Learn a language before your next trip with these apps

Can learning a language with an app work as well as taking a class? Maybe or maybe not. But it can definitely get you on your way to international understanding.

Learn a language before your next trip with these apps Can learning a language with an app work as well as taking a class? Maybe or maybe not. But it can definitely get you on your way to international understanding.

Whether for business or fun, there's nothing like traveling the world and taking in new cultures. But it can be difficult if you don't know the local language. The good news is, learning a language is a lot easier than it used to be thanks to language learning apps. You can even get pretty good at speaking a new language, which will impress the people you meet. Research also suggests learning a language is good for your brain.

I recently went on a trip to Germany and France for vacation, and I studied German for about four months before I went. I should have studied more French, but we were in Strasbourg, France, a gorgeous tourist town, and the locals were friendly and helpful for the few days we were there. 

To be fair, I took German classes in college, but that was a very long time ago. Some of my language learning was review, but not enough that I could skip very far ahead. To bone up, I downloaded five language learning apps to determine which one would help me the most for this trip. I'll lay out the pros and cons of each and help you decide which you want to use before you travel. 

Learning a language on an app is not going to be as thorough as it would be in a class, where you're practicing with other people. I found that when I had to speak to someone in German, I was terrified to do so for fear of sounding like an idiot (unless I'd had a few beers). But for an inexpensive primer, apps can help you learn a lot more than you'd expect. I used a Samsung S8 phone to learn my language, but all of these apps also work on iOS. 

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The Rosetta Stone user interface is smooth and simple.

Rosetta Stone

Languages: More than 30
Cost: $79 for three months, up to $249 for a 24-month subscription. You can often find deals for cheaper subscriptions. 
Download: iOS, Android

Rosetta Stone used to be the only language learning app you could get, and it used to be extremely expensive. You had to buy the CD-ROM and pay for one level at a time. It's still the most expensive of the apps I tried, but with an online subscription and mobile app, the cost is much more reasonable than is used to be. 

Because it's the most expensive, it has the slickest user interface. The sound and pictures are much clearer than the other apps I tried, and it works well. I skipped ahead to a higher level because I'd already learned the basics of German. The grammar lessons didn't do a very good job of explaining why an answer was correct or not, which I've found to be the case in most language apps.

Rosetta Stone has also been used by the US military and the State Department to teach languages. 

SEE: Duolingo vs. Rosetta Stone: How to choose the best language-learning app (CNET) 

Memrise

Languages/lessons: Hundreds
Cost: $9 a month, or $59 a year.
Download: iOS, Android

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Memrise features Learn with Locals, so you can hear what the sentences sound like in real life. 

Image: Memrise

Memrise is the app I've used most, so I have a much clearer picture of how to use it. I started using Memrise about four months before my trip, practicing 10-30 minutes every night before bed. By the time I left, I was midway through level three, and I'd learned more German than ever before. 

The thing I like best about Memrise is the Learn with Locals feature. They used actors and, it seems, people on the street to say words and phrases. Sometimes the phrases are clear, and sometimes people mumble or speak too fast. It's frustrating, but it's the most like real life. You can also create "Mems," which are notes to help you remember a word your own way. 

Memrise teaches you slang words and phrases, including salty language, which is refreshing. It makes you feel like you could really speak like a local. 

Interestingly, Memrise even has courses on programming languages, such as Python and JavaScript, as well as art, literature, and philosophy. 

The downside is the lack of grammar explanation--the "why" is never really clear. I also don't like that I can't go back to levels one and two to check a word or review a section I feel needs another look. 

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Busuu uses true-or-false questions to test your memory.

Busuu 

Languages: 12
Cost: Free. Premium is $5.83 a month, and Premium Plus is $6.66 a month.
Download: iOS, Android

Busuu is definitely the most affordable of the apps I tried, and its approach is unique in that it uses true or false, matching, fill-in-the-blank, and context questions to quiz the user on language. 

What I like best about Busuu (besides the cost) is that it explains the grammar better than any of the other apps. Another unique benefit is that you can ask for help from native speakers and language learners around the world, or help them with their language questions. You can also add friends to keep up the conversation as you get better at your new language.

Busuu claims that 22 hours of Busuu Premium is the equivalent of one college semester of a language. I'm sure my college German professors would not agree, but it's still way cheaper than that college semester.

The Premium Plus membership offers personalized study plans and all 12 language options. 

SEE: Best apps to learn how to speak Chinese in 2019 (Download.com)

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Duolingo uses fun images to help you learn vocabulary.

Image: Duolingo

Duolingo 

Languages: 91
Cost: Free, but Premium is $9.99 a month
Download: iOS, Android

Duolingo is probably the most popular of the language learning apps, and it's free. Like other language apps, it treats the lessons like a game, with words, pictures, and quizzes. It teaches you the words and phrases you might use on your travels, as well as unique sentences, which can help you remember what you learned. 

Duolingo Plus allows you to download lessons, offers an unlimited number of tries to test out of lessons, and provides an ad-free experience. 

The downside is that I found this app to be buggy. When I first downloaded it, I couldn't get it to work at all, and I had to contact the company about the issue. They got it working within a day, but I found forums where other users complained of the same issue

Duolingo has a free sister app called TinyCards, which is just a simple flashcard app. It has language cards, as well as cards to teach maps, flags, bones of the human skeleton, the Periodic Table of Elements, historical figures, and more. 

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Babbel does a good job of explaining pronunciation. 

Image: Babbel

Babbel 

Languages: 15
Cost: $6.96 to $12.95 per month, per language.
Download: iOS, Android

Babbel's interface is nicer than the lower-priced apps, and it uses good-looking stock photos to help you remember the words. A benefit of Babbel is it explains pronunciation, such as that the Z sound in German sounds like "ts," whereas an S sometimes sounds more like an English Z; the other language apps let you hear the pronunciation, but they don't offer such explanation. It also has mini-grammar lessons, which I appreciate.

A frustrating issue with Babbel is the use of homonyms. For example, the word "sie" in German means two different things--it means she and you, depending on capitalization and context. But when you hear it outside of a sentence, you have a 50/50 chance of guessing right, which can be frustrating. I'm sure other languages have similar homonyms, causing learner frustration.

Keep learning languages

Whatever method you use to learn a language, I hope that you'll at least try to learn a few words wherever you go--it makes your hosts happy to see that you've tried. And you'll always be able to find the bathroom. 

Also see

A tourist on the train uses a mobile phone.

Image: franz12, Getty Images/iStockphoto