I’m crazy about language learning apps. While I wouldn’t forsake more traditional methods, software or audio courses, I’d be lost without mobile applications to supplement and support my learning strategy
However, rave reviews of language products from huge sites like Techcrunch, Forbes and Huffpost baffle me time and time again. I often read them and can’t help wondering if they’re really talking about the same products I am. Are they actually language learners or educators? Do they know anything about what makes a quality learning program?
My opinion is that many of them are inaccurate and misleading.
So in order to combat the forces of darkness I’ve compiled this snarky little list of some of the worst language learning apps out there, simply for your enjoyment, and so you can think twice about your options this year.
Some of you who have followed some of the higher-profile-than-me reviews will note that many of the apps that make this list are actually some of the same apps that make the “bests” lists.
Funny how that works.
I don’t like Busuu, I’m not even going to pretend neutrality. It took me about 5 minutes with their app to decide it wasn’t worth the time of day.
Voted one of the top apps by a number of sites this disaster of a system seems to be Rosetta Stone’s pale shadow. Matching pictures with words – much like a bazillion other terrible programs – is one of the least effective learning methods out there.
Busuu isn’t the most expensive thing you can find, but it’s expensive enough as to not be worth your time.
Admittedly the reason I’ve never written a full review of Busuu is because the demo is garbage and was enough to guarantee that I’d never be subscribing.
So maybe I’m wrong, but I’m also a narrow minded jerk who won’t be going back to find out.
What would an LATG bad app summary be without commentary on the king of terrible, massively overpriced language learning software?
Rosetta, no doubt the world’s favorite due to its bursting coffers and capability to produce TV advertisements, boasts a host of functionality that would be great if it actually worked.
You can read all about my professional experience with Rosetta Stone as an ESL administrator here, but since this is an app review I’ll focus briefly on that.
Briefly because there isn’t much to tell. Without a subscription you’re pretty much limited to the demo, which is free, and terrible. You would have to be more easily entertained than a kitten with a plastic bag to be engaged enough to actually base a $400 purchase on Rosetta’s demo.
And even if you are as wealthy as the Sultan of Brunei, you’re not going to learn much.
All I have to say is: run!
If you thought I was short with Busuu you’d be amazed at how quickly this app disappeared from my iPhone. It isn’t expensive, but $4.99 is more than I’d usually spend on an app. The demo, as pretty much always, blew my mind with its derptasticness.
MindSnacks apps come in a variety of flavors ranging from French to Portuguese to all the other ones you’ve come to expect. They’re designed for younger children and that’s great.
I don’t really know if this app is especially effective. It crashes almost every time I start it up.
From what I’ve seen of the game play it consists of matching words. There’s no speaking, writing or listening components. There’s no system of spaced repetition nor any form of mnemonic learning. If I wanted flashcards I’d use a free app with more than a handful of words to offer….
…Words that don’t really seem relevant to anything, include no essential vocabulary for beginning learners and never seem to be used in context with one another.
I’ve only used the French app – so maybe other languages are better, but I kind of doubt it and I kind of doubt I’ll bother finding out.
This is another real winner. More critical acclaim, more rave reviews, more shout-outs from The New York Times and BBC and everyone else etc etc.
And once again I wonder how much these critics are being paid by these companies because the alternative involves drugs.
If you’re looking for – yup you guessed it – another opportunity to match the picture to the word look no further. Babbel’s revolutionary picture-word matching system will absolutely not “put you into an immersion environment”. You will not “learn like a child” – because you can’t.
Babbel at least offers a listening component, which sets it apart from some of its competitors. It also starts you off at a level of your choosing, which wins it a few more points.
But my point remains that once you’re done with the 5 minute demo you’re stuck buying a subscription. Sure, the app is free, but the app does nothing without a sub, so be prepared to shell out money. It’s not excruciatingly expensive – around $13 per month, with some better deals if you buy your time in bulk, but as always there are better methods that cost nothing.
So why bother?
Learn Like Kids products
Learn Like Kids is a company that produces more smartphone apps than you can shake a stick at, all of which are clones of every other crappy app that matches words with pictures.
The names of the company “Learn Like Kids” and the apps themselves “[X Language] in a Month” should immediately cause your ships to hoist the red flag.
These apps pretty much fit the same bill as every other app on this list. You match words with pictures, you win points, and you can go through 3 “levels” before you’re expected to shell out the cash.
But back to the names. You can’t learn a language in a month. Benny Lewis can’t learn a language in a month. Military translators can’t learn a language in a month. Unless you’re C3P0 don’t try, it’s not worth it.
And Learn Like Kids? You can’t do that either. It’s all marketing, plain and simple. Comparing adult learning to that of children is stupid. You can’t do it. Your brain isn’t built for it anymore. That’s not to say children learn better – they don’t, it’s a very different way of learning – but regardless of who learns better or worse, you can’t learn the same.
Check out this great review from Erik Zidowecki from Parleremo for more specifics on this collection of apps.
Are you serious?! You can’t learn a language with a translator!
The undisputed champion of bad translation software now has it’s own shiny little app that you can easily use with your mobile device if you’re looking to create hilarious translation memes, because that’s just about all it’s good for..
You might as well buy a damn dictionary and read it cover to cover. You’ll probably learn more.
This is joke of a system and I cannot believe that anyone would include it in a list of top anythings; except of course my list, because this is a list of bad things.
Google Translate does work for one thing: transcribing words you already know the translations to into other writing systems. Don’t do this if you don’t already know the correct translation though because you never know when you’ll type in fish and get the Japanese word for tape worm.
While GT isn’t quite as terrible as it once was, if you’re looking for a translation app or website I’d recommend using specific dictionary translators such as Word Reference or Pons. Choose a dictionary/translator that specifically focuses on your language. It’s most likely to be higher quality.
Another titanic name in the world of language learning software Living Language is an absurdly overpriced downloadable program that at $40/month or $150/year for a subscription turns out to be one of the most expensive options available to language learners dying to be a little bit poorer this year.
Living Language’s “free” app is useless, as always, if you don’t pay for the “premium” upgrade. If you do have it it’s little more than a big deck of premade flashcards, which you could find anywhere, usually for free.
The demo consists of about 30 flashcards – all of which are so elementary you’ll have them memorized before you even see them. The more advanced content that you have to pay for doesn’t get any harder either.
I paid $9.99 for the full version and I genuinely think I have become less intelligent as a result.
Should have paid attention to the Apple Store’s reviews. 2.5 stars is pretty awful. When your 1 star ratings outnumber your 5 star ratings it’s time to give up and go home.
Again I ask: are other critics using the same things I’m using? Are they seeing the same results or lack thereof that I’m seeing? It certainly seems as though we’re on completely different wavelengths when it comes to what does and does not constitute a worthwhile language app.
Don’t get me wrong; just because a product costs money does not automatically make it bad. A lot of people put their blood, sweat and tears into creating these products and they deserve to be paid for their efforts.
The problem that I have is with the marketing tactics that have language learners like you convinced that these systems – which are all more or less the same – will somehow miraculously teach you a language faster, more efficiently, with better results or in the same way as a child.
If you’ve already purchased and use any of these apps, that’s fine. You should at least try to get your money’s worth. If it works out and helps you that’s fantastic. These apps clearly must do something or all the reviews would be negative and they clearly aren’t.
But when it comes to being a language learner there are so many better ways to do things that won’t kill your wallet and that will actually make a difference. And as a language company there are better ways to do things that don’t make you seem like a heartless money sink and a waste of time.
So, which other apps do you love or hate? Leave a comment!
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