Top Apps to Learn Languages


As a diplomat one of the most useful and requested skills is that of mastering foreign languages. Citizens representing their country in international contexts must navigate important diplomatic affairs with cultural awareness, especially when interacting with people speaking a different idiom. Knowing a foreign language helps to not only facilitate the communication between speakers, but also better understand different cultures and people. As said by British Foreign Secretary William Hague, during his speech in September 2013 after the reopening of the Foreign Office Language School: “The ability to speak, read, listen and write in a foreign language is one of the fundamental skills of our diplomats. Without it they cannot get under the skin of a country and really understand its people.” This is the reason why foreign language learning is a vital part of different national diplomatic training programs, like the US School of Language Studies that operated within the Foreign Service, have extensively and continuously invested in this direction. 

In recent years, the development of technology for educational purposes has transformed the way in which people learn. Diplomats should also consider these new forms of training. This is particularly true for languages, a field in which the expansion and offer of websites and apps has provided a vast choice to everyone who has access to the internet. This is the reason why more and more countries, pioneered by the Canadian Foreign Service Institute, have started to promote self-learning language courses through the use of means of information technology for their diplomats. 

Below is a detailed list of some of the most useful e-learning resources available to help you improve your language abilities. We have tested out various platforms that offer very diverse services and learning methodologies to suit all individuals.


1. Coursera, edX and FutureLearn

Coursera, edX and FutureLearn are platforms that host Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) offered by various universities and other organisations from around the globe. All courses are free of charge and specifically designed for distance learning. You may wish to upgrade to a paid premium version to gain unlimited time access to a course and obtain a certificate of achievement, provided that you have previously verified your ID and passed all the graded assignments.

The courses are of a very high standard. Once you enrol, you have a series of learning materials that ranges from plain texts to book excerpts and video lectures. You can also interact with other course participants through the different dedicated forums, which gives you the feeling of being part of a real class.

Users can find classes that range from Chinese for beginners[5] and introduction to Korean[6] to intermediate French[7] and advanced Italian[8], although the variety of different language courses are somewhat limited. More advanced learners have the possibility to tackle more specific vocabulary related to the field of diplomacy and international relations and can expand their skills by joining courses such as Géopolitique de l’Europe[9] in French or Geopolítica y gobernanza global: riesgos y oportunidades[10] in Spanish, to name a few.

Available: website, iOS App, Android App


2. italki

Italki can be described as a video chatting language-teaching marketplace with the appearance of a social network. It has an impressive listing of language tutors and teachers from around the world with a mix of free and paid services. You can connect with other users who may just want to engage in a free of charge video language exchange or in a paid premium tutoring with a language professional. This depends on your budget, schedule and what works best for you. One of the best features of italki is that teachers can personally customise your lessons each time, depending on your needs and interests.

So, whether you are learning a language for personal interest or for professional needs, italki is a useful tool in helping you become fluent in your language of interest.

Available: website, iOS App, Android App


3. Duolingo

Duolingo is one of the most popular platforms available and focuses on making language learning intuitive. The best way to use this service is through its app version. This method of learning is based on exercises and lessons of short duration and uses text, pictures and audio to help you learn languages in an easy way. Every section you complete moves you forward to more difficult tasks, so that you can build on your vocabulary and sentence structure step by step. You can set daily goals to stay motivated and advance by making progress in the language you want to learn, but if you want to save and track all the progress you are making, you have to register and create an account. You can use it either if you are just a beginner and want to learn the basics of a language or if you are a more advanced learner and looking for some more complex skills. Duolingo offers a wide variety of languages you can choose from and most of its features are free of charge, since it is a freemium platform.

Available: website, iOS App, Android App


4. Live Lingua

Live Lingua hosts one of the largest collections of free language learning materials, and offers a huge variety of free, high quality courses alongside premium paid one-on-one Skype live tutoring classes. It was originally founded by a former American Peace Corps volunteer with the mission of making language learning accessible to everybody, even to those who can’t afford paid language lessons. The self-paced learning materials come mainly from the American Foreign Service Institute, the Defense Language Institute and the Peace Corps and were specifically developed and designed to train US diplomats and other federal government officials.

Courses include e-books accompanied by audio and video resources of more than one hundred different languages. They could be considered somewhat outdated, but nevertheless are still of great quality. The learning methodology present in the free materials is a classical and more traditional way of studying and is ideal for those who prefer to start learning the basics of a language on their own. The e-books offer learners some insights about the history of a language and the countries where it is spoken. The premium one-on-one live Skype tutorials allow you to attend classes with professional native language teachers and adapt lessons on your specific needs. Prices depend on the number of lessons one wants to attend and if you wish, you can even arrange a free trial lesson of sixty minutes.

