Duolingo, Babbel, Memrise – there are almost as many language learning apps out there as there are languages themselves.
However, these slick applications aren’t the only way to learn a language with your mobile phone. There are dozens of non-language learning applications which can help you learn your target language as well as assimilate the culture of its native speakers.
This article is a list of nine of my favorites – some of which you’ve definitely never heard of.
This article is more than 4000 words long, so unless you have 20 minutes spare, bookmark it now so that you can come back to it later.
One last thing, if you get value out of this post, please share it with one person. Just one. Thinking about sharing it is not enough. It’s your responsibility to spread the word so that more language learners can benefit and we can all get better together.
Right then, it’s time to reveal the language learning apps!
The 9 Most Underrated Language Learning Apps Ever
The nine language learning apps are the following:
Please don’t assume that just because you’ve already heard of an app on this list that you know how to use it to its full language learning potential. In this blog post, I’ll be sharing some of my top secret “I didn’t know it could do that” tips to help you learn your target language.
You’re guaranteed to learn something new!
(Don’t tell Noel, but I’ve snuck in a tenth bonus app at the very bottom for you as a reward for reading to the very end. It’s one of the best language learning apps that you’d never, ever think of!)
Maybe this one isn’t as underrated as some of the others on the list. Whether you consider translators to be language learning apps or not, Google Translate should be one of the first apps that you download if you want to learn a language.
Most people only use it to translate words and sentences, but good ol’ GT can do a lot more than you think.
Get text-to-speech audio
For most popular languages, Google Translate can read out the pronunciation of the words or phrase that you translate. Just press the small sound icon above the language name after you translate it and it’ll read it out to you.
It’s great for practicing your pronunciation even when there’s not a native around.
Have real-life conversations
If you hit the microphone button on your phone, it’ll allow you to say the words that you want to translate.
This is perfect for real-life conversations because you can speak into the phone, get a translation in real time and the phone will also read out the translation in the translated language to whoever you’re talking to. It works both ways, so whoever you’re speaking to can tap their language, speak and you’ll hear the translation into your language.
This is particularly useful for those times when you don’t know how to say something in your target language. It’s also great for helping with pronunciation. All you have to do is listen and repeat.
This functionality isn’t likely to eliminate the need for language learning anytime soon, but it can be a useful aid to help you get your point across when all other options fail.
Build your own phrasebook
Rather than just using it as an occasional translator, you can use it as a full on phrasebook. When you translate something using Google Translate, you can press on the star icon to save it.
Despite being made by Google, it doesn’t appear to have a search function, but it’s quite handy for storing and recalling some of those phrases that you want to practice.
Translate without internet
Did you know that Google Translate can even work when you don’t have internet?
You can do this by downloading the language dictionaries onto your smartphone. When you select the language you want to translate to or from, click the download icon next to its name in order to download it.
If there’s one language learning app that most people aren’t even aware is a language learning app, it’s Skype.
With many language exchange websites such as italki out there, you can find a native speaker to chat to on Skype within minutes. I’ve spoken on Skype for hundreds of hours in order to improve my conversational ability.
In fact, I’d say that talking on Skype has contributed the most to my progress.
How to use Skype to learn languages when you know nothing at all
The best part about Skype is that even if you have no knowledge of your target language whatsoever, you can use it side by side with Google Translate to keep the conversation flowing. You only need to know how to say “Could you type that please?” in whichever language you’re learning.
If you know how to say “Could you type that please?” in your target language, you can start using Skype immediately. You can use Google Translate to keep the conversation going.
The person that you’re speaking to will almost certainly be happy to type out any corrections or anything that they’ve said that you didn’t understand. Not only can you copy and paste these corrections into Google Translate to get more comprehensible input, but you also get a written record of your mistakes so that you can practice saying them correctly later.
Why you should get talking on Skype immediately
You won’t believe my next sentence until you experience it for yourself, but it’s very, very true.
If you’re not speaking your target language on Skype for at least an hour a week, you’re holding back your own progress.
You don’t have to speak from day one. However, if you want to have conversations with natives, you’ll have to practice.
Learning to speak a language is just like any other skill: When you first start, you’ll be far from perfect, but you’ll improve over time.
I can confirm that after 30 hours of speaking Polish, I no longer felt like a beginner and once I’d racked up more than 150 hours, I was amazed by how well I could handle any conversation that I had.
However, I have to stress that these were hours solely speaking my target language. I did everything so that I could to not use English during this time. It sounds tricky, but with Google Translate at hand, it’s not impossible.
The more I spoke, the less I needed to translate anything. Eventually, I could have conversations without needing to look up anything at all.
It’s like the Escher painting “Sky and Water I”.
First, you’re a beginner bird and then one day you’re a fluent fish, but you won’t notice when the transformation happened.
