These Apps, Podcasts Help You Learn New Languages
Or boost your ability to understand and be understood with a translation device
En español | With loads of time on your hands while you have to be at home, perhaps you've decided to work on yourself a bit.
You can get fit with online exercise classes and apps. You can write the great American novel, whose plot has been rolling around in your head for years. Or, in anticipation of when we can travel safely again, you can learn another language.
Fortunately, technology can teach you to speak in another tongue in several ways or simply translate on the spot when, say, you're in the back of an Uber in Italy. From apps and computer software that offer linguistic lessons to free podcasts to handheld devices to use instead of a smartphone, there are no shortage of options for those looking to expand their horizons.
Apps let you learn a little every day
Your smartphone can be an invaluable tool when learning a language. It's small enough to tote everywhere. It has a microphone to hear how well you're pronouncing words. And some apps are free; plus, several of them work on tablets and laptops.
• Duolingo. Parlez-vous français? Sprechen Sie Deutsch? ¿Hablas español?
Duolingo helps users of any age tackle multiple languages — French, German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese and Russian, among them.
With accessible, bite-size lessons, you'll start off matching words with pictures, hearing what they sound like and saying words into your device. Duolingo also rewards you with XP (experience) points and hearts, adding a fun and motivational gamelike element.
The optional but amusing mini games are a great way to test what you've learned. Available for free, Duolingo works with Android devices, iOS for Apple iPhones and iPads, plus Windows machines.
• Babbel. Also for a computer, phone or tablet, Babbel can help you speak a new language conversationally through its interactive courses.
After you choose one of 14 languages, decide whether you would like the basics or a focus on specific topics, such as business or travel. You'll converse with your virtual instructor using your voice in real time, to ensure you're getting it right and to build the confidence you need to speak with others.
Lessons typically are 10 to 15 minutes. Babbel's repetition-and-review method has been scientifically proved to help you remember what you've learned, with 92 percent of users improving their language proficiency in two months, the company says.
Babbel is free to try, but it's a subscription-based app that costs $12.95 a month for each language. The rate drops to $6.95 a month if you commit to 12 months.
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• Rosetta Stone. More than 25 years old, Rosetta Stone may be one of the oldest digital platforms for learning a language. Choose from one of two dozen languages — or opt for unlimited languages instead — and try out the software for free for three days, whether it's on an Android or Apple smartphone or tablet or a Mac or Windows computer.
You learn words, grammar and pronunciation nuances with an immersion-style approach, so you're not just translating a new language into your native tongue but also reasoning in it, the developers say.
Along with downloadable audio lessons, offline learning, stories and a phrasebook for travelers, Rosetta Stone is offering unlimited live group coaching with a human instructor for free until June 30, 2020.
After the trial period, Rosetta Stone prices start at $11.99 a month, with a three-month commitment for one language, or $7.99 a month for unlimited languages if purchased annually. A onetime lifetime subscription fee of $199 gives you access to unlimited languages.
• Google Translate. More of an instant translation tool than a language learning platform, the free Google Translate was updated and expanded recently to 103 languages for text translation.
If you want offline support that doesn't require a cellular data connection, 59 languages are available that you can download before traveling.
But Google Translate has other ways to translate one language into another. You can use the smartphone's microphone for speech translation. Speak English into your device and it will verbally tell a person something in the language you designate.
Plus it supports translation of handwriting, bilingual conversations, a quick-access phrasebook and even an augmented-reality feature. You can translate text in images instantly, in as many as 38 languages, by pointing your phone's camera at a sign, menu or photo.
Podcasts let you listen, multitask
Listening to podcasts has become a popular way to learn another language. They're free to subscribe to, and you can do other activities while listening, like strolling around the neighborhood.
Consider this the evolution of ordering cassette tapes to learn a language. When you subscribe, a new episode conveniently appears on your device, whenever it's available.
Search your favorite podcast platform — iTunes already loaded on Apple products; Google Play Music or Google Podcasts for Android devices; Pocket Casts for both platforms; or Overcast for Apple devices, among many — and include the language you want to learn, such as Spanish or Japanese.
Here are some well-reviewed general language-learning podcasts available today.
• Innovative Language Pod 101 focuses on conversational, everyday speech. It began in 2005 and is one of the oldest podcasts for learning a language, with lessons ranging from beginner to advanced in nearly 35 languages.
• News in Slow is available in French, German, Italian and Spanish (the dialects in Spain or Latin America). As the name suggests, it takes excerpts from news broadcasts in other languages and slows them down. It also has transcripts, so you can follow along.
• The Fluent Show Cohost Kerstin Cable has already created more than 100 episodes of this podcast, designed to get you excited about learning another language by sharing tips, stories, news and ideas to inspire you. A recent episode covered the best books about languages and linguistics.
* Coffee Break Languages is a popular podcast offered by Radio Lingua. As the name implies, it gives you bite-size lessons for French, German, Italian, Spanish and Chinese. It's limited to basic vocabulary and quick phrases, but more advanced lessons are available in French and Spanish.
These devices are devoted to translation
While many prefer to use their smartphone as a teaching tool — and a device that's super convenient to bring on a vacation to another country — other handheld language translation tools are an option.
They focus more on helping you speak another language when you need it, rather than as a teaching tool.
• Birgus Two Way Language Translator ($159) has high user ratings and claims to have a 98 percent accuracy rate when translating 70 languages.
The sensitive microphone picks up your conversation and will not only speak the translation to you and, say, a waitress in Seoul but also display the text on the high-definition touch screen. A caveat: You will need to connect this to a Wi-Fi network for it to work.
• Pocketalk Classic Language Translator Device ($199) is also a very portable instant voice translator with a touch screen, but it includes unlimited global cellular data in 133 countries for two years. The device can translate up to 74 languages and promises software updates to add new features.
• ili Translator ($199) may be a good option if you prefer a portable solution that doesn't require an internet connection. It is a small offline language translator programmed with the most popular travel words and phrases — in Japanese, Korean, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish.
But it is a one-way device, so it won't translate any of those languages into English. You'll have to ask yes-or-no questions or narrow things down with a series of queries to passersby.
Marc Saltzman has been a freelance technology journalist for 25 years. His podcast, Tech It Out, aims to break down geek speak into street speak. This story, originally published May 4, 2020, has been updated to reflect increased international coverage for Pocketalk.