My Language-Learning Apps: A Full List of Their Strengths and Weaknesses (December 2018)

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Thanks largely to Luke Truman I have been in the habit of using Chess metaphors a bit too often since our conversation in February…especially to describe learning processes.

In language acquisition or in other fields, you need to use a VARIETY of methods in order to strengthen your skill. As someone who has been playing piano since age 4, this involved doing scales and exercises alongside memorizing music and playing piano pieces. Later on as I shifted to “pop music” in my post-high school life, knowledge of chords and how they worked was also essential.

And at age 28 I found myself capable of hearing a song ONCE on the radio and then playing it on the piano.

The issue is that my apps function like chess pieces. Some of them may be better than others, but I have to use a combination of them in order to truly meet my goals.

Let’s look at what I have in my phone right now. Some of these are better for some tasks than others.

You probably know how I’m going to start off…

 

Duolingo

 

Pros: Good for Pronunciation, Passively Recognizing Grammar Patterns, Passively Recognizing Vocabulary

Cons: Bad For Having Conversations with your Friends

 

Duolingo has been a godsend for those who may need help with pronunciation of certain languages. French, Irish and anything from East Asia (especially Mandarin and Vietnamese) seem to be fairly advantageous.

Some of the course can also manage a significantly high leverage of active usage as well (I’ve heard particularly good things about Norwegian, Swedish, Esperanto and French in this respect).

The huge weakness is that it doesn’t really prepare you for realistic conversations in a sense. So this leads to awkward instances in which I’ve encountered people saying that they’re learning a language with Duolingo and can’t even remember how to say basic things like “how are you?” or “what is your name?”

In all honesty, unless you wait to focus only on reading or linguistic study, Duolingo is always best combined with something else. As is the case for all language-learning tools, actually.

 

Memrise (Desktop and App Version Both Discussed)

Pros: Can Create Your Own Content, Can Create Fun Ways of Memorizing Things Easily, Extremely Flexible, Can Cause Your Passive Understanding to Skyrocket.

Cons: No Clear Direction, Easy to Get Overwhelmed by Choice, Ineffective if you don’t read things out loud, Sentence Tests Can be Too Difficult

 

The Desktop version is, in my opinion, superior because it actively involves your fingers (unless it is a “no typing” course, which can be helpful for languages with foreign character sets). What’s more, you’ll need the Desktop version for custom courses as well (which can be transferred to the mobile version accordingly).

To maximize the effect of Memrise, I would heavily recommend a course with sound or even a private course where you can read the words out loud (even if you’re not a native speaker—doing so when not a native speaker and having it public may be a bit iffy, though). You should also be actively creating your own “mems”, or little pictures or phrases that come with words that provide fun tidbits to help remember them. Think of it as “candy” for memory in a sense (I think the creators of the website explicitly used that phrase).

The big con comes with the fact that it is easy to get carried away by some of the “lazy” quizzes, in particular the timed quiz which really won’t teach you much in the way of active command (but very good with passive command). The balance between learning new items and remembering old ones is somewhat difficult to master.

Memrise is best used if you’re regularly exposed to a language and have course that have very thorough vocabulary. That way, you’ll encounter the words in the flashcards and in real life and they will reinforce each other.

 

Mango Languages

Pros: Extremely effective beginner conversations, You can use it while doing physical tasks that require both your hands (by putting it on auto-play), the conversations and cultural tidbits are realistic and sometimes even funny, all of the vocabulary will be exactly what you’ll be using on a daily basis, native speaker audio is very good.

Cons: Not much in the way of anything beyond the intermediate level, some courses have gaps (Dari and Tuvan are very short, for example), grammar is minimally touched on, no user-generated content.

Probably one of the best ways to start learning a language from scratch (along with uTalk, which we’ll get to below), Mango Languages is also useful for busy places in particular. If I’m in a crowded train car and literally cannot touch my phone, putting the class on auto-play will be exactly what I’ll need.

