Which are the best apps for learning English? In fact, can you even learn English via a mobile phone?
Our team of language learners and educators have spent the best part of two months testing the most popular apps for learning English. The vast majority are available for both Android and iPhone/iPad operating systems.
As we’ll explain below, there are some great apps out there. However, there are also a lot of pretty average, if well meaning, attempts.
And then there are the apps which are so poorly designed and conceived, that they should be removed immediately from Google Play or the iPhone App store and their developers sent to a Soviet-era Gulag or North Korean detention centre (whichever is worst). We’ve included these under-performing apps in this review so that you don’t waste your time and money on them.
The best apps for learning English, 2016
Now, before you get too excited, no one is going to go from zero to fluent in English just by using a mobile app. However, that doesn’t mean that an app can’t give us a helping hand.
We’ve reviewed all the most popular apps so that you don’t have to!
As an English teacher, one of the most important pieces of advice that I give to students is to try to do something (anything!) in English every single day. The more time students dedicate to the English language, the more quickly they’ll learn. Obviously it’s not always possible to squeeze in an extra class or even find time to watch a movie or read a book in English; and that’s where mobile apps come in. They can convert ‘dead’ time into useful learning time. So whether it’s waiting for buses, attending granny’s eightieth birthday party, or even just sitting on the toilet (Come on, who hasn’t used their mobile on the bog?!), students can now whip out their phones and study a little bit of English. Anytime, anywhere.
The Big Three
When it comes to language apps in general there are a ‘big three’ which stand out above the rest. These are the three most popular, and most professional, apps on the market, and we recommend that you check them out.
The best app for beginners. Easy and fun to use. And it’s free!
Duolingo is probably the best all-round app for learning English that we have reviewed in our tests. While many apps attempt to ‘gamify‘ the learning experience with interactive exercises, Duolingo is really the only one that actually manages to achieve this successfully. The app features a variety of different question formats including fill-in-the-gap, rearranging words, and writing and speaking exercises. You lose lives when you make mistakes and you win ‘lingots’ (whatever they are) for completing sections and lessons.
Vocabulary is taught using picture slideshows. This is the default technique for virtually all the apps for learning English which we’ve reviewed. It might not be the most rivetting experience, but until something better comes a long, we’ll just have to get used to it. In any event, Duolingo really blends the ‘teaching’ part well with the interactive tests. So you never get overly bored, and you learn as you practice.
From an academic viewpoint, a lot of thought seems to have gone into the app. Exercises are intelligently structured so that each question builds on the other, and users end up understanding both grammar and vocabulary concepts without explicit and boring explanations. Technologically the app just works, usability is great, navigation is simple and for the user the whole experience is enjoyable.
And the best thing about Duolingo? It’s free!
A competent app from one of the most popular Language-learning platforms.
More than just an app, Babbel is a digital learning platform which started off as purely web-based and has gradually improved its offering on mobile devices.
Along with Busuu, which we’ll deal with below, Babbel is one of the heavyweights in the language learning sector, and the app reflects this. It’s professional, looks good, and is easy to navigate. As befits a company headquartered in Germany, the exercises are serious and useful, although perhaps not as entertaining as those of Duolingo. Our tester loved the fact that you are allowed to go back and correct any mistakes you make in the exercises. Ah, Laura, if only life were like that!
Babbel synchronises with both Facebook and Twitter and also allows interaction between members of the Babbel ‘community’. In fact, this social side has been one of the big aspects that Babbel has really strived to develop over the years and is what differentiates the web platform from many other players. However, we’re not really sure that these social media functions work as well on the mobile app. Despite that reservation, the Babbel app is definitely one of our top three apps for learning English.
Babbel is free to download. However, there are fees for anything but the most basic content.
Cost: Subscription from €5.66 / month.
One of the most popular apps on the market, with web integration, and a community of language learners to assist.
Busuu has a very similar strategy to Babbel. Both are web platforms which have put a lot of effort into developing the ‘community‘ side of their services and have subsequently been trying to replicate their computer-based content on the mobile.
