Learning another language has never been easier.
As an American, one of the most depressing moments of 2020 was finding out that our passports went from one of the strongest in the world to the weakest, with barely more than a handful of countries letting U.S. citizens through their borders.
The shock to my system was immediate, with all the stages of grief rushing through me at once. Denial hit like a wave as COVID cases started delaying overseas flights I had already booked. Anger washed over me when mass gatherings continued with no social distancing and little mask usage, and flights went from delayed to canceled. Bargaining had me trying to convince as many people as possible that this could be over sooner rather than later, and if we just listened to Dr. Anthony Fauci, those flights would come back. Depression kicked in hard when no one listened to Fauci. And finally, acceptance. Acceptance that we were going to be stuck in America for a very long time as spikes ravaged the states and a second (and sometimes third) wave took over the rest of the planet.
OK, that was a depressing paragraph (Stage 4), but there’s a lot you can do to satiate your travel bug while being stuck at home for the foreseeable future. First, you can travel virtually to hundreds of locations around the world and get free access to museums, archaeological sites, and more. Second, you can buy every Fodor’s guidebook and begin planning your next excursion (please buy guidebooks). Or, third, you can do what I did, and attempt to live in a foreign country vicariously by learning a language through travel apps.
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There’s literally never been a better time to do this for many of you. For millions of people, your commute is gone, your job might be diminished, and you may never have more free hours on hand in your life. Sure, you could binge every show on Netflix or Hulu or Disney+, or you can take a half-hour out of your day to travel to a foreign land through language. Picking up some language skills will not only inspire future travel, it’ll give you the confidence to make new friends (virtually), meet new people (virtually), watch new shows and movies (without subtitles), and so much more.
Below is a list of some great language apps that will not only help you get lost in another country, they’ll inspire you to plan your next trip once this pandemic officially ends. So, stop wasting time and obsessing over the news, and start being proactive by learning a new language to replace your short-term travel hiatus.
The gold standard among language apps, Rosetta Stone is named after a large, engraved stone that has Egyptian hieroglyphics, Demotic script, and Greek script, and its discovery is largely the reason we can now decipher hieroglyphics. The app takes the spirit of the stone and transports its users to both ancient and modern lands with its unique language lessons. Rosetta Stone teaches entirely in the language you’re learning without translations and uses pictures to force your brain to decipher the meaning for yourself. Paying for the app also gives users access to live lessons with real coaches, videos on demand of past lessons, as well as live group, and one-on-one tutoring. Rosetta Stone also formulates your lessons based on Travel, Work, Family, or just Basics & Beyond. Pricing plans vary from $12 a month for a single language to a $199 one-time fee for access to everything.
Babbel is one of the more popular apps and is designed to immerse you like a local with lessons for long-term retention. Every lesson builds on itself using real Italian (for instance) voices through pictures, conversations, and even a podcast. Lessons are in small doses—15 minutes or so—which makes it easy to start a habit and begin thinking about the cobblestoned streets of Rome or the stunning cherry blossoms of Tokyo. The app runs about $6.95 a month for 12 months but also has a 20-day, money-back guarantee so you can test it out for free.
One of the great attributes of Memrise is that you learn from videos of native language speakers within their home countries. This means you can vicariously befriend locals while they teach you valuable lessons like how to buy stuff, how to flirt, and which way it is to the bathroom. Some of the really cool features include a video feed that’s like a TikTok for language learning in addition to an Explore mode where you can point your camera at any object and it immediately translates the word into the language you’re learning. Memrise prices are $7.50 a month for an annual subscription or a lifetime price of $140.
If you want to fly to a foreign destination through games, this is the app for you. Duolingo has gamified the language learning process with in-app competitions, badges, rewards, and more. Learning as a game is one of the quickest ways to immerse yourself in a far-off land, and the best part is that it’s free. The app uses machine learning algorithms to push you in the right learning direction and they also offer in-person events (sans pandemic), interactive stories, and podcasts. There’s also a premium version for around $10 a month that eliminates all ads and can work offline.
This fun app really leans into technology as it boasts augmented and virtual reality features where you can have computer-simulated conversations with an avatar right in your own house (or in various locations like restaurants, in taxis, and more). Additionally, the app has a chatbox where you can converse with a computer-generated bot through artificial intelligence and speech recognition. If you really want to leave your life for a while, put on your headphones and lock into actual conversations to get lost in another country. Mondly has some free options, but the premium membership, which includes all the advanced features, is only $4 a month for 12 months.
What makes Busuu special, especially for those looking to leave their homes through language apps, is that there’s a social media aspect to the program. Within the Busuu world, you can be both a mentor and a mentee as you help people around the world with your native language while others help you with the language you’re trying to learn. You record your own pronunciations and locals critique you and give you insights into speaking more fluently. Additionally, you can book live tutoring sessions, set daily goals, and record all your pronunciations to measure progress. Busuu has a premium package for around $7 a month which gives you access to all the special social features.
If you’re a visual learner, Drops is a great tool for mastering vocabulary in short bursts. The free version gives you five focused minutes a day with a variety of pictures and puzzles to help you master specific words in various categories and make you dream of street signs in other countries. They claim if you can learn 500 words you can comprehend 70% of a language. The premium version gives you unlimited time to learn and costs $5 a month for a yearly subscription or a lifetime membership for $150.