The auto-play feature does get vexing when it keeps on prompting me for words that I already know very well, sometimes three times in a row. Sometimes it even gets screwed up with being paused indefinitely.

Important cultural pointers are pointed out and are well-customized for each language. For Scottish Gaelic, you’ll be learning about the local norms of the highlands. For Hungarian, you’ll be learning the finer points of Magyarophone culture. Formality, especially important for languages of East Asia, is also touched upon very well.

The big issue is the fact that it is good for a beginner but after a while you don’t have much to go through anymore. It is a runway for your language plane to take off. It is a very good runway, but its goal is to get you away from it. Which is both its strength and its weakness, oddly enough.

Grammar also is minimally touched on in some courses, so incomplete verb conjugation may be an issue with some Indo-European languages (or other languages that use conjugation). But that’s what other apps are for. Or so I hear.

 

Cram

Pros: THE GAMES ARE EXCELLENT, the flashcards work well, design to get you to learn a lot very quickly (hence the name)

Cons: Making User-Generated Content Can be Annoying, Games Good for Learning Individual Words Well…to the Exclusion of All Else, actually, and the games don’t work offline.

 

Cram would be doing an excellent job if it had in-built databases of comprehensive vocabularies / frequency lists. Even without that, it is still very good.

The big issue is that, despite having billions of cards available on the site, I sometimes find it hard to put custom decks together.

The games themselves, while good, are not something you want to “start out with”. Instead, gain familiarity with the words by other means and then use the games.

But the games provided are VERY GOOD nonetheless and this is why I like Cram very much. The big downside is that the games don’t work offline (big issue with me in the subway, let me tell you!).

One game is a matching gem game where you match the scrolls (the definitions) with the gems (the words). Another one is a space shooter where you’re supposed to shoot the correct word.

The games are good for buttressing vocabulary that you may know vaguely but not too well. Otherwise use the flashcards.

 

Clozemaster (Paid Version)

Pros: Adjustable difficulty, Realistic Sentences, Pro Membership is a fantastic investment, great for casual conversation AND learning

Cons: Custom content only available with the paid version, keeps track of your mistakes with an accuracy percentage counter (I didn’t like grades then and I still hate ‘em), Offline Options limited (So I can only download the most ten popular languages for offline play? Oy.), Sentences Show Up Randomly

The premise of Clozemaster is simple: you see a sentence in the language you’re learning, another sentence in your native language, and you write in / choose the missing word. And that’s how you pick up vocabulary in context.

Probably one of the best tools I’ve ever used to learn languages, EVER, but not without flaws. The biggest issue is the fact that the sentences on the site are taken from the Tatoeba Sentence Database, which means that you don’t really have any way to sort them except by…difficulty (based on which sentences use the most common vocabulary). That is still useful, though.

This is something I highly recommend for upper intermediate. With user-generated content especially, you can literally become unbelievable fluent in ANY language and gain a very sharp reading ability because of Clozemaster.

 

Mondly Languages (Free Version)

 

Pros: Audio Learning Works Well, the Chatbot is good (even with a tonal language—I’ve used it primarily with Vietnamese), the interface is clear, a lot of pictures to anchor your memory into, good for pronunciation.

Cons: Doesn’t Work Without Earphones, Only One Lesson per day and extended ones per week and per month (and those require having done an entire week of straight lessons or an entire month of straight lessons respectively), too much content that is completely inaccessible to the free user (as opposed to other free apps that can make it accessible but a pain to do so).

 

The Chatbot is probably the biggest drawcard of Mondly Languages, ones that enable you to have a conversation with a robot. This is particularly helpful with a tonal language with difficult pronunciation because messing it up means you’ll have to say it again until you get it right. And my record is eight times in a row worth of attempts.

The Daily Lesson series works but is more like a “decoration” to your vocabulary more than something you can genuinely use in conversations. In this respect these lessons are probably best for an intermediate learner.

I still haven’t unlocked the monthly challenge yet. In January, assuming I don’t miss a day, I will.

