 points). Some apps offer you one button for all these lessons: you get grammar, new words and known words randomly and nothing will be lost (5 points).

    3.3. User words

    Sometimes you meet a word that you need to learn right now. Just add this word to your application if it supports this function and study it today (10 points).

    3.4. Special courses

    You need languages for a reason: travels, work, online games etc and accordingly you need special vocabulary. If the application is good it will provide you with additional specialized lessons (10 points).

    3.5. Learning content

    Words and grammar are not enough for your progress, they can even become boring. Books and movies in a foreign language will save you mood and a good application will tell you where to get them (5 points). The best application includes a user rating for all content to save your time (10 points).

    3.6. Teachers

    Language learning apps save your budget but some things can only be explained to you by a personal teacher. You can find a teacher on italki.com or right in your application (5 points).

    3.7. Social network

    This is not Facebook but a network of people who learn languages. They can talk to each other (5 points) or check your articles (10 points).

    3.8. Offline study

    What to do in the subway on your way to work every day? Of course study language! But you application should be stable when working offline (10 points).

    3.9. Web education

    PC keyboard is much better than a mobile phone keyboard. You can study faster if the application provides you with web trainings (10 points).

    Table of all the metrics

    Rating


    The rating contains the most popular apps for Android (>1M downloads) and iOS (>1K votes). I have tried all these apps myself. My resources are limited and I can't analyze all programs in the world, so if you know some useful app that is missing then just contact me.

    image

    The source of this rating is available at Google Sheets. You can make a copy of the document and correct the rating yourself using the methodology that described above. The perfect apps start from the score of 350 points and as you can see there are no existing ideals.

    TOP-5 apps are all very useful, the difference of 25 points does not matter. They can help you reach B2 level but not more. I know how to write «have been studying» but I am still not an Advanced English speaker. Memrise, Duolingo, Babbel and Parla are good, you can use them if B1 level is enough for you and you like the design, lessons or price. I don't recommend the apps with the score of 60 and less but if you need to learn 500 words and some simple phrases then you can use any application from the list.

    A few words about some interesting apps:

    • Duolingo is the most popular application. Obviously this is because Duolingo is really free (with ad) and its score is relatively high, so it's useful.
    • Anki is free (for Android and Desktop) and the score is very high but it's not so popular. What is the problem? it lacks usability. This is the program that I use for learning now but I am an experienced IT specialist and I used Python scripts to make Anki good for me. Do you know Python/Java/etc? If yes, then Anki is for you.
    • Skyeng is good but only English language is available.
    • Rosetta Stone uses pictures instead of words for trainings. It can be perfect for kids to study English but not for you (because you can read). Rosetta Stone is the only application that can detect an accent in your speech: this is the most powerful program for improving your English pronunciation.
    • Yarrow is the best language learning application with the highest score of 400 points. The only problem is that it does not exist yet. This is my own project and if you are interested in a perfect language learning application please visit the project web site yarrow.club. Yarrow aims to free (Pay or Say) like Duolingo, highly efficient like TOP-5 and better according to the methodology, with perfect speech engine like Rosetta Stone but for all popular languages, and user-friendly unlike Anki. I can create this application only with your help.

    I will be glad to discuss the methodology and the rating with you.
    Thank you for your attention.

    Update: MosaLingua Crea actually has «User words» in paid version, +10 points in the rating.
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    Comments 13

      0
      Amazing analysis and serious intentions.
      I wish you not to repeat fate of FluentForever app of being payed beta (perhaps, forever)
        0
        Thank you! I will do my best and this article is only the first step.
        +2
        Personally, I've been thinking about starting my own learning app for quite a while, basically aiming to create «better Anki» with decent usability.

        And I have some considerations and ideas that you missed or just might find interesting. They are based on personal experience of using several language learning apps and also on analysis of issues with Anki (reported and discussed on reddit and support forum).

        ====

        1. There are a lot of people learning subjects other than languages, notably — medicine. They also need a good app with basically same requirements (SRS). Targeting this audience would extremely broaden community of users.
        They, however, have some unusual demands regarding cards format and interaction (ordering items, image occlusion, matching pieces, etc).

        My own concept is to move cards presentation/interaction completely to web-layer with API to core scheduler, and support creating cross-platform addons implementing any custom cards using web technologies.

        2. It is crucial to make decks easily shareable. In spite of principle «your own cards work better» there exist usecases when people prefer to use prepared decks (notably «starter packs», or book courses converted), to collaborate on decks, or to provide new cards from teacher to students.

        My idea is to separate card content from learning statistics, and to keep content as simple zip archives of yaml-based files along with all assets. This would allow to share decks just like normal files (without stats) and in non-obscure format, and also to use some CVS systems for advanced collaboration.

        3. There is unimaginable variety of ways users want to import and modify their cards and collections. Most noticeable meta-usecase is importing from various other apps (like memrise and quizlet), csv files, emacs orgmode, etc. Occasionally some people need to do some batch processing like global search/replace or reorganize tags.

        My idea is to use yaml-based format as a base for storing cards content. This would allow to use good old text editors to edit cards manually, and also to implement format-specific features in advanced editors like Vim, Emacs, Atom.

