A Strategy for Starting a New Language: Apps

One of the most difficult parts of learning a language is starting. The plethora of resources and language apps available online can ironically make the process more difficult.

Aside from the mainstream language apps like Babbel and Memrise, there are numerous other online language schools and apps. Trying to pick one that you believe is going to work the best for you is an overwhelming challenge.

The truth is that the best strategy is to first go with what’s familiar to you. If you’ve already learned a foreign language as an adult, you’re going to have confidence in whatever techniques brought you success the first time around. Believing that you can learn a foreign language is itself a barrier.

If you’ve never learned a language before then my initial recommendation is to go with the free stuff to start. Duolingo is the best example. Most other apps such as Memrise, Babbel and LingQ have some degree of courses or functionality that are free to use.

Personally, I think Duolingo is a great place to start because the entirety of the content in terms of courses they provide is free. This means they don’t try to sell you on their courses with any overpromising marketing slogans like some apps do. Maybe that’s a good business practice on their part but for a first-time language learner it establishes an unrealistic precedent.

Why Use Language Apps?

When I began studying Mandarin two weeks ago, I chose to start with Duolingo. I’m not going to go into detail about why I chose this app specifically but rather discuss some app features that are important when starting a new language.

Snapshot of a Mandarin Duolingo lesson. The user is being asked to select the correct pinyin for a given character
Snapshot of a Duolingo Mandarin Chinese lesson.

When you start learning a new language the most important thing is developing study habits.

The great thing about language apps is that they have a streak feature. It tells you how many days in a row you’ve reached some pre-defined goal on the app. This is especially great if you haven’t found success in learning a language before on your own. It’s a visual indicator that you’re progressing towards a goal.

These kinds of features that force us to compete with ourselves create the short-term motivation needed to build daily language learning habits. The gamification brings an element of excitement to the learning process that most individuals can’t get from a textbook.

Textbooks can be a great starting point for the right individual. The key to using textbooks is being proactive with the material as is the case with any tool in language learning. One downside of a textbook is that they don’t offer you the kind of stimulating experience that an app is going to provide you.

Variations of learning styles on apps are large though. Which app you choose can depend on various factors.

If you’re not the least bit interested in paying for app subscriptions, then I suggest trying Duolingo before anything else.

In the case that you’re interested in learning a more obscure or rare language, Memrise is the place to look for lessons in your target language. It seems to have a specialization in lesser-known foreign languages.

I went to Iceland for a week in 2018 and before traveling I did a short Icelandic course on Memrise that was interesting, interactive, and taught me some basic phrases that stuck with me when I traveled.

LingQ is the perfect app for those that enjoy reading or are looking for an app that they can use for a long time in their language learning journey. It’s an app that can be great for beginners as well as at intermediate and advanced proficiencies when they want to expand their vocabulary. LingQ has a lot of great benefits that you can read about in my article LingQ – The Best Language Learning App?

Image of LingQ interface with Portuguese content. It displays text and a dictionary function unique to language apps
Snapshot partially displaying the Lingq user interface. Lingq is an app recommended for language learners at any proficiency level that like reading


Since writing this article I began learning Scots. It’s a rare language closely related to English that’s spoken in Scotland.

I wrote an article on the language that includes a discussion on study resources – The Scots Language: An Introduction and Resources. I talk about looking for resources to begin learning this lesser known language. More specifically I discuss why LingQ is an app better fit for closely related languages. I also briefly mention my experiences using Memrise to study Scots.

Closing Comments

My recommendation is to pick 5 apps to test, then each day for the next 5 days, starting the day after you read this article, test each app, doing lessons in your target language for 15 minutes. On the 6th day pick 1 app that you like the best, choose a predefined daily goal that takes a minimum of 15 minutes on the app and use it for the next 90 days, ideally hitting a 90-day streak. Once you’ve reached 90 days, you’ve developed good language learning habits. It’s time to start expanding your language learning toolbox.

If you enjoyed this article, I recommend reading my article on Duolingo Duolingo and an Example of How to Use it Effectively – to get more insight on how I like to begin learning a new language.

I plan on covering other apps mentioned in this article and more in the future. Feel free to leave app suggestions for review in the comments.


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