Language Learning On The Go: How To Find A Great Language App

When was the last time you picked up your phone? Oh, you’re looking at it right now? And you want to learn a language?

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Game on! It’s time to talk about effective apps. When you don’t have a lot of time and want to fit in some language study on the go, there are hundreds of language learning apps that can help you succeed.

But how do you know you’re spending your time well? Is your app effective for teaching you another language?

This article idea was supported by the team at Drops, a gorgeous vocab training app that I love. So I decided to use their app as the example of great ways that app design can help you learn a language.

Here are 5 ways to find the best apps for YOUR language learning routine, using Drops as an example.

1. There Is a Clear Purpose

Some apps are designed to help you learn and memorise new vocabulary, others train your pronunciation, some aim to be full courses, yet others are games or dictionaries. It’s important to understand what each app is trying to do so that you get the right mix.

In my Language Habit Toolkit, you’ll learn that there are three types of key language learning resources:

  1. Guiding Resources, which help you through grammar and communication goals in a language (like courses)
  2. Input Resources, which help you experience the language in context and practice understanding it (like videos and stories)
  3. Reference Resources, which help you look up information as you need it (like a dictionary)

Now when you look at language apps, you will be able to slot most of them into one of those categories. One of my current favourites is Drops, a beautiful app designed around learning new words of vocabulary.

Drops is a guiding resource, focused on words only. It teaches you a curated list of words (around 2300 per language) through playful actions, but it doesn’t include speaking practice or grammar.

For me, that’s no dealbreaker. As I’ve mentioned before on the blog, I love it when an app focuses on doing one thing and doing it well.

2. The Language App Works For Your Language Goals

language app

The most effective way to learn languages with apps is to break down the different parts of a language course. Think back to your school life or any teacher led class. What are the different things you do and learn? Once you have a list of the elements that you are looking for, you can make sure your group of language apps covers you for each of them.

Then, divide your study goals into listening, speaking, reading and writing and make sure you cover each.

For example, here are a few different things you’ll do in a good language class, and the different apps that can help you with each:

  1. Learn new words (for example Drops)
  2. Practice speaking a language (for example Tandem)
  3. Listen to another language (for exampleSpeechling)
  4. Help you read and write the language (for example Clozemaster)
  5. Schedule and track your study sessions (for example Streaks)

You can add many more ideas to this list, for example keeping up to date with news in another country or preparing for an exam.

Learn more about language apps and the ones the Fluent Show hosts use on our podcast and list about apps.

3. The App Teaches You The Right Language

There is more than way to answer this question!

Of course, the app should offer the language you’re learning. Some are common like French and Chinese, others a little bit rare like Welsh and Hawaiian. (Drops offers 3 out of the 4!)

Different themes to choose in Drops app

Different themes to choose in Drops app

Secondly, it should cover what you want to talk about. Most language courses are developed with an eye on their market, for example travellers or people who need the language for travel.

The key is to talk about what you find interesting, instead of suffering through vocabulary about politics just because your textbook says that this is what you “should do”.

Drops offers in a cool twist on the “language tree” system of other apps. In this app, you get to choose what matters. For example travellers can start by learning helpful vocabulary for their travels first, business students get to grips with the Business & Tech words, while romantics may want to start learning how to talk about relationships.

4. The App Maximises Your Language Study Time

Time and habits are closely related. When you’re thinking of learning a new language, one of the first questions in your mind will be: When am I supposed to do fit this in?

The trick for many learners is to stop thinking of language study as these super-sessions that last 3 hours, and instead to study little and often. This is certainly how I’ve been studying languages myself, and I can now have conversations in several languages that I studied for a few minutes on most days.

So with any language learning app, the question is: What can you do in the app, given the time that you have? The good ones will know that you are not here to study for many hours, and they’ll maximise your results for this short time.

Timing Your App Usage

That ticking clock knows no excuses!

That ticking clock knows no excuses!

For those of us who are pressed for time and easily distracted, Drops has introduced a simple and effective tool: the countdown! Learners who start out on Drops will only have 5 minutes of app time available to them. That’s right, after 5 minutes the app will lock and you’ll have to wait.

You can gain extra seconds by keeping up a streak and checking in regularly. But the app will still help you to stop learning and keep up a habit of small steps, rather than a huge study session that you won’t want to repeat.

When you see that countdown ticking as you study languages, it does something magical: you’ll stick with this app. Most of the time, our phone usage is bitty as heck. Using a smartphone is frantic and distracting, and that’s not a great way to study. But the timer in the Drops app acts like a gentle reminder: Stick with this, you’ve decided to do it and it’s only 5 minutes.

I’ve no doubt that other education apps are going to introduce this super cool countdown feature as well, because it’s perfect for busy smartphone users.

5. The Language App is Fun

If you get frustrated or bored using any language learning app, I’d say delete it. There is a huge market out there with well-designed apps, and the phone is not the place to start trying to practice tenacity when something isn’t fun.

Ask yourself these questions to be sure that the app will work correctly:

Is it fast?

The app should load quickly and minimise the time you have to spend typing on the world’s smallest keyboard. Save your thumbs! For me, this is the area where Drops was most surprising. There is no typing at all.

Drops is the most considerate app for phone users I’ve seen so far.

Is it pretty?

I’m not talking about pink unicorns. If the app interface doesn’t make you want to look at it, you are less likely to use it. Choose an app that makes you think “experience”, not “homework”.

Does it work well on your phone/tablet/watch?

If the app you’re using hasn’t been tested well enough, it may come up with a number of bugs. Screens getting stuck, freezing, shutting down, or a failure to save your hard-earned progress will warrant an email to the developer, but they’re not a reason to stick with this version.

6. You’re Still Learning With The App

Download a bunch of language learning apps, and then track yourself as you go ahead and use them. You’ll find that a few apps are always “top of mind” and just keep you coming back, while others don’t seem to get any screen time.

It’s okay to say “this one just isn’t right for me”. With the range of apps that we have available now, my advice is to cut out the apps that sit on your phone and don’t get used. The key is to know where your focus is, and that should be where you have fun as well.

As a final tip, consider putting some money on the line for a subscription to an app that you enjoy and use the most. Paying for something can help a user feel more satisfied and more effective using it, and supporting good developers can only work in our favour as language learners. After all, “free” doesn’t always mean the same thing as “good”. In no language.

_By the way…_Drops has a free version and a paying subscription, here is a link for 40% off if you decide to go for it.

What Is Your Most Effective Language App?

If you haven’t given the Drops app a go yet, I can definitely recommend it! I’ve been using this app for weeks now for my Chinese practice, and found that I’m remembering new words well and feeling confident about the “Kangxi Radicals” it’s teaching me.

I’d love to hear from you. Do you download lots of apps and test drive them all? Or are you a one-app one-time kind of learner? Leave me a comment below to join the conversation.