You’re probably expecting me to say that you should use YouTube to find vloggers that speak the language you’re learning. Yes – you should definitely do that. However, there’s a lot more to YouTube than meets the eye, especially if you know where to look.
The Trending section is an absolute goldmine for language learners.
If you’re not familiar with it, head to the little fire icon at the bottom of the YouTube app. You’ll be presented with a list of the top trending videos in your country. Here’s the cool bit – if you click on your account in the top right-hand corner, you can open the app’s settings and change your location.
If you want to know what the hottest videos in Germany are, just select “Germany”, go back to the Trending section and drag down on the videos to refresh the app.
You’ll find everything in there – from music videos to vloggers to news. Find something you’re interested in and get watching – it all counts as language practice, plus you’ll get to learn a bit about the culture of the native speakers.
Unfortunately, not all of the videos will be in your target language due to English’s prevalence worldwide, but you’ll find that the vast majority of the videos will be in the language(s) of the country that you select.
Regardless of where you fall on the debate about whether to use subtitles or not, it’s really handy to know how to find videos with subtitles on YouTube for reasons I explain below.
Here’s how you can find videos with subtitles on YouTube:
- First, search for something in your target language that you think you’d be interested in. Since I like learning languages (and I assume that you do too), I might search for “apprendre une langue” – very broken French for “learn a language”.
- Next, click the Filters button in the top right of the app, scroll down and then select the option for subtitles/closed captions.
- Close the filters and pick your favourite video.
That’s it. Now you’ve found a video with subtitles, here’s how to turn on those subtitles in the YouTube app:
- Tap the video until you see the three dots in the top right of the screen
- Press on the three dots
- Choose “Subtitles/Closed captioning”
You’ll usually be given an option to select which language you want the subtitles in. They won’t always be in the language that you’re looking for, but at the time of writing, YouTube doesn’t have a way to filter the subtitles by language when you search.
Personally, I’d avoid any subtitles which are automatically generated, but it’s better than nothing. Now, with subtitles on your videos, you can improve your comprehension skills as well as look up any words that you don’t understand.
Get transcripts on a desktop
When you watch a YouTube video with subtitles on a desktop, you also get access to YouTube’s well hidden interactive transcripts.
This video is a few years old (and has a creepy computerized voice over), but it’s probably the best video on YouTube to show you step by step how to find the transcripts yourself:
If you’d prefer to read through the steps, click here to find out how to get the transcript of a YouTube video. At the moment this only works on desktops, but if you find a good video in the YouTube app, you can always email it to yourself to check out on a desktop later.
You don’t need a Twitter account to use it for language learning purposes, but it is an incredible resource that hardly anyone uses to its full potential.
Not only can you follow a bunch of people on Twitter who speak your target language and interact with those people, but Twitter is basically the best dictionary and sentence mining tool on Earth. Even if you’re not too keen on using Twitter to actually talk to real people, there are plenty of celebrities you can follow to practise your language skills instead.
The best dictionary on Earth
Twitter is pretty much the Google of language learning.
Unfortunately, the app doesn’t make it super easy to use it for that purpose. I’ll explain with an example from Polish in a second.
Inside the Twitter app, there’s a search button which most people either ignore or use to find new people to follow. However, it also has the functionality to search through millions of tweets spanning several years. That mean that if you want to know exactly what a word means in your target language, you can get tons of real life examples in context.
Better yet, by sliding your way through the various tabs in the results, you can find:
- popular tweets containing that word
- the most recent tweets containing that word
- photos posted with descriptions containing that word
- videos posted with descriptions containing that word
- news articles posted on Twitter with descriptions containing that word
Best of all, it doesn’t just work on words, but phrases too. Looking for a particular idiom that you don’t understand? Put it in speech marks and hit search.
What does “estar como una cabra” mean? Use Twitter to get real-life examples and find out for yourself.
The issue with using Twitter as a dictionary
Here’s the catch with using Twitter as a dictionary: getting results for the right word in the wrong language.
In Polish, there is the word “bat”. It’s a false friend, so it doesn’t actually mean “bat” in English.
However, if I search for the “bat” on Twitter, I’ll get results for baseball bats, fruit bats, tweets about people “not batting an eyelid” or going “bat crazy” – I even get some tweets about Batman. All of those tweets are irrelevant and none of them are in Polish.
So how do you find what you’re looking for? Using advanced search.
Twitter’s advanced search
Advanced search is really easy to use on a desktop.
You can select which language you want to search in and even the location of where the tweet was sent from. That means if you’re looking for tweets in a certain dialect or from a particular country, region or city, you can do it in seconds. It’s not so easy to do that on an iPhone.