The Busuu app, like the web service, is well structured with courses ranging from Beginner (A1) to Upper Intermediate (B2), and with a specialised course of English for travellers.
The lessons are similar in format to many other apps, with image galleries for learning vocabulary, followed by a variety of different exercises to put your English to the test. Where Busuu stands out from the crowd, is in the writing tests. Your answers can be sent to the ‘community’ and corrected by a native speaker. This is a nice, human, aspect, though the quality of the ‘help’ you receive can vary. The app also has a more comprehensive section on grammar than many of its competitors so if you, or your students are looking to start learning English from zero, Busuu is a good option.
Busuu uses the so-called ‘Freemium’ model. A limited number of lessons are available for free, but to unlock all the content on all the levels you need to pay for a subscription, which can be bought monthly or yearly.
Cost: Free version with restricted content. Access to all content from €5.42/month
The best of the rest…
Here come the best of the rest. Worthy efforts that weren’t quite up to the level of our top three apps, but are still worth considering:
An app for learning English with videos. At last!
Here at Linguabanca, we absolutely believe that videos are the way to go when it comes to language learning. So we were really keen to get our hands on this app from ABA. Unfortunately my old iphone 4 isn’t supported by ABA (fascists!), but our Android lover Laura was able to download ABA and cast her critical eye over the app. She was generally impressed by this good-looking and comprehensive app. The videos are short and well shot, though the dialogues do tend to be a little unnatural. The exercises are well thought-out but a little dull, with too much repetition; and the price is a hefty €19.99 / month. So all in all, a decent effort, but perhaps not great value for money.
Pricing: Subscription from €11-€19 per month
A bit clunky, but with decent reading and listening exercises, and good error correction.
Gymglish is one of the most complete English courses we’ve found for the mobile phone. In a departure from the typical interactive exercises you’ll find in most of its competitors, Gymglish gives us some fairly worthy reading comprehensions and listening exercises. A nice idea, though it does feel like the developers have tried to replicate a textbook on your phone, and have only been partially successful.
The units are well structured, with useful content that’s obviously been written by language professionals, but overall usability leaves a lot to be desired. The navigation is horrendous and the exercises are not very user-friendly, especially an evil-looking dropdown list mechanism that takes some getting used to. Irritatingly, you have to wait some seconds for your exercise answers to be processed. However, the feedback is good when it arrives, with decent, in-depth error correction.
If you are looking for more than just a game, and if you’re patient with the Flintstones-level technology, it might be worth checking Gymglish out.
Pricing: Free 2-week trial version. Basic subscription from €15.00/month. Premium subscription from €33.33/month (ouch!)
Update, July 2016: The creators of Mondly have been in touch to say that newer versions of the app have improved greatly on the version which we tested. Who are we to doubt them? We’ll have a new review of Mondly as soon as resources allow.
The prettiest app we came across, but there’s nothing here we haven’t seen before.
Mondly looks great, and you can’t help but take your hat off to their team of graphic designers. However, scratch beneath the groovy exterior and there isn’t much in Mondly that we haven’t already seen in a lot of other language-learning apps. So we get a vocabulary section with images and audio, interactive exercises and a daily lesson ‘alert’ which pops up on our phone around early evening every day, unless you can work out how to turn it off.
Our tester was initially impressed by the conversation section in each unit, which promised much-needed listening practice. Unfortunately though, the example conversations sounded stiff and contrived, while this section also seemed to suffer from a few technical problems. One to watch in the future perhaps, but far from the finished article at the moment.
Pricing: First few sections for free. Packets of additional sections at €4.99
7. English Grammar in Use
A grammar app for Intermediate-level students based on the best grammar book ever
Now, as we’ve stated elsewhere in this post, we’re not great fans of developers trying to cram textbooks into apps. However, when the textbook in question is the most popular grammar book ever published, we felt we should put our prejudices aside. As it turns out, this was a mistake. The contents are more or less the same as the book, which explains grammar concepts clearly and simply with a really effective use of images. It’s a bit of a squeeze to get all this useful information on to the phone, but the end result, though compromised, is still worth having. Just about.
