If you're hoping to finally get around to learning Italian this year, you're in luck. Learning a new language is arguably easier now than it's ever been before. What was once only obtained by immersing yourself in a new country or attending costly classes has been liberated by the internet. Now, thousands of language learning apps mean a new dialect is just a few clicks (and yes, hours and hours of practice) away. Here, a look at some of the most popular options:
Number of available languages: 11
While language apps can be very effective (one recent study found them even more effective than a college language course), they do have a downside: They're not humans. An app can give you a direct translation but can't account for nuance, tone, or context in the same way a tutor might. A new tool called Linqapp seeks to fill this gap. If you have a question about a term or phrase, Linqapp lets you pose it to a native speaker rather than a computer program. "We want to position Linqapp as the perfect companion for every language learner to have because it's on your smartphone and it's a free way to connect to native speakers and ask questions that Google Translate can't answer," says cofounder Sebastian Ang. Answers arrive within a few minutes, but Ang wants the tool to eventually be "as quick as Google Translate, but with a human touch." Reliable translators receive points when they provide a helpful response. The more points they have, the higher their digital "reputation." Linqapp has 25,000 users and just launched on iOS.
Number of available languages: 20
With more than 70 million users, Duolingo is one of the most popular language apps on the market, and for good reason. It boasts a sleek, intuitive design, and it gamifies the language learning process, giving users points for correct answers. You advance to the next level only if you've mastered a set of skills, and each level builds on the last — so even if you could skip ahead, you'd be lost. Users are faced with a mixture of multiple choice questions, fill-in-the-blanks, and verbal translations, which they speak into the phone to be graded by the app. Not a super fast learner? No worries, Duolingo doesn't follow the one-size-fits-all formula. An algorithm can tell the more advanced users from the newbies, and serves up questions of varying difficulty accordingly. "We want to be as good as a human one-on-one tutor," says CEO and cofounder Luis von Ahn.
Cost: Free to download, then a subscription model
Number of available languages: 14
Babbel is a companion app for an online learning package, but don't let that deter you; the apps alone are "potent language-learning tools," writes Kit Eaton at The New York Times. The lessons start by teaching you exactly what you'd need to survive in a foreign country: basic conversational skills. Later lessons explain the theory behind grammatical concepts to help you understand why what you're saying makes sense. "As a linguistics enthusiast, I particularly enjoyed the little tutorials," writes one reviewer at The Economist. "It's a nice contrast to the technique of, say, Rosetta Stone, which emphasizes total immersion much more than rote grammar." Babbel provides speech recognition, and each course is created by language experts. One month's worth of lessons is about $13 — a bargain compared to expensive tutors.
Number of available languages: 200+
Like the name might suggest, Memrise is all about using scientifically proven tactics to help you quickly memorize vocabulary. It does this by helping users connect new words with concepts they're already familiar with, which makes them easier to recall. Each term is accompanied by a "Mem," which might be mnemonics, etymologies, photos, or videos. "Anything which helps connect what you're learning and bring it to life," its creators write. For example, when learning Chinese, the symbol for "cow" resembles the animal itself. It's great for visual learners. "Within a couple of hours of study you can read most of a Chinese menu," says Ben Whately, who worked on the app's Chinese courses. You can make your own Mems or choose from those created by other users. Also, Memrise doesn't just teach languages. You can use it to brush up on your history, polish your geography, or boost your math skills.
Cost: Free, then a subscription model
Number of available languages: 12
Busuu utilizes its massive user base of more than 40 million native speakers to tutor newbies. The app starts with flashcards and quizzes to help you learn the basics, but the more you learn, the more advanced the lessons become. Eventually the app has you doing writing exercises and translations, which you can run by others for feedback, like your own digital tutor. When you advance, you receive points in the form of "Busuu Berries," which is a little bit cheesy for my taste, but effective gamification. The online version lets users download a PDF of everything they've learned, which is super handy for studying offline later. The app is free to download but has a premium version available for $16 per month.