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By Gabriel Rodriguez
Updated: August 4, 2020 11:50 AM ET | Originally published: July 6, 2020
Money; Getty Images

What’s the best way to learn a new language? Ask anyone who speaks more than one language and you’re likely to get a wide range of responses. Classrooms, textbooks, language exchange programs are all tools that can help you reach a certain level of fluency. Language learning software is another tool that is becoming increasingly popular. However, each software features its own focus and teaching method. The best one for you will depend on your motivations. So, whether you are moving to a foreign country or want to brush up on your high school Spanish, we spoke with two experts and tested six programs to help find the best resource for you.

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Why Use Language Learning Software?

Learning another language is not an easy task. Unlike children, who learn simply by listening to others speak, adults must undergo a long and arduous process of trial and error that includes both studying and practicing grammar, vocabulary, and speech. This takes a lot of time out of busy lives, especially if studying in-person.

Although classroom environments have been traditionally popular with language learners, interest in formal language learning is waning. The Modern Language Association found that, between fall 2013 and fall 2016, enrollment in courses for languages other than English fell by 9.2% in colleges and universities in the United States. Meanwhile, language learning software is becoming increasingly popular with learners worldwide due to its accessibility and affordability.

Apps and software have traditionally been used as a supplement to conventional language learning methods. These programs have become more and more advanced as of late, to a point where they can replace beginner and intermediate language courses altogether. You may not be able to achieve native fluency with them, but they can function as an entry point to your learning experience.

Ultimately, the goal of language learning software is to minimize the impact of learning a language on both your schedule and your wallet. It is much more affordable than other alternatives, such as classroom courses or traveling abroad, and one may access it from anywhere, depending on the platform.

Important Things to Know About Language Learning Software

  • Language learning software can work wonders on its own, but it can also be used to supplement other learning methods, such as formal instruction.
  • Software can only take you so far: you’ll want to migrate to tutoring or in-person courses at some point.
  • Language learning software includes online courses, 1-on-1 language tutoring, and language exchanges.

There is no one language learning software that is the perfect fit for everyone. One type of software may focus in one area, such as conversational skills, whereas another may invest more in reading comprehension and writing. However, there is certainly software that stands above the rest when it comes to the quality of their content and excellence in their teaching methodology.

As we mentioned earlier, start by considering your motivations for learning a new language. Are you looking for a basic introduction to the language, or do you need something more lengthy and comprehensive? How much you need to learn will be vastly different depending on whether you want to learn the language because you are going on vacation, are being transferred for work, or hoping to open business channels with a foreign entity.

Then, consider how you will learn it. Some of us have busy schedules and need to fit the time for practice into small segments throughout the day. Others can set aside several hours on a daily basis to focus entirely on one aspect of the language. Certain types of software will serve different learners best.

You can start looking at the actual software once you identify your learning needs. Keep in mind that the amount of language learning softwares on the market has grown considerably, especially since big names like Rosetta Stone and Duolingo popularized the method.

When we researched language acquisition, we looked into different approaches to the online learning of languages, and evaluated individual software according to cost, teaching method, and customer experience.

Here is a quick list of what we found to be the best language learning software of 2020:

  • Pimsleur: Best for Learning on the Go
  • Rosetta Stone: Best Full-Course Software
  • Babbel: Best for Grammar
  • Duolingo: Best Free Course Software
  • LinguaLift: Best for Cultural Immersion
  • iTalki: Best for Tutoring

The Best Language Learning Software of 2020: Company Reviews

All the software we reviewed below is accessible via web browsers and on mobile devices in app form.

Pimsleur: Best for Learning on the Go

Pimsleur Premium excels in delivering a platform that is well suited for the everyday individual. Unlike other software on this list, the Pimsleur courses were designed with a conversational methodology in mind. Lessons are audio-focused and typically no longer than half an hour long; users are encouraged to learn on the road, while on the subway, or during work breaks. Courses can be launched through the software’s phone app or its website. In addition to its core audio lessons, Pimsleur also incorporates flash card exercises, reading lessons, and other supplementary material that is accessible online. Pimsleur offers courses in over 40 different languages, starting at $19.99/ month.

Rosetta Stone: Best Full-Course Software

First released in 1993 as a CD-based program, Rosetta is still one of the best language learning programs out there. Today, the company’s online subscription offers courses for more than 30 languages — including endangered ones.

