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How to Learn a Language for Free
Education is getting more expensive all the time. That doesn’t have to be the case with language learning. While there’s definitely language-learning software worth paying for, you can find many excellent resources for learning, studying, and practicing a language for free.
Ultimately, a “more is better” approach to language learning apps will serve you well, so don’t pick just one. By using multiple apps, you’ll hear different accents, encounter different word choices, and get a more well-rounded experience. Whether you’re studying at school (remotely) or just trying to pick up enough to get by as a tourist (for when tourism is possible again), using more than one app is your best bet.
Plus, different apps have different strengths. Some are best for beginners and others have good content for intermediate and advanced learners. Some are really good at tuning your ear to the language, while others give you reading material that’s at your level. When you embrace a lot of different apps, you can keep pushing yourself beyond what you already know.
We should be clear about one thing. These tools, whether they’re Android apps, iOS apps, or web apps, help you learn, study, and practice, but they’re unlikely to get you fluent on their own. Think of them as complements to classroom training or exposure to native speakers.
If you don’t have access to teachers and native speakers, then think of these free language learning apps as tools for building a strong foundation of knowledge. Once you’ve created that foundation, you might be able to improve even more by watching videos, listening to podcasts, and reading books and articles in the language you’re learning, but there’s no substitute for real-life conversation.
Check Your Library For Language Software, Too
Most of the apps listed here are not full-featured language learning software. Those software packages, such as Rosetta Stone and Fluenz, usually cost in the range of $100-$200 per year. You can sometimes get them for free through public libraries, though, at least in the US and Canada. Many libraries license these products in such a way that you can use the software at home by logging in through a web portal.
So if you need full-featured language-learning software, which is a great way to start if you’re a beginner, we highly recommend seeing what your local library offers. Then you can boost your learning by adding in some of the apps listed here.
Why No Single-Language Apps?
For the purpose of this article, we only looked at apps that offer multiple languages. The reason we excluded single-language apps is to keep the suggestions broad enough to be applicable to a wide range of people.
That said, there are amazing apps that teach just one language, or one aspect of one language. Human Japanese comes to mind. It has both free and paid versions of its apps, but it only teaches Japanese with an emphasis on learning to write. Mandarin students swear by ChineseSkill, a free game-based app that only focuses on Chinese for beginners.
To find apps that are specific to the language you want to learn, type the name of the language into the search bar of your favorite app store. Something is bound to turn up.
The one language where we’ve noticed a dearth of good, free, mobile apps is American Sign Language—but you can find excellent, free lessons on the website Lifeprint.com, also known as ASLU. Don’t be turned off by the old-school site design, and look for the video lessons numbered and linked in the top right corner of the homepage. If you’re willing to pay to learn ASL, we like Sign It ASL better. Sign It ASL is also free for families with deaf or hard of hearing children younger than 36 months who apply.
Best Overall: Duolingo and Memrise
Two apps took the Editors’ Choice in the category of best free language apps: Duolingo and Memrise.
Duolingo has been a fan favorite ever since it first debuted. It offers a full program of language-learning material in more than 35 languages. It’s sequential, meaning you work through the lessons in order. It has gamification elements and the ability to set goals for yourself to keep you motivated. For some languages, Duolingo also has excellent podcasts and interactive stories for learners at an intermediate level. A lot of the main content is crowd-sourced, meaning quality isn’t guaranteed to be perfect, especially among less popular languages, but Duolingo has strong communities who actively flag and correct material that’s poorly worded, debatable, or otherwise inaccurate. All the content on Duolingo is free, but you can upgrade to a paid plan for $12.99 per month or about $84 per year to remove ads from the mobile app and get a few other perks.
The other Editors’ Choice is Memrise. Memrise has two types of content: that which Memrise the company has uploaded and that which comes from its user community. The company provides courses in 14 languages, but there are more if you’re open to trying material from unknown sources. Be sure to use the search bar in Memrise to find the language you want! Not all the language options show up unless you look for them specifically. A good amount of the content is free, although Memrise does offer a paid tier of service ($8.99 per month, $45 per year, or $139.99 for a lifetime) that opens up more avenues for learning.
