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Apps and other tools that make studying a new language easy and fun

translation, business, and technology concept - male translator or businessman with laptop computer thinking at office over greeting words in different foreign languages Photo illustration by lev dolgachov/stock.adobe.com

More than a decade ago, I got hooked on the movies of South Korean filmmaker Hong Sang-soo—so much so that, after a few months of scanning subtitles, I decided to learn Korean.

But when I first looked for a class to take, I couldn’t find one. Not long after I began studying the language using any dated textbook or patchy website I could find, I discovered a podcast called Talk to Me in Korean, which provided just the lessons and encouragement I needed. Since then, all kinds of digital media, including smartphone and desktop apps, have made it downright easy to study even obscure languages anytime, anywhere.

While the pandemic has affected our ability to travel to countless countries, there’s never been a better time to learn a language so that when you can travel, you can hit the ground … chatting. Check out these apps and other tools that make studying a new language easy and fun.

Face-time conversation

There’s no substitute for learning to speak with a native speaker, and it’s easy to do online.

Italki connects learners with online native-speaking conversation partners or professional teachers in more than 130 languages. Teachers set their own schedules and rates, generally charging about $20 or less per hour, and instruction is mostly conducted over video chat.

Livelingua makes arranging tutoring over online video effortless: Simply provide information about your experience with the language you want to learn (of the 11 mostly European and Asian ones currently supported), and you’ll be matched with a teacher. After the first free lesson, hourly prices vary from $16 to $29, depending on the language.

YouTube and podcasts

Many language instructors have created lessons—indeed, entire courses—that are available for free as videos and podcasts. To find them, search for the name of the language you want to learn with terms such as “lessons” or “course” on streaming-video sites such as YouTube or podcast apps like Stitcher or Apple Podcasts. Duolingo, for one, produces podcasts in French and Spanish that mix a variety of stories with context provided in English to aid your comprehension.

Smartphone apps

Duolingo offers courses in 36 languages, as of this writing, from Spanish and French to Indonesian and Swahili, with addictive challenges that improve your skills through a range of questions. Free with ads, or $12.99 per month for a fuller-featured, ad-free service.

The app from venerable language-course publisher Pimsleur has interactive lessons based on practical phrases, vocabulary, and grammar used in everyday conversations in 51 languages. Subscriptions are $19.95 per month, though sample lessons are free to try.

Babbel offers free introductory lessons, with advanced lessons available with a subscription ($13.95/month). Though it does incorporate speech-recognition features to test your pronunciation, Babbel leans heavily on grammar and writing exercises that feel less game-like than those on Duolingo.

Memrise, which uses flash card–based learning to help build vocabulary, comes in a free version as well as a paid one ($9/month) that incorporates pronunciation tests and video of native speakers.

From streaming to speaking

Countless people around the world have learned English by watching American TV shows. Try the same in reverse. Language Learning With Netflix, a free plug-in for Google’s Chrome web browser, augments Netflix’s increasingly international selection of movies and TV shows with features like simultaneous subtitles in multiple languages and a pop-up dictionary.

Based in Seoul, South Korea, Colin Marshall writes about cities and culture while continuing to improve his Korean by watching Hong Sang-soo films—and movies from other Korean auteurs—sans subtitles.

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