Learning a new language is conditional on a few things, chief among them time and practice. But the hours you commit are worth the investment: Studies show a correlation between bilingualism and intelligence, and improved problem-solving abilities. Not to mention, it can help you feel better prepared—and more excited—for a trip you have in the works.
The good news is that these days, you don’t need to plonk yourself in a classroom for hours on end to make progress. With the right program, you can absorb a little each day from wherever you are, with the touch of a smartphone button. Our advice? Reinvest the time you’d otherwise spend binge watching Love Is Blind on Netflix (no judgment) by picking up a few key phrases in a new language—whether that means learning how to order pastries in Swedish, asking for a different shirt size in French, or finding the subway in Japanese—through an app, online class, or otherwise.
Whether you’re more of a social learner, or prefer cut-and-dry grammar lessons, we’ve got tips on the best way to learn a language, targeted to your learning style. Read on for our 10 favorite ways to sharpen your language skills, so that you can get a head-start on making the most of your next trip.
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Best for: Achieving total mastery
Founded in the early ‘90s, Rosetta Stone is a tried-and-true classic. The company offers its trademark language courses in more than 20 languages, including Russian, Vietnamese, and Dutch, which users can access via their mobile devices, tablets, and desktops. Some of the platform’s niftiest features include Phrasebook, a compendium of basic greetings, phrases, and expressions in your target language; stories that help you to acquire new vocabulary in said language; and TruAccent, speech-recognition software that can listen to your pronunciation and help you perfect it efficiently.
There are a variety of personal subscription options to choose from (the company also offers special packages for schools and businesses, and some public libraries provide free access). A three-month subscription to a single language program costs $35.97 (roughly $11.99 per month), while lifetime access to unlimited languages is currently available for a one-time payment of $199.
Start now: Rosetta Stone
Online group classes
Best for: Social learners
While the pandemic has prompted folks to take up language-learning with renewed vigor, the conditions that have made this such an ideal time to pursue the goal—lots of downtime at home—have also been particularly isolating. That’s what makes services like French school Coucou, which offers small-group lessons, classes, and workshops online, so great; you can pick up a new language while also socializing with strangers like you would in a real-life class. Currently all classes are online, but ordinarily, the outfit also offers in-person lessons with native French speakers across its three outposts in New York City, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis. Coucou touts its small class sizes, which are limited to 10 people and start at $150 for multi-week courses; but if you’re interested in private lessons, you can pay by the hour (starting at $60 per hour) or purchase a bundle of 12 lessons for a discounted rate. (You can also pay to take private lessons with a friend at a slightly higher price.)
Other outfits like City Speakeasy offer eight-week online group classes in languages beyond just French, including Japanese and Arabic, starting at $190, in addition to private, one-on-one lessons, which start at $55 per hour; and Berlitz, a language-learning mainstay known for its immersive methods, offers private, group, or self-guided online language classes in languages including Punjabi and Swedish, with group lessons starting at about $6 per unit.
Start now: Coucou, City Speakeasy, Berlitz
Best for: Talking like a local
It’s no surprise that Babbel made our list of the best language-learning apps, since it wastes no time getting you up to speed on your goals. Upon downloading, you can take an optional three-minute placement test, which includes a series of questions that ask you to relay past experiences and explain your points of view, and even field slang. Once the app designates your level, you can complete most of program’s conversation-based lessons, which it offers in 14 different languages, in 10 to 15 minutes each.
There’s less emphasis than in other programs on nailing grammar or committing conjugation to memory. Instead, Babbel prioritizes dialogue and the ability to carry out real-world conversations, which is further facilitated with the app’s speech recognition software. Access the app’s features and lessons on your smartphone, tablet, or computer. In 2020, the platform launched Babbel podcasts, enabling users to listen to experts talk about their language of choice; and this year, in addition to new features like Games (for quick vocab and spelling quizlets) and Culture Bites (for handy cultural lessons) you can now add Babbel Live, conversation-driven virtual group classes, to your subscription, or purchase the offering as a standalone, starting from five classes per month for a total of $110.
