How to Choose the Best Language Learning Course for You
Here at ReDefiners, we have a mission: to promote social change through language learning and create access to learning, giving adults and children a competitive advantage in an increasingly interconnected world.
However, we know that we are not the only platform out there. In this age of technology, there exist language learning applications for everyone. Take Duolingo, one of the biggest language learning apps on the market, or Memrise, a flashcard-based app featuring videos of native speakers and a plethora of user-made vocabulary decks. The more didactic Babbel boasts a dynamic approach based on your viewing language and specific interests, while Rosetta Stone remains a comprehensive but expensive option for self-motivated learners. Varsity Tutors, known mostly as a tutoring middleman, also offers live language classes like the ones here at ReDefiners.
These apps cater to different language learning needs and offer vastly distinct experiences to their users. Let’s find out together which might be the best language learning course for you.
Created by the genius behind reCAPTCHA, Duolingo gamifies language, making it accessible for even the most casual learners. Sleek and bright in design, the app is known for its peppy, persistent owl avatar, which pops up during lessons to encourage learners and hounds them afterward to get back to learning.
Duolingo has had a strong user base since its inception, and for good reason. Much like its predecessor, reCAPTCHA, Duolingo has its roots in crowd-sourcing and the democratization of learning through technology. Before it began generating revenue through ads, it monetized users’ contributed translations of content from businesses or other paying clients. These days, Duolingo is considered by most to be the largest language-learning app in the world, with a robust community of learners, educators, and developers.
When you start a language on Duolingo, you either choose to begin from scratch or test into a later lesson. You cannot skip ahead, and going back usually entails redoing a lesson or set of lessons. You might be able to consult the occasional grammar lesson, maybe a handy conjugation chart, but for the most part, Duolingo sticks to its “leveling up” model. If you manage to make it a habit, this isn’t a bad way to learn a language.
Lessons are short and arranged by topic or grammatical structure, featuring activities like matching audio to text, phrase ordering, multiple choice translation, and speaking practice with verification by voice recognition software. The game penalizes incorrect answers with the loss of a life, or a "heart,” which users can purchase from the in-app store when they run out. Users are rewarded with lingots and badges for completing lessons, maintaining streaks, and reaching other milestones; they can then trade in lingots for upgrades, special features, or even outfits for Duo the owl. Taken together, these game-like features, along with the app’s modern design, keep users entertained and engaged.
However, there are a few drawbacks to the app. Audio is generated from TTS (text-to-speech) technology, which pales in comparison to the crisp native speaker audio offered by other apps. You might need a separate flashcard program like Quizlet or Anki for review purposes, as Duolingo does not have a built-in review function. In addition, grammar lessons are shallow and sparse, and the restriction on lesson-hopping means that users lack the flexibility to personalize their language-learning path.
The best part of Duolingo and the reason for its universal draw is that it’s completely, 100% free. The mobile and web apps sync automatically, and there is even a Duolingo for Schools option for tracking students. The paid subscription upgrade, Duolingo Plus, offers an ad-free experience, offline downloads, and better tracking metrics for—as of March 2021—$6.99 per month.
Who is it For?
If you’re a beginner learner, especially for a lesser-taught language like Hawaiian or Welsh, and especially if cost is an issue, then Duolingo is an excellent choice. Later lessons are in-depth enough for even intermediate learners.
If you want more flexibility in your lesson planning, more explicit grammar instruction, better listening practice, or more options for reviewing difficult vocabulary and grammar, then another platform might be the way to go. Duolingo Plus is not worth the cost of subscription. If you love the gamified interface and are willing to pay to get rid of ads, consider spending your money on a different subscription service for beginner-intermediate learners. For instance, platforms like Mondly or Drops have options for lifetime access and more language offerings than Duolingo.
Memrise is another noteworthy platform, often cited alongside Duolingo as one of the largest language-learning apps in the world. At its core, it is a flashcard-based application, and thus has a strong focus on vocabulary and review. The app welcomes user-created content, so apart from the twenty-odd languages created by Memrise itself, there are a multitude of lesser-spoken language courses available. Memrise also offers courses on other topics like history and standardized tests.
Courses in Memrise are essentially collections of flashcard decks, each of which comprises a lesson. Lessons are standard for many such language-learning apps; these include activities like matching audio to text, fill-in-the-blank, and translation. Learners can look ahead in a course and pick and choose lessons as they please.
One standout feature of the official Memrise courses is their incorporation of videos of native speakers. These videos allow learners to benefit from hearing clear native speaker pronunciation and intonation and seeing the way native speaker mouths move. (Believe it or not, we sometimes use our eyes to help hear; see this Live Science article on the McGurk effect.)
