There’s a big difference between levelling up in a language learning app and being able to speak and understand your target language when you arrive in a new country. Rather than wondering which app or approach is “best”, consider studying your language from multiple directions.
Use apps for structured practice
Duolingo is free, has a ton of material, and works well for a lot of people — so it’s a natural first step. Mango takes a more conversational approach, and while it’s a paid product, many public libraries can give you access for free. (Check your library’s website for details.)
Babbel is another paid app with a conversational focus.
When I’m studying a language, I like to dip in and out of the other strategies I’ll mention, but I like to have one approach that I check in with every day. For me, that’s usually Duolingo.
Practice listening with podcasts and audio lessons
If you only practice the written language, it’s very difficult to understand speech (especially from native speakers who may speak quickly and who may have a regional accent you’re not familiar with).
There are tons of podcasts in nearly every language, but the problem is finding ones that you can understand as a beginner. Duolingo’s Spanish podcast bridges the gap in a really nice way: a Spanish speaker tells a story about something that happened in their life, and every few sentences the English-speaking host takes over and provides some context.
You can follow the story without getting lost, but the more Spanish you can understand, the more details and flavour you can pick up. (Unfortunately, it’s not available in other languages.)
Another approach I enjoy is the one where the hosts give you a language lesson with most of the content in English (at beginner levels, anyway), but plenty of target language dialogues and tips. Notes in Spanish and SpanishPod101 both do this well.
Meet actual humans in person
This might be the scariest option at first, but it’s also probably the most helpful. You can enroll in a class, or just check out Meetup.com, Facebook, or your local library for conversation groups in your target language. I found beginner groups where most of the conversation is in English, and intermediate and advanced groups where people just hang out and chat in the target language — sometimes over a meal, or after a foreign-language movie.
Since the group is intended for people who are learning the language, it’s fine to show up even if you aren’t confident in your skills. People will help you! I also found my conversation group to be a great place to learn about books and apps that I could practice with at home.
Chat with people online
A video chat may, again, be kind of terrifying. But when people who speak your language are literally a Skype call away, all across the world, it would be a shame to miss out on this extremely helpful way of learning. Italki can match you with either a professional language teacher or an informal tutor or partner for an hourly fee.
(I paid about $5 to talk to someone in Costa Rica for half an hour.)
Duolingo also offers a live chat in some languages, where you spend about five minutes going through a semi-scripted encounter with the teacher on the other end.
For an even more informal (and less intimidating) option, Tandem lets you connect with other language learners for free. You just open up the app and text a stranger. Video chat and other options are available as well.
Don’t watch any just any TV show in your target language; many will be hard to understand. Seek out shows whose premise you can follow while practicing your listening skills.
For example, if you’re familiar with the baking show Nailed It, try Nailed It Mexico, where the structure is exactly the same (people try to bake cakes, and fail) so you never have to worry about losing the plot. I learned from a recent episode of The Fluent Show (an all-English podcast about language learning in general) that some of the best shows for language learners are ones that are extremely formulaic, like reality shows and true crime dossiers.
When we asked for your language learning tips, some commenters mentioned the Extra! series of sitcoms, which were created for American students learning various foreign languages. They’re goofy, over-the-top, and...actually really easy to follow.
Follow social media in your target language or country
For practice reading and writing small snippets of your target language, find accounts or hashtags on social media to follow. You’ll get a little dose of that language every time you scroll Instagram, plus you’ll get a tiny window into the culture by seeing what the country looks like, what people are doing, what news they’re discussing.
It’s also a fun, easy, low pressure language exercise to leave a comment or reply every now and then, letting you put your new language skills to use in the real world without having to leave home.