The REAL Best Apps for Learning a Language

Modified on by Andrew Cohen

The Real Top Apps

Last week, Apple ran a promo on the Education section of the iTunes App Store, to feature several staff-selected apps that help people “Learn a Language.”  Selfishly, we at Brainscape were a bit bummed that our  that Learn Spanish app was not on this list, considering that (1) our app is consistently the highest-rated Spanish app on iTunes (by user reviews), (2) our app has been the 2nd-highest earning Spanish app, and (3) our app boasts the best application of actual language-learning science.  Several similarly effective language-learning gems were also left off of Apple’s list – including the top-selling Spanish app, iStart Spanish.

The reason for this exclusion is likely because Apple (understandably) has greater interest in promoting the sexiest, most promotion-friendly visual design and/or the best implementation of a new buzz-worthy iPhone feature(s), rather than the best actual learning experience.  The apps in iTunes’ recent “Learn a Language” promotion indeed consisted mostly of “fun” multiple-choice quizzes and games like Hangman and Word Muncher.

Fair enough.  Fun design makes for great marketing tools.  Yet we Brainscapers can’t just sit back and let people believe that these apps are objectively the “best” learning apps!  We have therefore compiled our own list of the best three apps for learning a foreign language, based on actual language-learning effectiveness:

Voxy (currently available for Spanish-speaking ESL learners only) is hands-down the most practical app to help you practice your language skills in the context of the real world.  Indeed, the company’s slogan is “Learn a language from life.”When you create an account with Voxy, you are exposed to thousands of actual news stories in your target language, syndicated from top publishers and modified to fit your particular reading level.  Each audio-supplemented story evaluates you on your comprehension and allows you to tag vocabulary words to study later.  Its like having your own personal tutor sitting over your shoulder as you attempt to read a story in your target language.Even cooler, Voxy’s location-based features feed you specific phrases that are relevant to only the venues that are nearby.  Voxy also offers a suite of fun games and social features so you can connect with other learners in their fast-growing network.The bottom line is that Voxy takes the extra “work” out of learning a language by basing its lessons around real-world activities that you would have been doing anyway.  When combined with a bit of those tedious yet necessary grammar & hard-core vocabularydrills, Voxy can go a very long way toward increasing your language fluency.


You may know Busuu as an online community for practiciing a language with other native speakers.  But Busuu also happens to have a fast-growing network of mobile apps that focus on building common conversation and vocabulary skills.

We at Brainscape particularly love the way Busuu handles conversation practice.  Busuu plays you a conversation, immediately tests you on comprehension, then later challenges you to build the conversation’s sentences into the right order by dragging words into place.  Learning to re-create real-world dialogs is an important skill for any language learner.

The only real disadvantage of Busuu’s language drill methods, from a learning standpoint, is that all of their activities are based on recognizing the foreign words & phrases (in multiple choice lists or the sentence-building activity) rather than asking the user to conjure up the words on their own.  We at Brainscape have often argued that producing sentences from scratch is a necessary component of language practice.

That said, Busuu’s online community allows learners to hook up with each other for real conversations, which are the ultimate means of organic sentence production.  Busuu thus adds a great social component to any language learning experience.

(You knew this was coming!)  Brainscape is a mobile education platform based on an adaptive flashcard repetition algorithm.  Rather than packing in lots of different styles of lessons and features, Brainscape focuses on drilling you on vocab & grammar, using the most efficient study method possible: Confidence-Based Repetition (CBR).

Each time you see a flashcard in Brainscape, the CBR system asks you to rate how well you knew the answer (and accompanying audio pronunciation) on a scale of 1-5.  Poorly understood concepts (the 1’s) will henceforth be repeated very frequently until you gradually increase your reported confidence level.  Higher-confidence items (the 5’s) will come up much less frequently, if at all.

By optimizing the age-old practice of spaced repetition in this way, Brainscape essentially guarantees that you will be spending your valuable study time as efficiently as possible.  We’ve even had reports that Brainscape users have been learning literally 3-4x faster than with traditional study methods.