Part of what makes the program so great at this is its teaching philosophy. Listening, reading, writing, speaking — Rosetta tries to combine all the basic elements of language learning into a cohesive, holistic program. Another reason why Rosetta excels in creating an immersive approach to language is its speech recognition technology, which has received praise for its accuracy and high degree of customizability. Learning to speak like native speakers is essential for learners to feel like they are making actual progress in their studies. The technology works on all devices that Rosetta is available on: computers, tablets, and smartphones.

Rosetta Stone has plans starting at $35.97 ($11.99/mo) for 3 months to learn a single language. Users can also pay for 12 or 24 months of subscription time, or eschew this altogether and pay for a lifetime subscription. These three plans include access to all of Rosetta’s languages.

Babbel: Best for Grammar

Grammar may not be the most exciting part of learning a language (for some!), but it’s an essential component for anyone who wants to do more than just speak the language at a basic level. It’s particularly important if you expect to use the language in professional scenarios or want to understand more complex sentence structures.

Babbel’s grammar drills are a combination of explanatory and interactive content. The exercises detail how specific parts of the language work while asking you to fill in the gaps of the explanation. The grammar lessons ask you to do a wide variety of things, such as conjugating verbs, identifying word types, and forming sentences in specific ways. Moreover, grammar tips pop up during regular lessons, which is a good way of subtly integrating what users learned into other parts of the course.

Babbel is subscription-based, with prices starting from $6.95 /month, when paying for a full year. The shortest subscription duration, 3 months, is $8.95 /month.

Duolingo: Best Free Course Software

With more than 300 million users, Duolingo is one of the most downloaded apps in the Apple and Google stores. The software is heavily gamified, with experience points, leaderboards, and other features designed to keep users engaged. The idea is for users to keep a streak going and come back every day to keep their language skills sharp — and their numbers high.

Duolingo does something that no other software does: it hosts a free platform where users can enjoy the benefits of learning a language forever. Because it is free, however, it depends on ads and in-app software to sustain itself. If you hate the idea of ads, you can opt for Duolingo Plus, an ad-free subscription plan that includes progress quizzes, one “streak repair” per month, and offline courses. The plan starts at $6.99 / month.

Duolingo’s courses are built as “trees,” where users must clear a certain number of levels in each section before advancing. Some language tracks are fully realized, with courses that reach complex vocabulary and grammatical content near the end, while others remain at the introductory level. While this might not be the case for every single one of Duolingo’s 26 options—they are all created and moderated by different individuals, and Duolingo itself only reviews the courses.

Duolingo is also unique in that it offers courses for languages seldom seen elsewhere, such as Hawaiian, Welch, and Navajo. It also supports courses for constructed languages, which currently include Esperanto, Klingon, and High Valyrian.

LinguaLift: Best for Russian, Hebrew, and Japanese

Although it only offers three courses — Russian, Hebrew, and Japanese — LinguaLift positively excels in these three languages. The platform is heavily based on text and image content and provides users with exercise sheets. In a way, it functions as a digital, supplemented textbook instead of a traditional online course.

Where LinguaLift stands out the most is in the level of cultural immersion it offers to students. Every lesson comes with lengthy explanations of why certain expressions are used or the context of certain traditions and customs. You might learn about the cherry trees in Japan or about the winter in Russia, with specific language pertaining to these topics. LinguaLift always tries to bring the content of its course back to the culture, which makes it feel like you aren’t just learning a language in isolation.

LinguaLift has a monthly and yearly subscription plan. The former is $29.00 / month, whereas the later is $204/ year, or $17.00 /month.

iTalki: Best for Tutoring

There are a number of apps and software that eschew the standard blueprint of language courses in exchange for other methods of learning. One of these methods is 1-on-1 tutoring, for which iTalki takes the cake. iTalki started as a language exchange community where users could practice their skills by chatting with learning partners who were target language native speakers. Now, the platform doubles as a teacher marketplace, where users can also contact tutors to book personalized sessions.