You can test out the first lesson of every course for free, but there are a few different subscription options. The three-month subscription currently costs $29.85, or about $9.95 per month, and the 12-month package costs $83.40 (about $6.95 per month)—overall, a great value for a year’s worth of language lessons.
Start now: Babbel
Best for: Getting the most bang for the least buck
One of the most straightforward products on the language-learning market, Duolingo offers colorful, flashcard-like tutorials. The concept is pretty simple: Students complete a variety of modules—like short, listening- or reading-based quizzes and word matches—in Duolingo’s 39 possible languages (which include Navajo, Hungarian, and Scottish Gaelic). Along the way, you earn points for right answers, slowly but surely moving up the ranks. You’ll be asked about your daily goal, which the app will equate with a certain number of minutes you’ll need to spend practicing—“casual” means five minutes of app time per day, while “intense” means 20 minutes daily.
A free version of the app and website allows you to access the materials, though the app also offers a premium service for a fee of $6.99 per month, which allows you to download offline lessons and have an ad-free experience.
Start now: Duolingo
Find a tutor
Best for: Getting personalized face time
Online language-learning platform Verbling makes it easy to find a dedicated tutor in more than 70 languages, including Basque, Pashto, and Thai. The process is simple: You just select a tutor from a pool of qualified, pre-vetted candidates—more than 10,000 of them, according to Verbling—book a lesson time, and add it to their calendar. Like the TaskRabbit app, which lets users hire freelance labor for things like moving and cleaning, tutors dictate their own hourly rates—which means that you can sort by what you’re willing to pay. Profiles also include information on where the tutor is from; which languages they teach; and how many lessons they’ve given on Verbling. (To that end, you can also see reviews of their skills from other students, in addition to an average numerical rating.) Bonus: You can try a free session with a tutor of your choice before committing.
Start now: Verbling
Best for: Visual learning
You can change your life in just five minutes a day—at least, if you’re trying to learn a new language. That’s what the Drops app promises: In short, daily increments, use your phone or tablet to participate in the app’s fun, quick tutorials, which help you pick up vocabulary and short phrases in your target language with the help of mnemonic images. Essentially, the lessons teach you new words by pairing an image of something with its name, which is both written out phonetically and recited to you. Drops has lessons in more than 35 languages, including all the usual suspects like French, Spanish (both Castilian and Mexican), German, and Italian, as well as harder-to-find tongues, like Icelandic, Maori, Norwegian, and Ainu. Drops also touts a companion app, Scripts, which teaches you to write in a new language—including ones with a different writing system from your own.
You can access one five-minute Drops lesson per day, for free, with the ability to continue reviewing the vocabulary you’ve learned that day. If you want to be able to access more lessons daily, you’ll have to purchase one of its premium packages, which cost $8.49 per month for a monthly subscription; $5 per month for an annual subscription; or a one-time payment of $159.99 for unlimited access.
Start now: Drops
Chat with locals
Best for: Picking up casual conversation skills
If formal language instruction isn’t your M.O. (or you simply want to supplement your current approach to it), then services like HelloTalk and TalkAbroad—both of which allow you to casually converse with native speakers—are the way to go. On TalkAbroad, which hosts native speakers in languages including Portuguese and Italian, you can review a partner’s mutual interests and hobbies before selecting them for a conversation, which you can schedule to your convenience. Conversations, which are hosted on the TalkAbroad website using its video conferencing tools, are 15 or 30 minutes, both of which start at $15 for a single conversation, and you’re encouraged to bring possible topics to discuss with your partner, like personal hobbies. But it’s not a total free-for-all; TalkAbroad provides some additional moderation, training and supervising all prospective partners.
Over on the HelloTalk app, which you can download on an iPhone or Android, you can select the language you want to practice from more than 100 options, and you’ll instantly be connected with native speakers of that language with whom you can exchange texts, video and voice calls, and voice recordings. (You can also scan a QR code to participate on your computer.) But it’s more than just a message-exchange platform; the app actually provides some handy tools for language-learning within your conversation frames, including quick-tap translations; grammar and syntax correction, facilitated by your partner; and transliteration support. The app is free to use, but if you like the service, you can pay $4.99 per week, $8.99 per month, or $49.99 per year for VIP privileges, which include an ad-free experience; the opportunity to initiate 25 new chats per day (up from 15); and the ability to learn to learn three languages at a time, rather than one.
