Conversation piece: A range of language apps on the market cater to a variety of needs — from learning basic phrases to managing entire conversations. Picture: ISTOCK
Conversation piece: A range of language apps on the market cater to a variety of needs — from learning basic phrases to managing entire conversations. Picture: ISTOCK

If you’re not careful about your pronunciation, it’s pretty easy to tell someone in France that you’re pregnant instead of saying you’re full. In Israel, you might ask someone to buy their daughter instead of buying a slice of bread. Saying you’re cold in German? It sounds a lot like saying you’re dead.

Living like a local is all the rage for travellers, but speaking the local language is not always easy. However, there are a number of mobile apps that tackle this problem.

For people with short attention spans, Drops is the best app. With no reading and typing required, it promises to teach 19 languages spanning from French and Spanish to Korean and Arabic.

The lessons walk users through 120 word buckets covering food, drinks, numbers and hotel terms. And instead of showing flash cards with cheesy stock photos, the app features clean illustrations, all in white, set against solid-coloured backdrops.

Whether matching pictures to their translations, unscrambling letters to practise spelling or swiping across a grid of letters to unearth the word that matches the picture, the exercises feel like quick games rather than worksheets.

Drops places a heavy emphasis on building vocabulary through nouns, which means it doesn’t provide much in the way of grammar, usage and conjugations.

You won’t be quizzed on speaking or pronunciation, either. And though you can buy unlimited time for as little as $48 a year, five-minute blocks mean you learn at a relatively slow pace.

To sound like a local, Busuu is the best app. It offers the language-learning equivalent of pen pals — if you’re studying French, you can have your speaking exercises evaluated by Busuu students in France, as long as you return the favour and grade someone else’s homework in your native tongue. With 70-million users around the world, it’s not a stretch to find a study partner you’ll love.

Most of the app’s best features, including unlimited exchanges with foreign students, are behind a paywall. But the plans are highly affordable: one month costs $8 and a year goes for $45, less than a dollar a week.

For a long-term commitment, Duolingo is the best bet. While all these apps are free to download, Duolingo is the only one without a premium subscription model, which means you can learn 23 languages at your own pace.

It’s also comprehensive in its teaching style: you learn vocabulary, grammar and usage simultaneously, with illustrated flashcards and fill-in-the-blank exercises that really make you think.

A new feature are chat bots, which stretch your skills. They might walk you through a conversation with a chef who’s deciding what to eat, or a model who needs help choosing an outfit. If learning to speak is your priority, you’ll find the spelling exercises tedious. They’re especially frustrating with romance languages that require lots of accent marks. Pronunciation exercises are also too forgiving — you can be marked correct even if you botch your answers.

For a quick fix, Memrise is the solution. Beneath a kitschy narrative concept about unlocking the outer cosmos, Memrise shows a real concern for fun and practicality.

A highly customisable format lets you decide how many words you can absorb in a single lesson and positive reinforcement abounds; as you progress in your learning, you earn points for correct answers, graduate through a silly rank system, collect badges and watch your skills grow from seedlings to flowers.

The app offers little opportunity to practise your pronunciation and it nags you to upgrade to the "pro" version, which includes "speed review" games and extended lessons — at a cost of $60 a year.

The closest thing to a classroom education is Mondly. It’s not beautifully designed or gamified, but what Mondly lacks in charm, it makes up for in comprehensiveness.

Basic lessons walk you through the nuts and bolts of conversational language. They get progressively difficult and more involved, spending roughly two hours of instruction on each of 20 topics.

As in school, you get as much out of Mondly as you’re willing to put into it: new words come with conjugation charts you can study and daily lessons cover bonus materials and unlock weekly quizzes.

Like some other apps, Mondly keeps the majority of its lessons behind a paywall. Plans start from $3.99 a month. While its uninspired interface can sometimes feel like a chore, with 32 languages to choose among — including such hard-to-find options as Persian and Afrikaans — it may be worth it.


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