        ====

        Also, regarding learning mechanics.

        1. Quite obviously, any interaction works better than just recalling, because it involves substantial activity, and makes stronger neural response. The «tapping test» is wrong because it simplifies and actually reduces that activity (from typing to clicking).

        However, the format of «word ordering» could be useful if used properly. Maybe some cases of pure grammar tasks (like Spanish direct/indirect pronouns, or German modals/infinitives and separable verbs), or in pure ordering tasks (like sorting aminoacids by polarization).

        2. Many things are better to learn based in contrasting. Well known are minimal pairs for phonetic. The same is applicable to grammar, in form of choosing correct form. This way requires two interactive features: making choices and preview how answer «looks like» in context.

        Selecting predefined choices is also considered a bad practice, but it still makes sense when task focus is to find some matching structures, and all possibilities might be not known to learner.

        3. There's no need of negative response to errors like big red message with disgusting sound. It's quite possible to learn without any «stick» part.

        4. Images intensify imagination and help to build more bright usage context. Even if they are not strictly related to definition. But they can easily be annoying when selected by other people. That idea of built-in image search by Gabe Wyner seems quite awesome, if implemented properly.

        ====

        Not long ago, I have implemented Interactive cards for Anki, that demonstrate some of the features I wish to have in an app.

        The cards allow interactions: typing, editing, reordering words, selecting options. User answers are usually visible in context before submitting. And there's no negative response — in case of wrong answer they show correct version and highlight it to attract attention.

        ====

        Ok. It seems too much for a comment already.
        I hope something of that could be useful.

          0
          Thank you for this comment, very helpful!

          1) Web version of cards are mandatory and this is planned too.
          For some specific areas I included «dictionaries» in Yarrow: Layout
          2) AI can be helpful here, it can analyze students experience and offer a sequence of cards.
          But for these algorithm statistics is required.
          3) 99% users don't know what is Yaml/CSV and they afraid of word «Import». The most popular apps offer prepared cards and unfortunately this is the right way.
          In Yarrow you can create your own dictionary and if words in it are popular the dictionary will be shared automatically.

          ===

          1) Tapping test and Word ordering will be available in Yarrow but you cat switch them off. Some users need them anyway.
          2) And again maybe AI will help here when the statistics is collected.
          3) Yes, no waste of time.
          4) I saw user images in Memrise and I usually did not have time to upload them :)
          But the idea is good!

          I will try your Anki cards, thank you!
            0
            (deleted)
              0
              Well. Seems like you're moving in another direction.

              Good luck anyway.
                0
                Yes, there are two ways:
                • Linux-Style: users can and should do a lot of things by themselves (Anki)
                • Windows-Style: users can and should do a little things

                Windows-Style is more popular, this is a fact. And I selected this direction but the app will be available for free.
            0
            Yarrow is the best language learning application with the highest score of 400 points. The only problem is that it does not exist yet.
            Not funny.

            The job is poorly done if you ask me. First, no language-specific apps, except for Skylang, which is on the 2nd (?!) place? No points on application prices. An app with 4.7 on GPlay at the bottom of the list… are you… sure? Raiting system looks inefficient. Where did all these numbers come from? «Without voices the application is useless (-100 points).» Don't mind your opinion, but that's not what I personally think. How about text then?) If an application is speech-oriented only, is it useless for language learning?
            I'd advise to remove Yarrow and Skylang and rename the article to 'TOP-22 Multilingual learning apps', for the start.
              0
              Good day!
              1) The most popular apps are not «language-specific». I can not analyze 500 apps because I do it for free.
              2) Did you try Skyeng (not SkyLAng) yourself? It's paid, right, but it's good.
              3) Drops is a very beautiful app and the rating is 4.7 but it's useless for learners. This is really interesting, right.
              4) Price is not a metric of learning efficiency. I indicated really free apps as additional information.
              I paid $12 per hour to online teachers, I can pay $30 per year for an app. And app will be more efficient.
              5) All numbers (points) described in the article and in Google Sheets. I tried to make these points as objective as possible.
              Excellent app must contain voices, texts etc or you need to install several apps and this will be less useful.
                0
                1) The most popular apps are not «language-specific». I can not analyze 500 apps because I do it for free.
                I'm just saying the good way is to analyze them separately. If you havn't analized the whole (at least, the major part) market, doesn't that mean there is no sense in your rating?
                2) Did you try Skyeng (not SkyLAng) yourself? It's paid, right, but it's good.
                No. Because it's -infinity in my rate list. Know why? My study language is not english.
                Excellent app must contain voices, texts etc or you need to install several apps and this will be less useful.
                An app may be able to handle only a single task, but if does that better than any other, it's an excellent app. What's more important, «Don't put all your eggs in one basket.»
              0
              Great research and features! Thanks for sharing!
                0
                Share the article with your friends, this will really help me with Yarrow project.
                Thank you!
                0
                Great post! People really need to see the difference, while there are plenty of apps. So sad you did not include Elevate, this app is mostly for advanced learners and native speakers, but if you have already reached this level and need to read a lot of specific literature, it would really help

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