Start now: HelloTalk, TalkAbroad
Best for: Keeping it casual
If you don’t want to settle in for hardcore daily grammar lessons, Memrise might be the best way to learn a language. Memrise’s learning tools rely on short clips of native speakers relaying different words and phrases, which help you to pick up tone, pronunciation, and cadence. It then provides a written translation of the recited words, and continues to repeat them so that you can hear it in the new language as you read it in your native language. It also asks you to type a given word out in the new language after hearing it and reading it a few times. When you produce correct responses, you’ll earn points, which help you work toward achieving a set point goal each day and charting your progress on a shared leaderboard with other users. (A few suggested goals include 1,500 points, which equates to five minutes a day; 20,000 points requires 45 minutes.) Memrise is available in 22 languages, including Turkish, Swedish, Polish, and Mongolian, and is accessible via your smartphone and tablet.
The free version lets you tap into a few gratis lessons each day, picking up new words and phrases as time permits. To reap all of the benefits, you’ll need to subscribe to one of Memrise Pro’s three plans: You can pick up one month for $8.99, a year for $3.75 per month, and unlimited lifetime access for a one-time payment of $139.99.
Start now: Memrise
Turn on your subtitles
Best for: Watching and learning
Ask someone how they managed to master a new language without endless lessons or intensive courses, and the answer might surprise you: by watching movies and TV shows. The method—watching a program in your desired new language, with your mother tongue in subtitles, is still one of the most straightforward ways to pick up everyday words and phrases (not to mention, proper accents). These days, there are plenty of platforms that cater to a multinational audience: on Netflix, for example, you can watch shows shot in languages from Hebrew to Danish, with English subtitles; or you can go the opposite way, and watch a show with English audio, and subtitles in another language, like simplified Chinese. (For many programs, the platform also allows you to change the language of the audio itself; options include Spanish, Italian, and German.) It’s a casual, low-stakes approach that lets you pick up a language on your own time—even while you’re folding laundry.
And the technique is going mainstream: In January, RTVE, the largest public broadcaster in Spain, announced a partnership with the language-learning platform Lingopie to bring 49 new Spanish titles to the service’s subscription video on demand (SVOD) platform. Each TV show or film featured on Lingopie, which you can watch on the platform’s mobile app, comes with two sets of subtitles; you can click on any word to get instant translations, and use flashcards to review what you’ve watched. You can purchase a monthly or annual subscription (for $12 per month or $5.30 per month, respectively) and can take it for a test run with a free seven-day trial.
Start now: Lingopie
Best for: Sticking to a goal
Busuu’s initial placement test feels like the best first date you’ve ever had: It wants to get to know you, and understand exactly what you want. It asks you about your goals, like, “Do you want to be able to order a meal at a restaurant in your new language, or make small-talk with locals?” Maybe you want to feel independent, and understand signs and take public transportation—or perhaps you want to be able to listen to the local radio, or watch television. Once you settle on your top priority, Busuu will help you reach that goal, generating a study plan based on the number of days you’d like to spend learning each week, and how much time you can dedicate to lessons on those days. From there, you’ll access exercises on Busuu’s clean interface, including dialogue lessons with recitations and fill-in-the-blanks, and word-order exercises that help you structure sentences.
You can access a decent chunk of content for Busuu’s 12 languages, which include Turkish, Chinese, and French, at no cost, including flashcard-based vocabulary lessons and reading comprehension exercises, complete with word banks and question-and-answer sessions, on your smartphone, tablet, or desktop. In order to receive the aforementioned study plan to create—and hit—a particular goal, though, you’ll need to subscribe to Busuu’s Premium or Premium Plus plans. The Premium plan costs about $12 for a single month, about $7 per month if you commit to a year, and close to $6.50 per month for two years. It includes offline mode, practice with native speakers, and grammar lessons for a single language. On the other hand, Premium Plus costs about $13 for a single month, $8 per month for a year’s subscription, and $7.50 per month for two years, and includes personalized study plans and access to all 12 languages.
Start now: Busuu
This article was originally published in 2020. It has been updated with new information.
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