Best for Custom Study Sets: Quizlet
People often learn a language for a specific purpose, such as to work in a particular field or travel and live abroad. Depending on your purpose, you might want to focus on the vocabulary that will benefit you the most. Quizlet is the best app for this purpose.
Quizlet isn’t technically a language-learning app but rather a flashcard app. But because so many people use it to study languages, Quizlet has built-in support for multiple languages. You can create a deck of vocabulary words or phrases you want to learn, with translations in your native language, and then indicate in the app which language you’re learning. By indicating the language, Quizlet knows how to pronounce the words properly, letting you study both by eye and by ear.
In addition to making your own study decks, you can also search for decks made by other users or organizations that have been shared in the app. Many of them are free but some cost extra. Quizlet makes sure you don’t get bored while studying, too, by giving you games, quizzes, and other interactive tools that make use of your custom study sets. While all the core functionality of Quizlet is free, you can unlock AI features that make your study sessions smarter and other perks with a paid membership, starting at $35.88 per year.
Best for General Vocabulary: Busuu
For picking up everyday vocabulary in a way that’s not boring and will stick in your noggin, we like Busuu. This free app has a learning path that you can work through sequentially or skip around on if you already have experience with the language you’re learning. It has you read, listen, and speak common phrases, then work through a couple of exercises to repeat what you just learned.
While you get plenty of language learning content in the free version of Busuu, you can upgrade for $12.99 per month or $89.99 per year to get a study plan, AI features, access to all languages, and other perks.
Best for Drills: 50 Languages
Learning a new alphabet or new numbers takes repetition. The app 50 Languages is one of the best resources you’ll find for this kind of studying. Inside this app, you’ll find much more than numbers and letters, such as vocabulary sets about animals, sports, telling time, parts of the body, and so on.
The app has you learn through flashcards, quizzes, and other interactive exercises. You get written vocabulary, pictures, and audio files to help you learn. The 50 Languages app doesn’t have a set learning path that you follow or ways to keep track of words you know versus don’t know. Still, the accuracy is high, and the app is completely free. It is supported by ads, however, and you can pay to remove them for $2.99 in one language or $9.99 across all languages.
Best for Interactivity: HelloTalk
At some point while learning a language, you need to interact with real speakers. HelloTalk lets you do exactly that. It asks you which languages you’re learning and which ones you speak. Then it suggests other people using the app who might be good counterparts for chatting. You can also view a social media-style feed of other users who are sharing status updates, posting photos, and so forth. This way, you have several avenues to interact with real language. If you don’t feel comfortable chatting with anyone one-on-one, you can always read and explore the feed.
The app also has a vocabulary section where you can practice what you know with interactive exercises and games.
Best for Reading: Beelinguapp
Editor’s Note: While we’ve tested Beelinguapp in the past with success, the version available at the time of this writing was noticeably buggy as we re-reviewed it.
Beelinguapp is unique in that it focuses on longer-form reading. This is an aspect of language learning that’s often overlooked or omitted from free language apps. With Beelinguapp, you can filter what’s available in order to find texts that are the appropriate level for your skills and that are on a topic you actually enjoy, such as pop culture or science and technology. Beelinguapp incorporates listening skills, too, as every story comes with an audio file of the text being read by a native speaker. If you get stumped, you can always look at a translation of the material.
Beelinguapp is free, and if you love it and want more content, you can upgrade to an All-Access Premium account ($5.49 per month or $27.49 per year). You get more stories to read, audio files to accompany news articles, flashcards, illustrations, no ads, and other perks.
Build Your Own Language-Learning Kit for Free
When it comes to choosing software, you usually have to make a decision and pick the best one from a list of contenders. That’s not the case with language-learning apps. Instead of holding out for a silver bullet, you can compile a bunch of different apps that meet different learning needs. Build a toolkit of resources. Keep yourself engaged by switching apps when you get bored with one. Use different apps to strengthen different skills. Of course, it’s easy to do when the apps are all free.
If you’re looking for more ways to study online, you should also consider our roundups of the best sites for learning ASL (American Sign Language) and the best sites for online learning.