Where the English Grammar in Use app disappoints, however, is in the exercises. These are horrendously clunky and anti-intuitive, with an interface that would look more at home on a Commodore 64 than on a modern day smart phone. Uninspiring is an understatement, and users will have given up out of boredom long before they’ve managed to learn anything.
Pricing: First unit free. Additional units: €0.99 each
Must try harder…
This section is by no means meant as a criticism of the developers and designers who have no doubt put a great deal of effort into their respective apps. However, our view at Linguabanca, is that the following apps don’t really make the grade, at least in the versions which we tested.
An app which flatters to deceive and ultimately disappoints. Little educational value.
Lingualia gave us a really positive impression when we first fired it up. It looks slick and modern and there’s even a cute little robot character called Lingu who pops up during the registration process and promises to be our guide. However, this positive vibe quickly faded as we got to grips with what turns out to be a fairly routine app, with some fundamental flaws and oversights.
Lingualia follows a very similar format to many other apps for learning English: Users are taught vocabulary via photo slideshows and then tested on this vocabulary in interactive exercises. This is a sound idea, but the execution here leaves a lot to be desired. Exercises are badly structured, with questions seemingly selected at random. Unit themes seem pretty irrelevant (Maritime English anyone?) while even at lower levels explanations and definitions are given exclusively in English rather than the users native language. This last point is perhaps the biggest flaw I found. For example, ‘Friday’ is defined as ‘The day after Thursday but before Saturday, or the fifth day of the working week‘. I’m sure you’ll agree, that’s not particularly helpful for your average beginner-level student.
Price: Free version with limited functions. Premium upgrade unavailable at the time of our test.
9. Learn English Grammar
A grammar-only app for lower intermediate to advanced levels
If you are an English teacher from the UK, you’ll probably know all about the British Council. It’s the official UK Government organisation charged with promoting UK cultural and the English language around the world and they are certainly not short of funds. So you’d think they could come up with something a bit more entertaining than this dull Grammar app. It’s really nothing more than a series of bland ‘exercises’ where users are asked to fill in gaps or rearrange words to form sentences. There is little in the way of explanation and as a further irritant you are constantly bombarded with alerts prompting you to upgrade to the €9/month premium version. One to avoid.
Price: First three sections free. Monthly Subscription to all sections at €9/month, or individual sections at 99 cents each.
10. Mosa Lingua
A rather uninspiring app which suffers from some fairly major technical issues.
With an annoying start up screen which insists on showing a tedious promotional video every time I logged in, my relationship with Mosa Lingua didn’t exactly get off on the right foot. Poor audio quality (were those even human voices?) and dodgy navigation were further negatives. The index of units sounded interesting though. I was promised classes on ‘transport’, ‘restaurants’ and ‘accommodation’ amongst others. Unfortunately the ‘classes’ turned out to be little more than lists of phrases, and though the developers included a conversation in each section, the audio was so bad that the educational value was practically zero.
Price: Lite version: free / Premium version: €4.99
A language app which looks and behaves like an old-school web site. And that’s not a good thing.
If English Grammar in Use (reviewed above) is a valiant attempt to stick an excellent textbook into a mobile phone app, then WLingua seems a fairly poor effort to do the same with a BAD website. A website from the early 90s I’m afraid to say. I really couldn’t see anything here that looked like it belonged in an app. In fact, there isn’t really much to see at all, because this app doesn’t seem finished.
In the free version you get a series of images with words underneath for learning vocabulary, and then some lists of phrases to listen to. And that’s about it. The phrases section at least lets you choose whether to listen to British or American accents, but the vocabulary section is mind-numbingly dull. Apparently the paid version adds a section on grammar and includes web-based content too, but I’d already seen enough to contemplate wasting 9€/month on subscribing.