 

uTalk (Paid Version)

Pros: HUGE AMOUNTS OF LANGUAGES, Actively Gets You Speaking With the Recording Game, HUGE collections of phrases and vocabulary depending on what you need to learn to speak, Native Speaker Voices have LOTS of Personality

Cons: No Grammar Lessons at All, Nothing to Rehearse Reading Skills in Detail, some tonal languages are transliterated with no tone markers.

If you want to get speaking a language as quickly as possible, uTalk is your best bet. And you have MORE choices with this app than any other app out there. Colloquial Arabic varieties? Yup. Every major language of Europe? Got that. Regional Languages of India? You bet. Native languages of Africa? Like you wouldn’t believe!

And unlike many other apps, uTalk gets you over a fear of speaking by making recording yourself an INTEGRAL portion of getting points. And the easiest points you can get are by recording yourself, actually.

uTalk is sorted into topics that you can pick (and in the free version you’ll have to unlock each one with 40 uCoins each). These range from “Likes and Dislikes” to Sports vocabulary to emergency vocabulary to colors and prepositions and a LOT more.

But my overall favorite skill is the one that is unique to each language, bearing the name of the primary country where it is spoken (so for Tumbuka the skill will be called “Malawi” and for Fijian it would be called “Viti” and for Greenlandic it would be called “Kalaallit Nunaat”.)

This skill is FANTASTIC because it actually doesn’t show you any definitions but only pictures of untranslatable concepts (like local food, cities or landmarks) as well as, in some cases, famous people from that country. In the Greenlandic “Kalaallit Nunaat” skill, you’ll see pictures of Katuaq and the Qilaat, and you’ll probably want to discover what those are on your own accord because…the app actually won’t tell you. But you’ll get curious and want to find out!

Like any other app, use immersion with it. But the key phrases are, well, keep. And you’re lucky to have them in one place with uTalk.

 

Tinycards

Pros: Excellent for Bite-Sized Pieces of Information, ESPECIALLY Good for learning foreign alphabets, Making Your Own Content Usually Not a Hassle.

Cons: Good for Teaching You Individual Words, Mostly. No offline mode. The decks are usually too small.

This is a tool I’d recommend for the intermediate stage. There are better tools for absolute beginners. The fact remains that Tinycards is usually best for learning individual words (but in the event that you need them transliterated you can actually do that! So with my Khmer flashcards I have both the transliteration AND the meaning of the words as well. Haven’t used them in…a long time, actually.)

One thing I find helpful is that if the machine marks you wrong you can override it and mark it as correct. This is very useful in the event of a typo or the like.

Unlike Memrise’s custom courses which can be literally big enough to cause the app to crash, Tinycards specializes in small decks. A large frequency list is going to…take time.

I would definitely recommend it for learning visually in any case.

 

Transparent Language

Pros: Very Useful Phrases, A HUGE Variety of Activities, Good Voices, Customizable Skills and Phrases for almost any realistic situation, lots of languages offered (minority languages of the Russian Federation and Native Languages of the Americas are there a-plenty!)

Cons: Doesn’t Work Offline, Grammar is not too in-depth, teaches you almost exclusively phrases and words, can be hard to determine “how the language works” with Transparent Language alone.

You’ll need a library membership. Not just any library, but one that is subscribed to Transparent Language. Or you could pay the subscription yourself.

Probably the best tool if you want to go from a beginner to intermediate, to be honest. There isn’t a lot in the way to teach you how to put sentences together, but BOY are there are a lot of useful sentences and words you’ll find. I find myself deferring to Transparent Language’s phrases often to prepare students for a trip (especially if they started with me as an absolute beginner).

The pronunciation of the native speakers? On key. The phrases? Extremely useful. The activities? You’ll be overwhelmed with choice. And that’s a good thing.

The sad thing is that I haven’t been using it as much as I used to because of the fact that it doesn’t work offline. And I do most of my learning underground. In the underground, that is. Perhaps this could be fixed in the future.