Furthermore, because of its nature as a flashcard application, Memrise is excellent for learning and reviewing content. The app keeps track of new and old words and phrases and how well they’ve been learned, employing spaced repetition techniques to boost learners’ recall. While going through lessons, users can choose which words and phrases to ignore and which to review again. For difficult items, they can create “mems,” mnemonic devices of images or text or both, or choose a mem created by another user; in future repetitions, mems show up alongside possible answer choices. As noted earlier, users can also create their own courses, meaning that you can make flashcard decks to review a specific topic.
Unfortunately, while excellent for its native speaker audio and mnemonic tricks, Memrise lacks other features that make for a rounded-out language course. Grammar is not a focus of the app, and the quality of many non-official courses varies widely.
Like Duolingo, Memrise is entirely free. As of March 2021, the Memrise Pro upgrade comes out at $8.99 per month, $7.50 per month ($90.00) for an annual plan, or $139.99 for lifetime access. The upgrade includes chat bots and grammar bots for more practice and linguistic insight, better metrics and statistics for tracking progress, and access to more exercises.
Who is it For?
Because Memrise is essentially a flashcard program, it is useful for learners of all levels. If you are a beginner, you will benefit from seeing and hearing native speakers; if you are more advanced, you can create personalized decks for review. If you want a taste of a lesser-taught language like Dzongkha or Kaonde, Memrise has options for you; if you are looking for a virtual language learning community, Memrise has a worldwide network.
But there is a limit to how much flashcards can teach. Grammar instruction is weak, and there is little opportunity to practice your language production and pronunciation in a dynamic setting. Like Duolingo Plus, Memrise Pro is not worth the cost of subscription. If you want a more fully realized language course, you might consider one of the following options.
“Founded in 2007, Babbel is the world’s first language learning app.” So says the About Us page of this well-rounded, well-regarded application. Based in Germany, Babbel currently offers a little over ten languages for English-speaking users, including Indonesian, Brazilian Portuguese, Turkish, and a host of European languages. The quality and size of courses differ, with more popular languages like German and Spanish offering more content. Babbel prides itself in its scientific approach to language learning; the company employs over a hundred linguists and language experts from all over the world to help build its curriculum.
Babbel combines and elevates many of the better aspects of the more lightweight Duolingo and Memrise, making it a strong program for more serious language learners. These include speech recognition software, high-quality native speaker audio, and a review manager with spaced repetition.
Lessons are short. They include activities for listening comprehension and speaking practice, fill-in-the-blank, dictation, and word ordering, and integration of real-life dialogue to give users a sense of context. Pop-up grammar notes precede explicit grammar instruction.
Users can download lessons offline, jump around between lessons, and review vocabulary in the built-in review manager.
Babbel is a subscription service. As of March 2021, prices are $13.95 per month for a monthly subscription, $9.95 per month ($29.85) for a three-month subscription, $8.45 per month ($50.70) for a six-month subscription, and $6.95 per month ($83.40) for an annual subscription. Users subscribe for access to one language; additional languages require additional subscriptions.
Who is it For?
Babbel is one of the best language-learning apps available. Its courses are carefully designed and provide all the best features that modern tech can offer. If you find apps like Duolingo and Memrise to be too shallow, and you still want a mobile app option, Babbel could be the answer. If the price point is an issue, Mango Languages offers comparably comprehensive lessons in more languages for a lower monthly cost.
And if you do not like a grammar-explicit approach but still want something more heavy-duty than Duolingo or Memrise, Rosetta Stone might work for you.
Founded in 1992, this venerable software-turned-app is named after the Rosetta Stone tablet, whose parallel translations of hieroglyphic, demotic, and Greek were crucial for deciphering hieroglyphs. Before the discovery of the Stone, hieroglyphics had been viewed as crude pictographs. The careful analyses of English physicist Thomas Young and then French scholar Jean-François Champollion revealed the systematic way that hieroglyphs represented both meaning and pronunciation, forming a logographic script.
In the beginning, Rosetta Stone referred to the language learning software itself; it wasn’t until 2006 that the company took on the name of its product. Once notorious for its prohibitively high prices, the company has recently upped its tech-savviness and switched to a subscription model. It is currently housed with the Cambium Learning Group but is in the process of being sold to IXL Learning.
Rosetta Stone currently offers a decent selection of languages, including Tagalog, Hindi, Irish, and Turkish. Another aspect of Rosetta Stone is its Endangered Language Program, which partners with indigenous groups to help preserve and revitalize languages through Rosetta Stone courses.
