vol 9, issue 6

Software Reviews: Apps for language learning

16 June 2014
By Bryan Betts
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Parlez-vous Francais written on a chalk board

Build a language-learning toolkit to engineer yourself some new communication skills

Duolingo is a collaborative translation project

Duolingo is a collaborative translation project

Babbel screenshot

Although it comes with a subscription fee, Babbel is a full study-course

Anki screenshot

Build your own card decks for specialist vocabulary

Memrise screenshot

Memrise’s mnemonics can be helpful in aiding memory

Related stories




Whether you were a whizz or a duffer at languages at school, things have changed. Language learning has gone mobile, with added memory-enhancing techniques.



Free on Android, iOS, Web

Duolingo motivates you to learn a language by turning the process into something of a game or challenge, and is up to six major ones now (including English) plus a few more in development. Whichever language you choose, its lessons are structured as a skill tree, and each lesson involves a series of tasks or quizzes where you translate phrases to and fro, identify the correct translation of a word or phrase, interpret a spoken phrase, and so on.

You could say it is not really a lesson at all – at least, not in the textbook sense. Instead, it teaches by getting you to recognise concepts and structures, and by offering rewards if you get it right. Not only can you build a friends list to compare progress with, but within each lesson you have four lives, which you lose when you make mistakes. Run out of lives and you must start that lesson again.

The lessons go in stages, and you either have to complete each before the next, or if you are already at or above the relevant level in a language you can take an overall test to bypass that stage. As you complete lessons you win Lingots – the app's virtual currency, which can be traded for more lives or even for a certificate of proficiency.

If you get stuck, there is community-based support. If you want to go beyond the lessons, one of Duolingo's subsidiary aims is to translate the Web, so there is the challenge of translating entire webpages, sentence by sentence, or of correcting and improving other people's translations. By itself Duolingo cannot equip you for such complex translation, but it is a good way to practice reading your target language, and also to get an idea of how its grammar and vocabulary work in practice.

In any case, Duolingo, like most if not all the tools here, should not been seen as a standalone 'language course', but as part of your overall learning toolbox.

Lesson Nine 


From £54 a year on subscription on Android, iOS, Web

Babbel is not free, but it is still something of a bargain, especially as its subscription-based pricing allows you to dip in and out if you want. It is the closest one here to a traditional 'language course' and offers a range of learning material, from beginners' courses through vocabulary and grammar exercises to practical phrases. Be warned though that some languages are not as deeply covered as others.

The various lessons or exercises are reasonably lively and include text, audio and pictures. It uses a mixture of learning methods, including translation both to and from the target language, aural comprehension and spoken repetition – it has an integrated speech recognition tool, so it can test and grade your pronunciation. On a PC this needs a microphone and Adobe Flash installed, while on a smartphone it simply uses what is already there. Alternatively, you can turn the microphone off and just test your spelling instead. Other exercises are purely about spelling and grammar, or listening comprehension.

As you complete tasks within a lesson, a progress bar gradually fills. It keeps track of which lessons you have completed, though not of progress within a lesson. Sadly, there are no specific engineering or technical courses, although there are some covering the business and digital worlds more generally.

The first lesson in every course is free as a taster. After that Babbel costs £54 a year or £9 a month, this fee covers all the courses for a specific language and is the same whether you come at it via the apps (available "free with in-app purchasing") or the Web. One caveat is that your subscription will automatically renew, so if you stop using it, do make sure you cancel either with Babbel if you subscribed directly, or via the Apple AppStore or Google Play.

Damien Elmes 


Free on Android, iOS, Linux, OSX, Windows & Web

Given the long history in language learning of physical flash-cards, with a word or phrase on one side and its translation on the other, it is no surprise to find there are a lot of flash-card apps now. If you have tried these but grown disillusioned with only finding content that looks as if it was copied from a 1970s school textbook, or found a distinct lack of the technical vocabulary you need, Anki could be the app for you.

That's because it is both customisable, so you can tailor features such as layout and timing, and content-agnostic, so as well as text you can include videos, audio and images. The latter is useful because some experts suggest that rather than translating word to word, you are better off naming a picture in the new language.

You can download shared decks or build your own, for example using word frequency lists or technical documents in your target language. Note the law of diminishing returns here – it is said that 1,000 words will cover 70 per cent of an average text and 2,000 will cover 80 per cent, so make sure you start with a good foundation.

Anki can handle decks of 100,000 cards or more. It will display a word, phrase, image, or even play a sound, and then let you make the connection, repeat it, interpret it, and commit it to memory. By default, it introduces 20 new cards per day so as not to overload you, but this number can be adjusted. Cards pop up again later on a schedule you can configure – a learning technique called spaced repetition.

Once again, this kind of tool is not for use alone. As Anki's creators note, simply learning a long list of words will not teach you a language if you have no contextual understanding. Where it is useful is as a supplement to other learning tools - say, to learn technical vocabulary alongside more general language lessons.



Free on Android, iOS, Web

Another free learning platform, Memrise has all sorts of courses available, mostly languages (200-plus of them, including synthetic ones such as Na'vi and of course Klingon, though sadly not Elvish!) but also many other topics. Again, it employs a gamified flash-card approach, awarding points and reputation as you learn, and letting you compete against other users. It also uses the metaphor of a garden – words are planted as seeds, grown in the short-term memory by repetition until they stick, then periodically reviewed in the long-term memory.

The courses are mostly user-created and focus on memorisation and repetition. Typically, it will show you some new words or phrases and read them out, then repeatedly test you on them. You can choose or create what it calls mems – mnemonics that associate that word or phrase with something memorable, such as a picture, a sample sentence, an etymology or whatever. This approach is reputed to create stronger and more satisfying memorisation by promoting mental connections.

Its strength is probably the breadth of courses and vocabulary available, which for many languages goes way beyond the usual phrasebook stuff. There are also forums for many languages where you can seek (or offer) help and advice, or send messages to fellow learners.

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Building a learning toolkit

No matter how young or old we are, there is increasing evidence that learning new skills can improve brain health – and given the global nature of the engineering business, what better or more useful to learn than another language? Fortunately, in these mobility-enabled days there is a wide range of laptop, phone and tablet apps to help with your language studies, and for anyone who recalls being a language duffer at school, they show just how much the science and technology of learning has advanced in recent decades.

There are several different ways you can learn, the primary ones being visual, auditory and tactile or kinaesthetic. Think, for example, of reading a textbook, versus carrying out practical experiments, versus discussing the topic with an expert tutor. Generally we need all of these working together so they boost one-another, and mobile devices let this happen.

There is another element in language learning, however: motivation. This is usually categorised as either integrative – the desire to know and interact with speakers of that language – or instrumental, which is learning for a practical purpose such as getting a job or dealing with customers. Apps can blend in a third motivating factor called gamification, which involves making it a game or challenge.

For the Anglophone technologist, there are extra complexities to finding the right learning material. Not only is less material in general available for 'smaller' languages, compared say to French, Spanish or German, but every interest, hobby or occupation has its own special language, and while there are many classes available for those wanting to learn technical English, there is very little engineering-specific content going the other way, even in those bigger languages.

Fortunately, technology is coming to the rescue here too. Not only are there customisable apps where you can create your own lessons to learn technical vocabulary, but the Internet has also made reference material far more widely available. Think for example of news websites, blogs, podcasts – especially if they have transcripts, and Facebook or LinkedIn groups.

Lastly, one piece of general advice: whichever language you want to learn, a vital first step is to learn its phonetics and how to pronounce it – to learn the sound or music of a language, if you like. So it is no surprise that audio features heavily in the apps we present here.

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