So You Want to Learn a Language?


There are thousands of pictures clogging social media, featuring brightly-filtered landscapes, superimposed with stylized quotes proclaiming that you, too, can do anything, if you devote just fifteen minutes a day to it. While you wouldn’t admit it to the hyper-motivated people that spend significantly more than ten minutes a day posting these, this is kind of true. At the very least, you can learn a language in fifteen minutes a day, and you can even do it for free.

The first step is choosing a language course to learn general vocabulary from.

There are a lot of apps that advertise themselves as the key to unlocking your inner polyglot. Many, like Busuu and Babbel, give a tiny taste of their services before beginning the slow process of extorting money from you via repetitious paywalls. For access to anything more than the equivalent of your dusty high school Spanish flashcards, Busuu charges $10 a month. Babbel, essentially Rosetta Stone Lite, demands up to $13 a month for these services. Most of these apps have picture-word matching systems intended to help you “learn like a child” and create an “immersion environment.” There are two key problems with this approach: one, an immersion environment requires full sentences at the minimum; and, two, you are no longer a child, and you can’t learn like one.

Duolingo logo featuring a green cartoon owl and the text "duolingo"
© Duolingo

In contrast with these is Duolingo, a language-learning tool that has written lessons, dictation exercises, and listening challenges, as well as chat bots designed to teach you additional “conversational” vocabulary. It has an attractive user interface and motivates your interaction with the app daily through a unique combination of gamification, goal-setting, and the ability to earn bonus content (ever wanted to learn Spanish pick-up lines?). Duolingo teaches you a large portion of your chosen language’s vocabulary and grammar, all without the dreaded conjugation tables.

Three sprites: an egg, a half-hatched cartoon owl, a cartoon owl; once in gray, once in color (white egg, green owl). The owl is the Duolingo owl.
©2016 Duolingo

Duolingo offers twenty-two courses in English, ranging from Spanish to Swahili. It doesn’t just cater to English speakers though – Duolingo offers additional courses to native speakers of nine other languages, including Spanish, Chinese, and Russian. As a bonus, it allows the Duolingo community to create language courses in the Language Incubator. The Incubator aims to bolster the courses for more popular languages like Russian, as well as acting to preserve some of the “dying” languages, like Latin, Mayan, and Basque, and greatly expands the number of languages you can learn through the app.

No matter how wonderful Duolingo is, however, it only gives you the basic structure. No one can reach full fluency without talking to other people. To round out your toolkit, here are a few apps that will help:

Tandem logo featuring two chat bubbles and the word "tandem"
© Tandem

Tandem connects users with language partners over text, audio recordings, audio calls, and video calls. It is a community-based app that links you with exchange partners for any of the nine languages offered, allowing you to converse with a real person, without ever leaving the comfort of your couch. One of the main draws for this app is that it is human moderated; to join, you have to pass a moderator check, and user ratings play a key role in the algorithm to find new partners. This eliminates the trolls and abuse that so many other forums and chat apps are plagued with, creating a positive environment for serious language learners.

HelloTalk logo featuring chat bubble composed of smaller chat bubbles and the word "HelloTalk"
© HelloTalk, Inc.

HelloTalk allows you to chat with a native speaker, but it has a much smaller emphasis on speaking out loud. If the idea of trying to verbally communicate with a stranger in a new language is holding you back, this app is the app for you. Very similar to WhatsApp’s interface, HelloTalk allows you to text native speakers via the app with no awkward third-party app requirements. This app also has an audio element, but it’s not as integral to the experience as it is in Tandem. HelloTalk also has an option to meet up with local language speakers, but, as there’s no way to leave reviews for people, exercise some caution when using this tool.

HelloTalk is free, but it has some additional services, such as instant translation, that you can get with subscription. Unlike many other tools, these are truly just perks, rather than essential services, and both you and your wallet can survive without them.

HiNative logo featuring an orange Q supported by a cartoon squirrel
© Lang-8 Inc.

HiNative is a Q&A platform that allows you to ask native speakers language and cultural questions. HiNative has a very simple user-interface, and while it’s not going to do anything on its own to help you learn a language, it can offer much-needed clarification to the online language learner. It has four main question categories:

  • “How do you say this?” If you can’t figure out the right words or grammar to phrase something, or if you just have no idea how to convey a sentiment, posting your question in this category will help you get the answer.
  • “Does this sound natural?” If you have the sneaking suspicion that you sound like Google Translate, someone can help you re-write your phrase properly or reassure you that, no, you don’t sound like an out-of-touch robot.
  • “What’s the difference?” Many languages have very minute differences between words (lie vs. lay, anyone?), and this category helps you sort them out.
  • “Free question.” This category is pretty open-ended, and can help you answer pretty much any language or cultural question.

Now that you have this collection of tools, all you need to do is pick what language you want to speak, and begin your evolution towards polyglottery.

So you want to learn a language? Done.

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A human "busy" status, the list of degrees that I am attempting to get is longer than The Life of Pablo's feature list. I am a third year student at Kennesaw State University, double majoring in Computer Science and Computational & Applied Mathematics, with a minor in Software Engineering. My true loves are back-end programming, encryption, and every known animal on the planet Earth. I have been the Tech Editor for the The Peak since February 2017; as such, I'm the one you can send glowing e-mails and writing inquiries pertaining to the Tech section.