Instead, to make sure you’re getting the right language, you have to use one of Twitter’s supported language codes. At the time of writing, Twitter can identify the following 34 languages:
To make sure you’re searching in the right language, all you have to do is add “lang:en” to your search, where “en” is the language code for the language you’re searching for.
To specify a language, type “lang:en” into your search where “en” is the language code for your target language.
However, if you search for “bat lang:pl”, the results might be much more relevant, but you’ll still find the occasional tweet which has been incorrectly identified as Polish.
Twitter’s location settings
To get really accurate results, it’s best to use location settings too.
By using “near:” and “within:” in your search, you can specify a radius around a city to search for tweets. As you might have guessed, “bat lang:pl near:”Warsaw” within:150mi” gives even more accurate results.
To specify a location in a Twitter search, type “near:” and then the name of a city in speech marks, e.g. near:”Buenos Aires”. Next, type within:Xmi where X is the maximum number of miles around the city that you’d like to search. If you prefer to use kilometers, type within:Xkm instead.
Armed with a selection of sentences containing the word, you could either read through a few of them to try and work out what it means from the context or you could translate the whole sentence with Google Translate and/or turn it into a flashcard to help you remember. So many possibilities, so little time.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, “bat” means “whip” in Polish.
Follow people on Twitter
If you’re not against the idea of signing up for Twitter or if you have an account already, there’s a very simple way to improve your language skills:
Follow people who speak your target language. It’s so simple, yet so few of us actually do it.
You can increase your exposure to your target language in just a few minutes. Every time you log on to Twitter, the language will be there, giving you a gentle reminder and opportunity to practice.
The good news about Twitter is that it’s not uncommon or odd to follow people that you don’t know personally. That means you have free reign to follow anyone you like and quite honestly, most Twitter users would quite like the ego boost that someone else is actually interested in what they have to say.
However, finding interesting people who speak your target language can take time.
To speed up the process, you can follow some celebs. Here’s a list of the top Twitter users in China. That’s right, even though Twitter is banned in China, many Chinese people still use the service.
No matter which language you’re learning and in which country it is spoken, you can usually find a list of celebrities that you can follow very easily.
Check out the Social Bakers website to get a list for your language.
TuneIn Radio allows you to listen to radio stations from all around the world. You’ll be spoiled for choice deciding which one of its 120,000 radio stations to listen to.
Use its Browse function to search by location and you’ll be able to find some of the top radio stations in your country of choice…or in some cases even your city of choice.
Here’s what’s playing on FM Nishi in Tokyo right now:
If there’s one piece of advice I could give you, it’s to choose a radio station that is similar to one you’d normally listen to in your native language. You’ll find things a lot easier to understand, you’ll learn the vocabulary most relevant to you, plus you might even discover some songs that you’ll absolutely love.
This one doesn’t need much explanation.
Now that you’ve got TuneIn Radio installed, you’ll want to know what all of those amazing songs that they’re playing on the radio are called. In comes Shazam, one of the greatest music identifying apps on the planet. So far, it has never let me down in finding the name of any song that I throw at it, no matter which language it’s in.
Here are just a few of the other things that Shazam can do:
- Play clips of the songs that you’ve tagged so you know which one is which
- Keep a list of all of the songs that you’ve ever tagged with the app
- Show you song lyrics
- Find music videos for the songs
- List other songs by the artist
- Suggest similar songs that you might like
You can also hook it up to Apple Music and Spotify to stream your favourites. If you want, you can even buy tracks that you love straight from the app. How cool is that?!
Last but not least, Shazam’s charts show you the top songs that people in selected countries have been tagging. It’s perfect for discovering the hottest music in the language that you’re learning.
Here’s what the Italians are loving right now.
Just in case you’ve been living under a rock, a podcast is basically a recorded radio show.
That means you can listen to it whenever you want. They get delivered to your phone for free whenever a new episode is recorded and you can usually find the last 100 episodes of the podcast if you missed any.
If you’re still not sure what a podcast is, here’s an episode of the Actual Fluency Podcast with Kris Broholm.
There are language learning podcasts for most popular languages. If I’m honest, a lot of the language learning podcasts are a bit hit and miss. Anyone can make a podcast and since the vast majority of podcasters aren’t radio professionals, the quality is sometimes lacking.
Instead, I recommend using podcasts as a regular source of native material that you can bring with you wherever you go.
If you’re lucky, there will be podcasts in your target language on topics that you’re interested in. The hard part is finding the podcasts in the first place.
Finding foreign podcasts
In the Apple Podcasts app, the only way to really find a foreign language podcast that you might be interested in is to type in a foreign language word describing the topic.
For example, if I was learning Spanish and wanted to find podcasts on language learning, I might type in “idiomas” or if I were learning Italian and wanted a travel podcast, I’d type in “viaggio”.
