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It’s all Greek to me! 5 foreign language learning apps

It’s all Greek to me! 5 foreign language learning apps

Traveling for business or pleasure? These mobile apps can have you speaking like a native in no time.

It's a small world -- and getting smaller every day. Becoming fluent in a foreign language can be the catalyst that puts your career on the fast track in this global economy.

That said, it's not always easy to find the time, or the right app, to jumpstart your effort.

These five language learning apps try to make it easy -- and fun -- to get started. All have a selection of languages to choose from, but their approaches to teaching languages differ widely.

I tried the apps on my iPhone to see how they worked. (All have Android versions as well.) All offer free lessons to start with (and one, Duolingo, is completely free), so you can try them out. Because not everyone learns the same way -- different teaching methodologies work for different people -- it's important to try a few different apps to see what you're naturally drawn to.

And while you may not become fluent just by using one of these apps, it can certainly give you enough grounding to help you get around on your next foreign trip.

Babbel

Babbel has learning programs for 14 languages (the selection skews heavily toward Western European).

Like all the other apps except TripLingo, Babbel gives you the option to choose your level of proficiency to start with. If you're starting from scratch, the first lesson begins with single words that you match up images or to words in your native language (in my case English). When you select an answer, the app audibly speaks a word in your chosen foreign language (I went with Italian), so you learn how to pronounce it.

It then cements your learning by quizzing you. All quizzes are graded so you have a sense of how well you're grasping the language.

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Babbel begins the first lesson with single words (left). It confirms your understanding by giving you sample conversations (right).

You rapidly progress to phrases, and formal/informal conjugations (for example, "tu" for informal use of "you" with friends and family, and "lei" for formal usage in business situations). Babbel provides cultural tips regarding usage and helps confirm your understanding by giving you sample conversations with blanks to fill in. You can go back and review, if you need to.

I liked that I could use speech recognition where I spoke back the phrase or sentence into the phone microphone and was graded on it.

Once you get started, there are numerous courses for specific themes (such as apartment hunting or eating breakfast) available in a Beginner's Section and Intermediate Sections. In addition, there are additional sections for Grammar, Listening and Speaking, Writing, Work, Vacation, Idioms, etc.

Regardless of which length subscription you choose, you'll have access to all of the courses for your chosen language -- there are no additional charges.

Busuu

Busuu claims you can learn a language if you just put aside 10 minutes a day -- and to back up that claim, it offers full courses in 12 languages including Chinese, Turkish and Russian.

Lesson 1 immediately launches into actual conversational learning. Lesson 2 continues with the components of a conversation. The app speaks phrases in the language being learned and then asks you to choose the correct phrase from a list in your native language.

Lesson 3 moves you quickly into picking up dialog, letting you hear the dialog as spoken by the app and then challenging you to fill in the blanks. It also expects you to corroborate what you've heard by typing it out correctly, a nice touch. Subsequent lessons delve into life situations like Dating, Moving House and Dining Out.

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Busuu immediately launches you into actual conversations (left). It moves you quickly into letting you hear dialog and then you fill in the blanks (right).

As your proficiency increases, the free version of Busuu offers intermediate lessons on up to upper intermediate. The free version offers flash cards, writing exercises and corrections spoken by a native speaker.

However, the Premium version opens the door to the app's treasures. On top of the basics, with Premium you can download your lessons and learn offline, a boon for commuters or air travelers. It also gives you a travel course that has sections on phrases, questions, etc., that could be useful while you're abroad, as well as grammar exercises and a vocabulary trainer. In addition, you have access to any and all of the other language courses.

Duolingo

There's something cool about a foreign language learning app that's working on a version to teach you Klingon. Right now you can choose from 22 terrestrial languages, from German to Vietnamese to Swahili. (Notable exceptions include Chinese and Japanese.) Several more languages, including Czech and Hindi, are currently in the works. And it's all free.

Like most of the other apps, here, DuoLingo lets you choose what level of learner you are -- but unlike the others, it then tests you to confirm that level. After a trip to Italy, I thought I might be up to Intermediate level, but no such luck -- I quickly retreated to Beginner for a warm-up.

