Learning a new language is difficult, which is why there’s a huge market for tools and apps to help you do it. Some of them are really helpful and help you get up to speed quickly; others are a money sink. This week we’re looking at five of the best, based on your nominations.
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Anki (Japanese for “memorising”) is a flashcard program that has been around since at least 2006. As the name and format suggest, its focus is on memorisation. It displays a word, phrase or image, or plays a sound, and then leave it to you to make the connection, repeat it, interpret it, and commit it to memory. Anki is excellent for languages, but it’s also useful for studying equations, diagrams, names and faces, and many other subjects. Its strength is in the fact that you can load it up with custom card sets depending on what it is you want to memorise. There are loads of shared decks available in the app that you can download.
Anki is free (although donations to support the developer are accepted) and cross-platform (it’s available for Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS and Android, and there’s a web client too). We’ve featured Anki before in Gabriel Wyner’s guide to how she learned four languages in a few years. It worked for her, and she shows you how she made it work so you can try it yourself.
Like Anki, Memrise is a flashcard-style program that’s augmented with memory tricks, images, and other useful tools to make learning a new language easier. Its focus is largely on memorisation, but it’s also designed to help you have fun learning the language you’re trying to pick up. Memrise gamifies the process a little, awarding you points and reputation as you learn, and gives you the opportunity to compete against other users while you learn and complete activities. If you’re interested in seeing what you can learn before you sign up, you can browse some of the available courses before you give it a try.
Memrise is free, web-based, and has iOS and Android apps so you can take your lessons on the go. Those of you who praised Memrise pointed out that it’s free, fun, and offers numerous language courses. However, since the courses are largely crowd-sourced, you may need to experiment with a few courses to find the right one for your needs.
Rather than emphasising memorisation, Duolingo aims to teach you a new language while translating sites on the web. As you take the lessons, you’ll find yourself translating the web as you browse — effectively learning to read and speak the language you’re interested in by looking at and listening to what native speakers are writing and saying. There are some speech exercises too though, although they’re not the primary focus. Duolingo offers courses in just a handful of languages right now, which is a smaller range than some of the other contenders here, but those courses in those languages are very comprehensive. There’s a gamification element — you earn skill points as you complete lessons, and if you make mistakes you lose “lives”. If you lose too many, you’ll have to re-take the lesson.
One of the coolest features about Duolingo is that it assesses your progress as you’re learning. It notes when you make mistakes and which types of questions you have trouble with, and alters its content accordingly. It’s completely free, available on the web, Android and iOS. We’ve mentioned it back when it launched, and again when its mobile apps came out.
The Pimsleur Method is an audio-based approach that focuses on participation in speaking and sound exercises. If you’ve ever seen a parody of someone learning a new language by listening to a tape that encourages them to parrot back phrases and words after a native speaker says them aloud, you’re familiar with the Pimsleur Method. As well as reading and vocabulary exercises, it emphasises speaking exercises to learn to speak a language as well as reading it. Each exercise is about 30 minutes long. Pimsleur is available in over 50 languages, and has an impressive track record (going back to the 1960s).
Pimsleur is a commercial product. How much you’ll pay varies depending on the breadth of options you choose. There are webapps and mobile apps designed to complement your lessons. You can grab a 30-minute lesson for free to see if the approach works for you.
Livemocha is an extremely comprehensive language learning community and program, packed with native speakers (over 12 million people from close to 200 countries) and offering instruction in over 38 languages. It’s relatively new, having launched in 2007, and much of its content is completely free. The approach is almost entirely web based, with live classes, conversations with native speakers and tutorial videos all available right at your computer. You can also get private tutoring through Livemocha.
Part of Livemocha’s charm is that it encourages you to use the internet in the language you want to learn. The service also harnesses the power of social media to help you learn your target language as well. You learn from native speakers, are graded by other students who are fluent in the language you want to learn, and you can give back as much as you get.
Livemocha was recently acquired by Rosetta Stone, but that hasn’t slowed it down. While the courses are incredibly complete, with dozens of hours of coursework available for each language, you can sign up for free and take a handful of lessons without paying anything. Eventually you’ll hit a point where if you want to continue your lessons you’ll have to open your wallet. Paying members shell out $US99 per year, or $US9.95 per month to unlock everything available. Individual courses set you back $US25 each, and if you use Livemocha’s built-in credit system and help other people learn your language, you can unlock courses to take.
Our honourable mention this week goes out to the Teach Yourself book and audio series. The Teach Yourself series is available in 65 languages, and offers programs to help you learn to read and speak your language of choice.
Have another favoured approach for learning a foreign language? Speak out and tell us why in the comments.