Rosetta Stone prides itself in its “learn like a baby” approach to language learning. Grammar and vocabulary are not taught explicitly but learned through exposure to audio and pictures. There are opportunities for pronunciation practice, with the proprietary TruAccentTM speech recognition technology, fill-in-the-blank writing practice, and the usual gamut of multiple choice activities. Content focuses mainly on formal registers.
With the transition to a web application, Rosetta Stone added a few new features, like the Seek & Speak object recognition technology, phrasebooks containing useful phrases, embedded translations, longer-form texts for extra reading practice, and optional live tutoring. Unfortunately, an Internet connection is required for lessons and activities, and the company’s beginnings as software still show in the interface, which is clunky and out-of-date.
As of March 2021, subscriptions for one language cost $11.99 per month ($35.97) for a three-month plan or $179.00 for an annual plan; a lifetime purchase of $199.00 gets access to all languages, and a Lifetime Plus option of $299.00 also includes twelve months of live coaching.
Who is it For?
The “learn like a baby” method is not for everyone; vocabulary that adults can learn quickly through translation might take a while to get through with Rosetta Stone’s repetitive catalog of pictures and paired audio. Nevertheless, if you like this approach to language learning and might consider utilizing Rosetta Stone’s newer features, or if Babbel does not offer the language you want to learn, Rosetta Stone might be the application for you. You can always test the waters with a three-day free trial; moreover, the lifetime plan with access to all languages is a decent deal.
While you may know it as that tutoring website, Varsity Tutors also offers language lessons, taught mainly by tutors who pass quizzes to indicate linguistic proficiency.
Varsity Tutors classes come in different levels aimed at different age ranges, and the stated class size of 6-9 students is likely dependent on enrollment. Classes meet anywhere from one to three times a week and last an hour or an hour and a half.
Since the instructors are Varsity Tutor independent contractors, quality of instruction can vary widely between classes.
Varsity Tutors’ small group classes of 6-9 students are priced by the class; prices range from $10 to $25. At the low end, for a course that meets once a week, this might come to $40 per month. At the higher end, a $21 class that meets three times a week would cost $252 per month.
The site also offers an option for a $19 per month subscription to VT+, which gets you access to larger classes of 25-30 students on a wide array of topics, including but not limited to language learning.
Who is it For?
If you want an immersive virtual classroom setting and are interested in other topics aside from language learning, a Varsity Tutors Plus subscription may be worth the cost. If your focus is on language learning only, ReDefiners offers lower price points, with income-based pricing for those who need extra assistance.
ReDefiners World Languages
ReDefiners World Languages is a non-profit organization that offers live lessons taught by qualified language teachers, with access to practice activities outside of class. Founded in 2015 and based in Tampa, Florida, ReDefiners aims to provide language learning opportunities and cultural enrichment to people of all backgrounds and ages. We offer online and in-person language classes in English, Chinese, Spanish, and Arabic. We also offer conversation groups, literacy courses, summer programs, and annual events like our Black Heritage Expo, Summer Camp Expo, and Multicultural Festival.
ReDefiners classes are live lessons taught by accredited native speakers. They meet twice a week for hour-long sessions and are divided by level—Novice, Intermediate, and Advanced—and age, since adult beginners have different needs than their children counterparts. Students can track their progress, complete practice activities, view lesson slides, make payments, and access other account information in our dedicated portal.
For many of the applications included in this article, your viewing language is important, with many languages only available for English-language displays. However, our teachers maintain an immersive environment, even for complete beginners, and adapt to student needs. They emphasize the development of real communication skills rather than memorization of grammar or vocabulary, presenting meaningful language that applies to the online classroom and real life. Progressive lessons build proficiency and incorporate key skills for promoting global citizenship.
Our courses are also priced by class, with larger packages coming at a lower per-class price. A 24-class course at $12.00 per class costs $96.00 per month ($288.00) for three months, a 48-class course at $10.00 per class costs $80.00 per month ($480.00) for six months, and a 72-class course at $7.00 per class costs $56.00 per month ($504.00) for nine months. More information on pricing and plans can be found here.
ReDefiners is committed to providing quality language education to all, so income-based pricing is available for those who need extra assistance.
Who is it For?
If you prefer your language learning to come in bite-sized chunks, consider Duolingo, Memrise, Babbel, or any of their competitors.
However, if you are looking for an immersive language learning experience with adaptive instruction and a sense of purpose, ReDefiners World Languages is the place for you. By integrating opportunities to experience relevant cultures, we have built a lively community of enthusiastic learners.
There has never been a better time to start learning a new language. You can start learning English, Chinese, Spanish, or Arabic with ReDefiners World Languages today. ReDefiners offers virtual and in-person courses for all ages. Sign up at www.redefinerswl.org or visit our website to find more information.