How to Build Your Mobile Language Learning Toolkit

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Even in a digital era in which more people check Facebook and surf the Web with their tablets and smart phones than they do their computers, not everyone is yet sold on mobile language learning.

Some cite past experiences using language applications as “less authentic” or somehow inferior to more conventional methods. Still others are stubborn holdouts refusing to cave to the conformity of society’s obsession with modern technology.

To show you that you can do almost all of the same things with your mobile device that you can via more traditional methods – and often for less – I’ve created this basic toolkit of the most essential apps for learning foreign languages that no learner’s phone or tablet should go without.

1) eReaders

No mobile language toolkit would be complete without some form of eReader app. By far the most popular, versatile and my strongest recommendation out of the larger name eReaders is Kindle.

  

The Kindle or Nook apps are all available free on any mobile device; iOS, Android, or Nokia as well as your computer. There’s no need to purchase a full fledged Kindle tablet when you can turn any device you already own into a Kindle for free with equal functionality.

Kindle offers over a million titles including a decent selection of foreign language books and magazines as well as a number of linguistics or other textbooks. It even has a large number of free books, both foreign and otherwise.

eBooks will save you a lot of cash if you’re a student faced with the annual money sink of college textbooks. You could save hundreds of dollars and much of the hassle of dragging around so many heavy books.

Having an eReader on your mobile device is an essential practice for any serious language learner. Not only can you access your books anywhere you go as well as sync your reading progress across devices; you can also bookmark and highlight passages or words, look them up online instantly or even via Wikipedia.

If you don’t yet have a Kindle account you should go here now and create one, then download the app to your device or desktop. It’s super fast, costs nothing and even if you don’t own a mobile device you can use it on your computer.

You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

2) Memrise

The current king of free online language learning websites (in my opinion); Memrise is of course available in mobile format and I wouldn’t dream of not using it on any and all language learning projects.

With user created courses in a selection of over 500 languages from around the world you can’t afford not to be using this app on your devices.

Memrise uses an extremely effective system of mnemonic learning that pairs the vocabulary you’re studying with an image, or mem of your choice that helps you remember words or phrases via association.

Memrise is of course free, but a premium upgrade is available for about $15 per month. While the premium feature offers no additional content, thus those who choose not to upgrade do not suffer from a reduced experience, it does offer high quality analytics to help show you how your studying is going, where you could use improvement and allows you to create experiments to optimize your study regimen.


Unfortunately the premium features are not currently available on the mobile versions – though I do expect that will change in the future. But that’s not really a problem either. Should you opt into purchasing a premium membership you can always use your devices’s browser to access the full Memrise site.

In any case, Memrise is an invaluable study tool for anyone looking for a great supplemental, secondary language resource. You can read more about primary vs secondary tools here.

3) Audible

Audible is Amazon’s audiobook program and offers over 40,000 audio books at extremely low prices including a very large number of foreign language titles.

Audible is downloadable as a mobile app, again for any device, and costs nothing to get started with.

Audible is currently offering a 30 day free trial that comes with two free audiobooks of your choice. Unfortunately after your free trial a subscription costs $15 per month but you can always cancel your account after your free trial if you do not wish to pay for it. Cancelling is easy.

I would recommend this as a cost effective study aid for those learning any of the languages offered. If you’ve ever purchased an audiobook in a bookstore such as Barnes & Noble you may have noticed that most of them cost more than $15.

If you sign up for the trial via this link I get a $5 commission, even if you don’t continue paying after the 30 days. So not only are you taking advantage of a really awesome deal, you’re helping to keep LATG up and running and I will love you forever.

Foreign language audiobooks are available in French, Spanish, German, Portuguese, Russian and Italian.

Go here to check out the free trial and get started!

4) Evernote

Evernote is one of my favorite organizational apps available on all devices, including computers. This free app allows you a wide range of note-taking functionality that ranges from simple check lists to video or photo notes and memos.

Better yet, you can sync Evernote across all devices and computers, at work or at home, via the free cloud service that comes with your account. This way even if your device contracts a virus, falls off your desk and smashes to pieces or is eaten by a giant, fire breathing narwhal you can still access all of your stuff on your replacement or other devices.

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Not only can you sync across devices, but you can also share your notes or memos with other people via your Google contacts. So if you’re working with a language tutor and want to send a quick recording of you for advice on pronunciation, but can’t get immediate screen time with them via Skype you can do so.

I enjoy using it as a grocery list. I simply make a list of everything I need to buy written in Russian or French or Spanish (the alphabets and keyboards for which your smartphone can also provide you) then track it down. It makes an otherwise mundane task a little bit less boring.

You can check out a much more detailed article about Evernote and its application to language learners at this link.

5) Lingua.ly

Lingua.ly is a really fun little mobile and desktop browser app that allows you to highlight, translate and save any words you come across in the languages you’re studying online. It gives you various translations including a list of synonyms, then stores these words in your cloud – again accessible across both your mobile devices and your desktop or laptop where it functions as a Google Chrome web extension.

You can pull up these words and study them like flashcards during coffee breaks, while waiting for the bus or sitting in your car in the parking lot waiting for someone to finish shopping.

But better yet Lingua.ly uses the difficulty of the words you’ve collected to assess your proficiency and will locate news articles from around the web written in your target language of an appropriate level for you.

Lingua.ly allows you to translate and store flashcards of words you see in any language. News article support is currently available for English, Spanish, French, Arabic, Hebrew, Russian, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese and German, though support for more are always being added.

You can download the app for free at the Apple or Google Play stores or check it out on Google Chrome right here. You can also check out my complete review of Lingua.ly by clicking this link.