 

Anki

Pros: Best Suited to Very Advanced Learners Who Want to Learn Words They’re Not Encountering Very Often, Easy to Find User-Made Content Online AND Import Stuff from Spreadsheets into Anki.

Cons: Very Plain, “Card is a Leech” is really annoying to see

Seven-year-old me would have called Anki “boring”. It is a flashcard program that looks…ordinary, but is EXCELLENT for picking up big chucks of vocabulary.

I found Anki easiest to use with learning words in a language that I’ve experienced “diminishing returns” with. That is, I listen to stuff for a month and I can’t find any new words to learn. But somehow I want to get better. That’s where Anki comes in.

Huge frequency lists, very useful decks generated by users, and you can also find spreadsheet dictionaries to make your own.

Be careful because sometimes you may encounter yourself with a flood of words you’ll never need. (Oh, yes, Finnish-Language Scientific Jargon, my FAVORITE!)

If you want to go from “s/he speaks this language well” to everyone assuming you’re a native speaker, use Anki.

 

Jared Gimbel: The Story You Never Knew

Tomorrow is my birthday (when I’ll be writing something else).

As my 20’s come to a close tomorrow, I will forever remember this decade of my life as the one that transformed me to a confused follower into an internationally-minded, confident explorer.

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Around age 24 I started to invest seriously in my studies of Jewish and Nordic Languages, thereby setting up the primary basis of my income (until my video games start coming out!)

Around age 25, weeks before my 26th birthday, I discovered Tok Pisin for the first time, one of the most transformative experiences of my life that left me with a soft spot towards the developing world and I am in awe of how efficient and poetic Tok Pisin is on every level. It serves as a testament to human endurance, that even when being enslaved and bereft of dignity, humans will hold onto culture, humor and the resilience that defines us all. Other Creole languages I studied since then from the Atlantic and the Pacific had very much the same features.

At age 29, I was told that my parents were floating the idea of travelling to Fiji. Within the following days, I went to Barnes and Noble and got myself the Lonely Planet Fijian textbook and began memorizing phrases IMMEDIATELY.

There is a lot of victory that I had over the course of the language journeys of my 20’s, but there are also the stories and sides that had deep defeat as well.

Sometimes I made silly mistakes in classes on the most basic level, sometimes even concerning things I said about the English language.

Within every one of my language successes I had dozens of times in which I encountered discouragement from native speakers or “beat myself up” because of my high standards.

While my videos were gaining traction in Palau and Kiribati I also had to deal with an angry Subreddit and woke up one morning to an entire webpage dedicated to insulting me. It wouldn’t be the last time that happened.

When abroad I worried that I would never “get good” at the target language and sometimes called up my family on the verge of tears. I also sometimes was made to feel like a stupid American or, even worse, that my religious upbringing in my teenage years left me with a permanent handicap in how I understood the world. (As a girl I dated once told me, “you know a lot about books, but you do not know life”.)

I also had to realize in my later 20’s that there would be a lot of dreams I needed to let go of. I couldn’t seriously become native-like fluent in a language I didn’t really care about (and unlike most people, the “languages that I didn’t really love” were actually the global giants of Western Europe. My heart has been with “the little guys” for quite a while now. )

In all likelihood, barring romance with a Spanish-speaker or business or tourism, my Danish will always be better than my Spanish, no matter what. But I’m okay with that because hearing Danish spoken on the streets of New York City (or anywhere else) always makes me happy. I remember one time when I was returning from a Bar Mitzvah in Washington D.C. I get off the bus and Penn Station and I hear a teenage boy on the street saying, “ja, det er jeg meget sikker på” (Yup, I’m really sure of that”) into a  smartphone. I smiled and knew I was in New York again.

I’ve spent a lot of time in my life trying to be someone else and I still remember a teacher in the Paideia Institute telling me that “life is too short and too precious to be wasted on something that you don’t care about” (that was Barbara Spectre, in case anyone who was also in the program is reading this).