Available: website


5. busuu

Busuu is a mix between a social network and an online learning community with millions of international native speakers of different languages. It was originally designed to integrate the communicative elements of social networking into self-study language learning. There are more than twelve different language courses offered, which are divided into five different levels that range from beginner to advanced. Users can choose one or more of the idioms offered and work through the self-paced lessons, which contain exercises of vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation and interactive quizzes. Learners can also engage via chat in conversational practice with native speakers, acting both as student and tutor.

There are two membership options: ordinary free of charge and premium paying. Grammar content, spoken and written conversations and other minor features are available only to premium members. This platform even offers the possibility of obtaining an official McGraw-Hill certificate of achievement once you complete a level and pass a test.

Available: website, iOS App, Android App


6. Babbel

Babbel is one of the most popular platforms for learning a foreign language. It is well structured and divided into various sections, depending on the level of knowledge you might have. Exercises are very diverse and include writing, oral comprehension, pronunciation and grammar lessons. Thanks to the vast teaching material available, users can practice a language in full flexibility, adapting the lessons to their level of knowledge and time.

Unfortunately, since Babbel is a premium e-learning platform, only the first lesson is free of charge. If you wish to use the service and learn one of the fourteen different language courses it offers, you must subscribe to a monthly or annual plan, which gives you access to a community that can make your learning journey a little more social.

Available: website, iOS App, Android App


7. LingQ

LingQ is an online learning community that gives its members access to thousands of resources and a diversity of tools to learn languages online. It has an immense database of lessons, which will allow you to improve your reading, writing, listening, speaking and vocabulary building skills. Courses are available in 25 different languages and range from beginner to advanced level.

With a premium monthly or yearly subscription paid plan, users have access to extra vocabulary features, one-on-one and group video tutoring conversations, writing corrections and a huge variety of other extra learning activities and quizzes.

Available: through web browsers, iOS App, Android App


8. BBC Languages

The British public service broadcaster provides users a special section dedicated to language learning through various free online tools. Texts, videos and interactive exercises are all of excellent quality and can help you learn basic grammar and vocabulary of 40 different languages. Comprehensibly, much of the study material is linked to the world of television and news, although specifically written and designed for those who want to learn a new idiom.

The method of study is traditional and not very interactive. Lessons focus mostly on grammar and vocabulary. BBC Languages is a good option for beginners who might prefer to start learning the writing rules and build some vocabulary first rather than improving conversational skills.

NOTE: The website has been archived and is therefore no longer updated.

Available: website


9. Google Translate

Google Translate is not designed to teach you a language through exercises or progressive steps, but to simply translate and tell you how to write and spell words or sentences in different languages. It can help you translate text, handwriting, and even your voice in more than 100 languages supported, allowing you to even save your favourite translations, so you can refer to them quickly.

It may not be like other language learning platforms, but it can certainly be helpful if you need to translate or learn a specific word or sentence in a foreign idiom. You can even use the app version when you do not have an internet connection, but you will need to have downloaded the language packs in advance.

Another feature, available for a restricted number of languages, is the possibility of using your smart device to translate any text you point your camera at in real time. At first sight Google Translate looks minimalist as a plain and simple translator, but imagine you are an advanced speaker and need only to learn specific words such as how to say “treaty” in Italian. Google Translate results can be very helpful in this sense and every feature available is completely free of charge.

Available: website, iOS App, Android App


10. Forums and communities: WordReference and Unilang

Although WordReference is perhaps best known for being one of the most famous online dictionary-translation platforms, it is also home to a vast learning community with dedicated forums in different languages. The topics discussed in the forums cover different areas: basic translation, vocabulary, meaning, usage, sentence structure, pronunciation, tenses, parts of speech and grammar.

Another useful community you can join is UniLang, which has a very simple interface and includes very basic functions such as discussion forums and a series of resources generated by the community like courses, vocabulary lists and phrasebooks. The aim of this community is to create collaboration between users, so that they can mutually help each other in improving their language skills.

WordReference can be used through its website and iOS or Android app, while Unilang is available only through its website. All services provided by both platforms are completely free of charge and there is no cost of any kind.

Available: website, iOS App, Android App


11. Tandem

Tandem is said to be the social network for language learners. If you want to improve your language skills and make new friends, this is the right platform. Its main purpose is to give native speakers of different languages the possibility of interacting with one another to become more fluent.

Once you register, the first step is to enter the languages you can offer and those you are looking for. After registering, you can browse the profiles of different users and look for a potential teaching and learning partner and arrange a meeting. You can also take a backseat and wait for private messages that notifies you of a possible match based on your learning goals. In this way a tandem pair will be formed: two people who meet to learn and practice each other’s language. The main goal is to improve your speaking abilities, although you can potentially work with your partner on other single linguistic aspect.

By helping each other improve a language, users create a sort of cultural exchange while chatting through vocal and video means of communication. The platform is free of charge, but you can upgrade to a paid version with a monthly or yearly plan and have access to some extra features like unlimited translations.

Available: website, iOS App, Android App