If you can’t find what you’re looking for in the app, try a Google search in your target language. For example, if I wanted to find a podcast about video games in German, I’d translate “Podcasts about video games” and search for whatever Google Translate gave me: “Podcasts über Videospiele”. Whack that translation into Google and you’ll get results like:
- “5 deutsche Games-Podcasts, die ihr kennen solltet” (5 German Games podcasts you should know)
- “Computer- und Videospiele – Podcasts-Downloads bei iTunes” (Computer and Video Games – Podcast Downloads on iTunes)
- “Beste Videospiele Podcasts” (Best Video Games Podcasts)
Each one of those web pages has the names of several podcasts that I could choose from. Give it a try. If you really can’t find anything, ask a native speaker for recommendations.
Remember: Your ears don’t get tired, so there’s no excuse not to plug yourself into a podcast to test your comprehension skills.
This is the only app on this list you’ll need to pay to use, but it might be worth it for you.
Ever had one of those “This video is not available in your country” messages?
If not, you will soon.
As you become more advanced at learning your target language, you’ll start to seek out authentic, native material to consume. TV shows, news sites, movies – you name it. The only problem is a lot of these are restricted to particular countries.
However, that restriction disappears with a VPN.
A VPN is a virtual private network. It basically means that you surf the internet via another computer which is located somewhere else. If that computer is physically located in an area where there aren’t restrictions, you can enjoy all of the content that you want.
This is also useful when you’re abroad. Many times I’ve been in Poland and wanted to enjoy some British TV, only to find that it was blocked because I was outside of the country. All I had to do was turn on IPVanish VPN, select a British computer to connect to and then I could watch all of the telly that I wanted.
The reverse works when I’m in the UK and want to watch foreign TV programs online. I choose a computer in the appropriate country and I can enjoy all of the foreign media that I want with no restrictions.
Like I said, you do have to pay to use IPVanish VPN’s service. Until you find yourself unable to enjoy media in your target language due to content restrictions, you probably don’t need to invest in this.
I have to be honest here – I personally don’t use this anymore.
However, Discord is a great app which allows you to practice your language learning skills with learners and natives alike. I’d highly recommend it for shy people who don’t yet feel confident enough to talk as the vast majority of Discord language learning servers are pretty much just chat rooms.
Discord is actually intended to be used for in-game chat, but works perfectly well for practising languages too. It can be a bit fiddly to set up, so my advice is to download the app, set up an account and figure it out from there.
The most comprehensive list of Discord servers for language learning is maintained in this Reddit post. Once you’re set up, head to one of these servers and try it out.
Personally, I stopped using Discord because I much prefer to talk to people on Skype (and I hate having anything on my phone that gives me notifications). However, if you want a chance to text chat in your target language, I’d highly recommend downloading this app and trying it out for yourself.
Since you’ve read this far, I couldn’t leave you without a bonus. As far as bonuses go, this is a pretty amazing one.
If you’re not aware of TED already, it’s an organisation that shares interesting short lectures about pretty much everything. Not only can you watch a whole treasure trove of talks on topics ranging from 3D printing to the world wide web, but you can filter the talks by language too. If the talk isn’t actually in your target language, the subtitles definitely are.
Fortunately, reverse subtitling – watching something with native audio and target language subtitles – has been shown in experiments to be better at acquiring vocabulary than normal subtitling and watching without subtitles.
“Comparing the overall results of test scores in three different conditions suggests the relative superiority of the test scores obtained in the reversed subtitled group (C) over those of standard subtitled (B) and non-subtitled (A) groups. In other words, the participants in the reversed subtitled condition had higher English vocabulary scores than those of standard subtitled and non-subtitled groups.” – Dr. A. M. Fazilatfar, S. Ghorbani M.A, L. Samavarchi M.A, “The effect of standard and reversed subtitling versus no subtling mode on L2 vocabulary learning”
That means that if you can speak English (which I assume you can), you can acquire vocabulary in your target language by turning on subtitles in that language.
You’ll understand the English audio and start to map it to the foreign language subtitles. It’s more effective for learning vocabulary than listening to foreign audio with native language subtitles or with no subtitles at all.
The one thing you absolutely must do immediately
Now you’ve reached the end of this gigantic post (which took more than ten hours to research and write), I have just one thing to ask of you:
Share this post with one person.
That’s all I ask. The more people that know about these things, the better we’ll all be able to speak our target language. Wouldn’t that be a great thing?
Don’t wait – share this blog post with a friend right now. It’s a small thing for you, but it could save them years of struggling with their language.
If you have any questions for me, you can find me over at HowToSpeakPolish.com, attempting to explain how to learn Polish whilst battling the language myself.
As we say in Polish, “Powodzenia!”