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Duolingo offers explanations when you make a mistake (left). It starts with single words and moves to phrases from there (right).

Duolingo begins much as the other apps do, starting with individual words and then quickly moving to phrases and verb conjugations. What I liked in particular was that it required me to start typing words and phrases in the new language, which neither Babbel nor Busuu did in the beginning. (MosaLingua introduces the writing piece of the equation farther down in each Flashcard process, and TripLingo doesn't require it as part of its learning.) I found that writing the sentences helped cement my learning process in a way that just matching the English to Italian words and choosing Italian words from a list to complete a sentence did not.

Duolingo motivates you by providing daily goals and sending you reminders; it urges you to register so it can record your test results and lesson completion schedule. It also encourages you to maintain a regular learning schedule by allowing you to earn a virtual currency it calls "Lingots" -- for example, I got two Lingots for completing the first three lessons in Basics 1 skills.

Duolingo has a comprehensive lineup of subject matter lessons -- food, plurals, questions, time, prepositions, measurements, travel and directions, to name a few. If you're feeling lucky or are an overachiever type, you can try taking a test even if you haven't gone through the associated lessons in order to build your Lingot stack faster.

MosaLingua

MosaLingua offers 10 language learning apps, but with a difference -- while six are straightforward language apps, two are tailored specifically for business use of English and Spanish, and two teach English vocabulary to pass the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC), a widely accepted test that businesses use, or the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL), which is commonly used by educational organizations to measure everyday English skills.

MosaLingua is based on the Spaced Repetition System (SRS) and it underlines this point of showing by showing a short video on its website to illustrate how your brain learns. SRS uses review sessions scheduled at optimal times based on learning and repetition data, so during setup the app asks permission to send reminders of word/learning review times to you via email.

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MosaLingua uses flashcards for its lessons (left). You can dig around in various catagories and come up with your own program (right).

MosaLingua employs flashcards as the basis for its lessons. You select how many flashcards you want to work with, then progress from Flashcards to Listen and Pronounce, Memorize and Write. Finally, you work through a self-evaluation of how well you've memorized the all flashcard material you initially selected for that learning period.

A nice aspect of MosaLingua is that you can either allow the app to move you through the lessons or you can dig around in various categories (which you find via the Explore icon at the bottom of the screen) and come up with your own learning program.

There is a limited free version available; the full paid version offers a larger library of flashcards, audio recordings, pronunciation tips, and online dictionary.

TripLingo

TripLingo is part language learning, part travel assistant, with an emphasis on business travel. The company launched TripLingo on May 5 (Cinco de Mayo), 2011, with five languages. By 2012, it had added 12 new languages, including a free version in Dari for American troops in Afghanistan. When I went to its site, I counted over 50 destinations to choose from.

TripLingo is different from the other apps in this review because, in addition to language learning features, it includes comprehensive culture and safety directories, and travel tools like a Wi-Fi dialer (for free international calls), tip calculator and the ability to call a live translator from your smartphone (starting from five minutes for $25). You can also speak into the smartphone microphone and have your words instantly translated.

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TripLingo helps you get a quick foothold with important phrases (left). Besides language lessons, it offers culture guides (right).

TripLingo's special attention to business travel extends to the many resources designed specifically for executives working in foreign countries. They are meant to enable you to quickly gain a foothold by using local lingo, customs and local business protocols. The company has forged partnerships with several business travel companies that offer special deals, facilitate travel or provide concierge services.

The language learning section uses audio lessons, interactive flashcards, an intelligent quiz mode, and an extensive phrases directory. The phrase window shows you the literal translation of the phrase (which I occasionally found amusing) and gives you audio of formal, casual, slang and crazy (that's what the app calls it) translations that you can choose to play at slow or normal speed. You also get a phonetic diagram and a contextual explanation. I especially liked the slowed audio feature because it gave me time to really hear the pronunciation.

This is an app to have handy when you haven't had the time to gain the proficiency you'd have liked before your trip, and the long list of destinations -- along with their various cultures, business protocols, etc. -- can keep you enthralled for an entire 13-hour flight if you give it the chance. It's more expensive than the others but worth it.

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