Those looking to either improve their preexisting language skills or who feel that they aren’t getting anywhere learning by themselves should seriously consider hiring a tutor, even if just as a supplementary aid for pronunciation and fluency. Teachers in iTalki set their own rates and prices for sessions, for just about any language one could think of.

iTalki functions with an in-app wallet to which users add credits. These can then be spent on individual lessons and tutoring sessions, which average $10 but can go as low as $5 or as high as $20 depending on the language combination and the popularity of the tutor.

How to Find the Best Language Learning Software

Finding the right language learning software is hard for two reasons. First, as it’s become increasingly popular, more and more language apps have crowded Apple and Google’s online stores. Second, even if you find the type of software you are looking for, its teaching methodology might not match your learning needs.

Our sister company, ConsumersAdvocate.org, tested twelve of the top language learning software programs to understand what they had to offer. Each of our twelve staff members, most of which were fully bilingual and had formal instruction in a third foreign language, chose a new language to learn and a study schedule. During the three months of testing, weekly questionnaires were sent to each of the twelve participants to gather how they felt about their progress. The goal of testing the software was not to see how fast each participant learned their language of choice—speed of learning is dependent on a wide variety of factors—but to evaluate how well guided and instructional each course was.

So, how did we pick these twelve software programs? We used three elements to distinguish the language learning software we believe were ahead of the pack: cost, educational model, and customer experience.

Cost

Our first concern regarding price was depth of content. During our research, we encountered a staggering number of language learning software that wasn’t necessarily bad — although some were — but that charged outrageous prices for the amount of content offered. When looking at subscription-based software, we considered both the base monthly rates and the rates for their biggest discount.

We also looked at the way each company charged for their software. Most language learning software is either subscription-based or purchased via a single payment. The former may be available for monthly, multi-monthly, and yearly plans. The latter is usually offered as a “lifetime subscription.” Additionally, while free language learning software does exist, only a very small number don’t require a subscription down the line.

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Educational Model

Every language learning software teaches students how to speak a new language in its own way. However, for the software to be considered truly standalone — that is to say, not just in tandem with an in-person method — it must include certain essential elements: reading and writing material, grammar explanations, vocabulary exercises, and spoken language practice.

In order to pinpoint what was essential in language learning software, we spoke with Nathaly Batista Morales, a Ph.D. student of bilingual education at Texas State University, and with Dr. Dana Paramskas, professor at the University of Guelph and expert in various fields related to linguistics — including technology for second language learning.

Morales says a lot of software is based on “antiquated models” from the Second World War, where teaching would consist of endless repetitions of vocabulary, without necessarily including any context. She suggested we look for software that supported current sociocultural approaches to language, which includes content related to everyday situations, conversation with locals, and cultural immersion. Dr. Paramskas emphasized the importance of audiovisual content, stories, and progression. She told us that text should not be the first thing users encounter and that courses should be as easy to follow as possible, to avoid situations where students get stuck. To that end, we evaluated any additional features each software had and made sure they incorporated a combination of reading, writing, listening, and speaking exercises.

Customer Experience

Initially, we based our evaluation of customer experience solely on any significant patterns or complaints and/or praise we could find online. Once the staff at ConsumersAdvocate.org finished testing the software we’d chosen from a larger list of 31, we also integrated their feedback to this field. We then looked at money-back guarantees and free trials. These trials were what helped us rule out from our initial list any companies that lacked essential features.

Summary of the Best Language Learning Software of 2020

  • Pimsleur: Best for Learning on the Go
  • Rosetta Stone: Best Full-Course Software
  • Babbel: Best for Grammar
  • Duolingo: Best Free Course Software
  • LinguaLift: Best for Cultural Immersion
  • iTalki: Best for Tutoring

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Advertiser Disclosure

The purpose of this disclosure is to explain how we make money without charging you for our content.

Our mission is to help people at any stage of life make smart financial decisions through research, reporting, reviews, recommendations, and tools.

Earning your trust is essential to our success, and we believe transparency is critical to creating that trust. To that end, you should know that many or all of the companies featured here are partners who advertise with us.

Our content is free because our partners pay us a referral fee if you click on links or call any of the phone numbers on our site. If you choose to interact with the content on our site, we will likely receive compensation. If you don't, we will not be compensated. Ultimately the choice is yours.

Opinions are our own and our editors and staff writers are instructed to maintain editorial integrity, but compensation along with in-depth research will determine where, how, and in what order they appear on the page.

To find out more about our editorial process and how we make money, click here.

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