6. Google Hangouts or Skype

No language learning project is complete without real speaking experience with real people, native or otherwise. It should go without saying by now that you need real, immediate feedback from a real, live human being in order to ever really reach fluency.

This is, after all, the essence of language, right?

A number of websites and apps exist that can help facilitate language exchanges or help you locate personal tutors, you can read about finding a language partner here,

Once you’ve located someone willing to work with you it’s time to start talking! The two most common ways to communicate with real people are Google Hangouts and Skype, both of which have their own apps available on any device.

Simply make an account, exchange info, and start using your phone to call your language partner(s) anywhere in the world for free.

In addition both apps have a chat feature for sending text, coordinating study sessions or simply socializing if it’s not a good time or place for speaking.

7. Dictionary app

The most basic of all language learning accessories; the dictionary is useful no matter what your proficiency level. No matter who you are you’re going to discover new words in your linguistic journey to fluency, and probably even after you’re speaking the language like a pro.

 

I still encounter English words I’ve never seen before – not surprising as English can now claim over 1 million words making it the most likely candidate for the prize of language with the largest lexicon.

There exists an incalculable number of dictionaries for virtually every major world language as well as a growing number of indigenous language dictionary apps – an increasingly popular tool for endangered language documentation and revitalization efforts.

Some of these apps are great and others are, well, not so great. It’d take forever for me to fully explore and divulge to you the various dictionary apps available, so I’d suggest searching the app stores for your languages and experimenting with a selection until you find something that works for you.

As an additional highlight – many of them come with pronunciation guides and audio clips.

A dictionary app is a must have, and isn’t especially hard to find. Make sure your toolkit has one!

8. An audio player and YouTube

Most devices I know of come with some sort of audio player already built in, so acquiring this isn’t usually a problem. However it is still worth mentioning because not everyone realizes how many functions many audio players have.

Did you know that the iOS operating system now supports the Podcasts app that can automatically provide you with the latest installments of your favorite multilingual podcasts? You can have many of them sent straight to your mobile device.

You can convert MP3 files such as The Pimsleur Approach and play them directly off of your phone, rather than buying the (more expensive) CDs.

And of course procuring new music via a built in app on your phone is a lot easier and a lot more streamlined than a lot of alternatives. Your music and other files are stored to a cloud meaning that if your device is lost or destroyed you can easily find your audio content and get back to learning.

You should also be sure to procure the YouTube application. You can find thousands upon thousands of language learning videos, foreign language songs and even some short films or shows.

9. A flashcard app


Don’t forget to find yourself a basic flashcard app. The most popular flashcard app out there right now seems to be Anki, a system that allows you to create highly customizeable ‘decks’ of cards specifically designed by you to cover the material you want to cover instead of the material some program thinks you should know.

While both Lingua.ly and Memrise are similar; Lingua.ly actually offering its own personalized flashcard system I would still recommend Anki as a more dedicated study method.

Flashcard apps are convenient, simple to use and can be pulled out anywhere at almost any time for a super fast study session. They’re a great way to keep your mind on your language project and to reinforce the vocabulary you’ve been working on.

Conclusion

Is a mobile device essential to learning a new language? Absolutely not. Traditional methods still work just fine and should also be taken full advantage of where available. Smartphones and tablets are expensive – but in many cases less so than a computer and can their amazing functionality can make them an equally effective and still less costly option than formal language lessons or expensive software subscriptions.

You really can more or less access everything you need to learn a language using nothing more than your smartphone. It still requires a lot of dedication, hard work, and you’ll probably want to invest in a car charger, but if you’re a language fanatic and glued to your phone like so many others, you’d be foolish not to take advantage of mobile learning as a serious supplemental tool, or even primary method of language learning.

There are many more applications that would make fantastic additions to this list. Which apps would you add to your language learning toolkit? Leave a comment with your favorites!

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  • ¡Hola! This list is very complete.

    I’ve been ignoring Memrise, but you have convinced me to give it a try.

    I would add the built in camera and a voice recording app (there are several for free). I use the camera in my iPad mini to take pictures of Japanese signs I can’t read and try to read them later with help of a dictionary or a native speaker. I don’t use the voice recording app as much, but it wouldn’t be the first time if I asked a native speaker to let me record a sentence to learn pronunciation or intonation.

  • Hi Jorge,

    I agree about the camera and voice recording apps. I took for granted that most phones come with them now – but regardless they’re a tool that should be pointed out. They are also essential to the functionality of some of these other apps, such as Skype.

    Memrise is fantastic, but it does have its limits. It’s really just a vocab builder. Since the content is user created it isn’t always especially well refined, but most of the bigger languages have hundreds if not thousands of courses. Finding the higher quality ones is easy.

  • Cathy Wilson

    To add to #6…if you’re looking for a language partner, check out http://WeSpeke.com, a free social network for language learning. Lots of practice partners from across the globe.

  • Hi Brian,

    Thank you for this extra information about Memrise. I’ll try to look for the higher quality ones then.

  • Hi Olly,
    it won’t surprise you – I’ve most apps on my tablet and on my smartphone.
    I love Evernote, not only for learning but for organizing practically my whole life, and I love Memrise.
    I never go out without my tablet or iPod – the Audible and the Kindle-app included.
    Another good idea especially for language learners is iTunes (probably there are other choices, too) – there you can, as you know, very interesting podcasts in different languages and even whole language courses!
    Keep in mind that you can also download transcripts for many podcasts, so you can listen and read at the same time (which is useful for beginners and intermediate students).
    For flashcards I don’t use Anki but Babbel – for me it works perfectly! Of course that’s only my personal opinion…
    Christine