Brainscape currently offers web/mobile apps for Spanish and French vocab & verbs; Chinese vocab; and a deluxe Spanish package that includes a revolutionary new language-learning methodology called Intelligent Cumulative Exposure, which introduces new concepts in the context of real sentences and annotates them with grammatical explanations in the learner’s own native language (as illustrated in the sample flashcard above).  We also offer a single, streamlined Flashcard Portal iPhone application through which you can access all of your Brainscape subjects – including many other Test Prep and General Knowledge topics, as well as flashcards you create yourself.

We hope that future Apple promotions of specific education apps will take better account of the learning quality that those apps provide.  We also hope that Apple will continue improving its search algorithm to make it easier to find popular apps that are indeed the best in their particular categories.  For now, if you are interested in learning a language on your iPhone, be sure to check out Voxy, Busuu, and Brainscape!

Brainscape is a web & mobile education platform that helps you learn anything faster, using cognitive science. Join the millions of students, teachers, language learners, test-takers, and corporate trainees who are doubling their learning results. Visit or find us on the App Store .


Jesse, TripLingo 8 years ago

Great article, and Voxy, Busuu, and Brainscape are great apps. I also like Oddysey translator, which has a neat approach.

That said, as the CEO of TripLingo (one of the apps included in Apple's promotion), I think we deserve a spot on your shortlist. Our approach is targeted for travelers, and a few of the things that set us apart are: 1) customized phrase list, unique to each user, 2) "Slang Slider", which shows formal, casual, slang, and crazy ways to say each phrase, and 3) cultural information is blended into the app, meaning we don't teach you the language in a vacuum, but rather help you learn the language and the culture at the same time.

That said, worthy list and agree that you guys should have been included.

Andrew Cohen 8 years ago

Great points, Jesse.  I hadn't checked out the TripLingo app in much detail before writing this.  I really love the slider that adjusts phrases based on the degree of slang that you want to convey!  This could be a really useful tool as a reference when you're about to say something consequential.

It's also awesome that you guys went through the trouble of incorporating cultural information into the app - making it not just a language reference but also partly a travel guide.  TripLingo is definitely another great companion app to have if you're traveling to a foreign country in a new language.

nick 7 years ago

I came across another app. in store which is quite good. Check it out

Karinasgarden 8 years ago

I just started learning Spanish. With this app, I think I can actually do it. I get to go at my own pace, AND it uses repetition as a learning tool. That's how my brain works. Thanks, brainscape people!!!

Amanda Moritz 8 years ago

Awesome! That's exactly what we're going for. Good luck with your language learning!!!!

Amanda and the Brainscape team

Thomas 7 years ago

Great list. I also found that app helpful; if you want to start to read your first Spanish book.

useitorloseit 7 years ago

It's been over a year since this article appeared, but I love the foreign language learning system. I just downloaded the app and was amazed how good it works even on my old 54 year old brain! I am excited to start learning a little bit of Chinese so that I can at least say a few words to Chinese customers I see everyday. However, I really need to become proficient at Spanish, so I will probably upgrade. Can't wait to try the French one too. Can you add more languages? Specifically Arabic, Italian, German and Russian! Am I being too greedy. Really love the format.

useitorloseit 7 years ago

My comment I just posted was regarding Brainscape. Would love to see more challenging subjects as well. Thank you very much!

Amanda Moritz 7 years ago

We're working on more advanced vocab for the languages we already offer, along with new language offerings!! Glad you found this article useful:)

Pedro Pertusi 6 years ago

My favorite Android tablet and phone app for learning spanish BY FAR is lingorami. uses visual learning with images which is way better than flash cards on a tablet and it's realllly fun. it's a kick to play and my kids even have fun taking turns and competing.

Chocolate 6 years ago
The best mobile app for language exchange and learning. It's a new app.

Karol 5 years ago

I played this game to learn spanish recently:

Ellen 4 years ago

It makes it so much easier being able to learn a language via an
app at your own speed; at home, on the go, on the couch or at your desk. You
really can learn at your own comfort.

The interactive nature of the apps recommended also make
learning a new language so much more enjoyable.

Here are some further suggestions that may be of interest;

nkislitsin 3 years ago

another good app for language learners , something like anki, but has more features

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