Learn an­other lan­guage with these apps

Learn­ing a sec­ond lan­guage can be fun with an app that gam­i­fies the process, re­veals Séamus Bel­lamy

Macworld - - Contents -

Two months ago, I promised my­self that I would learn an­other lan­guage. So, I spent hours re­search­ing dif­fer­ent iOS apps, both free and paid, be­fore de­cid­ing on three to take for a spin: Duolingo, which is free to use, plus Babbel and Rosetta Stone, both of which come with a brief trial pe­riod, but re­quire a monthly sub­scrip­tion

there­after. I ded­i­cated my­self to us­ing each app for 20 min­utes a day, on my iPhone or iPad, for two months, with the in­ten­tion of un­cov­er­ing which one I liked the most… or at the very least, which one ticked me off the least.

Hon­ourable Men­tion: Babbel

Price: £7.99 for one-month sub­scrip­tion Ini­tially, Babbel (babbel.com/mo­bile) sounded great: a lan­guage-learn­ing app that teaches you be­tween 2,000 to 3,000 words for each lan­guage it of­fers, au­dio clips from na­tive lan­guage speak­ers, and a con­stantly evolv­ing data­base of words to re­view that grows as you progress through each stage. But the app has enough frus­trat­ing quirks that, af­ter two months of use, I can’t rec­om­mend it. Babbel doesn’t do any­thing ter­ri­bly wrong. Rather, its faults can be found in 1,000 lit­tle ir­ri­tants spread through­out the app.

In­stead of us­ing mis­sion-spe­cific il­lus­tra­tions or pho­tos that speak to the les­son be­ing taught like Duolingo or Rosetta Stone do, Babbel seems to rely on stock pho­tos that some­times, sort of, have some­thing to do with the word or phrase the app is try­ing to drive into your skull. One will be in black and white, the next in colour or even run through a fil­ter that smacks of In­sta­gram. It makes for a jar­ring vis­ual ex­pe­ri­ence. The dis­jointed feel of Babbel’s user in­ter­face car­ries on through­out the app. While each learn­ing mod­ule is in­tro­duced by a slick splash screen, the ed­u­ca­tional com­po­nents within lack the sort of de­sign qual­ity I would ex­pect from an app that de­mands a monthly sub­scrip­tion. To be blunt, Babbel feels un­pol­ished.

Be­yond this, I found that the Babbel was oc­ca­sion­ally slow to re­spond to my an­swers, no mat­ter the speed of my in­ter­net con­nec­tion – or the fact that les­son mod­ules need to be down­loaded to your i-OS de­vice. And frus­trat­ingly, au­dio would fre­quently cut out half way through a new word or phrase be­ing con­veyed to me. Worst of all, I found that phrases I in­ten­tion­ally fudged to test the app’s abil­ity to judge my ver­bal skills would be ac­cepted as cor­rectly pro­nounced.

If I wasn’t bound by the two-month test pe­riod I’d set for my­self to vet the app, I wouldn’t have con­tin­ued on with us­ing Babbel be­yond, maybe, a few weeks.

Run­ner-up: Duolingo

Price: Free (in-app pur­chases from £2.29) Duolingo’s (duolingo.com) great­est as­sets are its colour­ful de­sign, charm, and the gen­tle way that the app rein­tro­duces you to new words, phrases, and gram­mar that have caused you dif­fi­culty in past lessons. Un­like Babbel, it of­fers a con­sis­tent user in­ter­face that makes learn­ing mostly easy through­out the app’s var­i­ous mod­ules. A re­spectable va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent quizzes and learn­ing games proved ad­e­quate to keep me in­ter­ested and happy to open the app on a daily ba­sis. How­ever, over the course of my two months with Duolingo, I found that there was one thing about it that made me a lit­tle men­tal: its lack of in­struc­tions.

On more than one oc­ca­sion, I stum­bled across fea­tures that the app didn’t tell me about. For ex­am­ple, a few weeks into us­ing it, I was sur­prised to find that tap­ping a word in a sen­tence some­times pro­vided a drop-down menu with clues to its mean­ing. At other times a tap lets you hear what the word sounds like when spo­ken by a na­tive speaker. Hav­ing that pointed out to me early on, or hav­ing a sub­stan­tial vis­ual prompt to en­cour­age touch­ing the words I was work­ing with on my iPad’s dis­play could have made for a smoother learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

An­other ex­am­ple of the app’s lack of in­struc­tions came up when I was asked to speak a Span­ish word or phrase to vet my pro­nun­ci­a­tion. There was no prompt de­tail­ing how to start or stop record­ing. So, I had to fig­ure it out on my own, which took me a cou­ple of min­utes. Not cool.

It’s also worth men­tion­ing that, over­all, Duolingo lacks the depth of fea­tures that our first-place win­ner pro­vides. But hey, it’s a free app. When you weigh its non-ex­is­tent cost and the large amount of ed­u­ca­tional value it pro­vides against the few prob­lems I had with it, Duolingo is still pretty great. If you’re on a tight bud­get or only look­ing to pick up some new words or phrases be­fore a trip abroad, I rec­om­mend check­ing it out.

Win­ner: Rosetta Stone

Price: Free (in-app pur­chases from £99.99) With its ex­cel­lent user in­ter­face, clear in­struc­tions, wide va­ri­ety of games and chal­lenges, and the abil­ity to call upon a na­tive speaker for a lit­tle one-on-one tu­tor­ing if you get stuck dur­ing your

ed­u­ca­tion, Rosetta Stone has got it go­ing on. Sim­ply put, it has a fea­ture set that nei­ther Duolingo nor Babbel can match.

In a de­par­ture from what I ex­pe­ri­enced with Babbel, Rosetta Stone used pho­tos to teach a new word or phrase that are mis­sion-spe­cific and speak to the sit­u­a­tion at hand. Not hav­ing to strug­gle with a vague con­nec­tion be­tween a photo and the word as­so­ci­ated with it was like a breath of fresh air. That said, Rosetta Stone doesn’t al­ways make it easy. You might, for ex­am­ple, be asked where a woman in a photo is go­ing. The only way to fig­ure out the an­swer is to look at what she’s hold­ing or wear­ing. In this case, she was stand­ing in the street with a plane ticket in her hand. Boom: air­port. In an­other sce­nario, a lost trav­eller looks at a sign in a city with a puz­zled ex­pres­sion on her face. I had to guess

that she needed a map. By pro­vid­ing a con­text and then forc­ing me to fig­ure out a re­sponse, Rosetta Stone had me earn my ed­u­ca­tion, mak­ing it all the more re­ward­ing when I got a cor­rect an­swer.

I also liked that, with its ad­justable speechrecog­ni­tion en­gine, I was able to tweak the app to re­flect the level of pro­nun­ci­a­tion that my mouth was ca­pa­ble of ex­press­ing. Can’t roll an R to save your life? No prob­lem – Rosetta Stone will for­give your un­tal­ented tongue. This com­bi­na­tion of a well-thought-out UI, dif­fi­cult but sur­mount­able chal­lenges, and an un­der­stand­ing that not ev­ery­one will be able to blather away like a na­tive speaker of the lan­guage they’re learn­ing kept me com­ing back for more.

While its price is steep, if you want to learn a lan­guage, Rosetta Stone is worth your money.

Babbel’s con­fus­ing and dis­jointed vi­su­als make it a hard app to love

Duolingo cre­ates a friendly learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment, but can be short on in­struc­tions and vis­ual prompts

Rosetta Stone lets you scale its dif­fi­culty to match your ver­bal abil­i­ties

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