In college and in high school I was deeply religious and looking back I think it was largely not because I myself wanted it but because I myself was afraid of divine punishment. In 2013 I made the decision to walk away from religion, bit by bit, and there were a lot of woodland walks where I was worried that some force was going to punish me if I made the decision to turn on the computer on Saturday. Shortly I realize that my fear was preventing me from having the life that I wanted and that I had actually thrown away many years and opportunities on account of being someone I didn’t really want to be.

I became ultra-competitive deep down inside. Hardened by my experiences in higher education, I had learned to become ruthlessly perfectionist to the degree that several friends told me that “no human being can [feasibly] live like that”.

I figured that in any field, whether that is in business, romance, success in getting clicks on your blog posts, etc…that you had to be as GOOD as you possibly can in a world of infinite choice, otherwise you would be thoughtlessly tossed aside in favor of someone better. Perhaps the first time I really experienced something like this was with the college application process, but it was deeply toxic because only years later did I realize that we live in a culture of fear in which our deepest insecurities are made omnipresent so that we can be sold stuff more easily.

Throughout my entire life, even as a toddler, I had known that I was very different. At age 3, I was perusing atlases and wondering about what life was like in areas far away from the DC area. At age 29, here I am in a room in Brooklyn and to my left is a bookcase with language learning books from every continent (except Antarctica). Then as well as now, I somehow felt as though my interest in places and things far away from me would be a cause for stigma.

One time I even had someone at Mundo Lingo tell me that learning Kiribati was not a wise investment because “they’re going to be underwater soon”. I was calm with him but deep down inside you can imagine how furious I really was at this display of heartlessness.

With each growing year I see that there is an ongoing struggle for control of the world, between ordinary people who want to save it and those who treasure short-term profit above humanity and don’t care if the world goes to pieces because of it. Too many people have told me that my work with languages of Oceania / the Arctic is essential to the assist in the struggle of the former.

With each language of the developing world I learn, I see man’s inhumanity to man even more pronounced with each page. But despite that, I also see that the human tapestry is something to admire in all of its glory, despite the fact that I’ll never get to experience the whole thing no matter HOW hard I study.

To some degree it shook me to my core. I saw exactly how rigged the system seems to be in favor of the world-destroyers and doubted my ability to change anything.

But I’ll end on this note.

April 2013. I’m in Woodbridge, Connecticut, my parents’ hometown (for Passover). I go to the library one day and I go to the travel section and I find a book on “Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands” in the language section. I discover the Greenlandic Language for the first time and I fall in love. I obsess about it and the very thought of me seeing another Greenlandic word makes me giddy.

I go to the library the day afterwards and I take a digital camera with me. I photograph all of the language section (it was about five pages or so) and then I go home and I make flashcards out of it on Memrise (it was the first-ever Greenlandic course on Memrise. Now there seem to be about a hundred more from all languages!)

Despite the fact that I was not good and it (and still don’t think I am) I wrote blogposts about my experience, consumed Greenlandic TV and music and told many of my friends about it.

In 2018 I’ve noticed that, at least online, there is a lot more recognition of all things Greenland. Especially in the language-learning communities. Back when Memrise had hundreds of course categories available on the app version (before relegating them only to the Desktop version), they had a Greenlandic category…one that was added because of something that I myself did. Thousands of learners have at least sampled the language from the looks of it. And it seems that Greenland-o-mania will grow even more with my release of “Kaverini: Nuuk Adventures” later next year (despite the fact that it got delayed MULTIPLE years on account of difficult circumstances in my life).

Perhaps I had a part in bringing about this “revolution”. I will not know for certain, but back when I made the Palauan video series I actually encountered several commenters saying that they were inspired to teach Palauan to their significant others because of my videos.

That’s. Not. Nothing.

Tomorrow is my birthday and I’m going to go get some gifts. I’ll say this: Clozemaster Pro in its custom sentence packs is going to be HARD to beat!

See you at age 30!