5 ways to learn a new language on your way to work

There’s nothing like the smug feeling of being on holiday and ordering a plate of chips in the native tongue (regardless of how bad your accent probably is). 

And what’s brilliant is your smartphone has become the perfect portal to do just that - and with minimal effort compared to having attend night classes or order records from the back of a magazine.

A range of new apps, YouTube channels and online portals make getting to grips with a new language in a short amount of time simple and, more importantly, actually enjoyable.

A number of popular apps turn language learning into an experience that’s almost as addictive as the biggest smartphone games with badges, rewards and different levels gamifying a tough task. 

But what sets these apps apart from average games is you come away with an actual, tangible reward too: being able to ask for another beer in something other than English. 

Here’s our pick of the simplest and cheapest ways to learn a new language, perfect when you’re daydreaming about a Spanish villa or Thai island on your way into your sad, little office, with everything from the conversational basics to the chance to become a conversational conquistador on offer. 

1. Duolingo

- Price: Free iOS / Android

Duolingo is both an app and online portal, and has grown to over 110 million users worldwide. In fact, ask anyone the best way to learn a language on the go and they’re likely to excitedly shout “DUOLINGO!” at the top of their lungs.

What makes Duolingo so effective (and not to mention addictive) is it chops up learning a new language into digestible and gamified chunks such as Basics, Food and Animals.

In each lesson you type in phrases, read new words, look at visuals and speak phrases into the microphone too (which you can do while pretending you’re making a phone call, if you don’t want to look odd on the train chatting to your handset).

So it’s a bit like a school exam in that it focuses on speaking, reading and writing a language, which many would argue is the best way to learn.

You can track your progress as you move through different levels and, after a few, take a simple test to check it’s all sinking in. 

2. Easy Languages

The Easy Languages YouTube channel is a different to the stereotypical way of learning a new tongue, in that it’s not someone lecturing you on a new language and expecting you to absorb at the same pace.

Instead the creators take to the streets of foreign climes to help you hear languages from actual speakers in their natural setting, allowing you to see how the language is used naturally while also learning about the culture it’s from.

Although each episode is produced in the local language, you can follow along in subtitles of the language you’re learning - allowing you to see how words look as well as sound - or follow along in English subtitles to help you learn how to translate.

Each week, the YouTube channel has a video about learning French, German and English, but interspersed between them are vocabulary training, verb lessons and grammar explanations to help your training and offer linguistic new challenges.

Although you can subscribe to the Easy Languages channel and simply watch the teaching videos, other really handy ones offer useful catch-up refresher lessons if you’re jetting off soon and don’t have much time to learn, like “10 Phrases for asking directions in Italian” or “10 Phrases for using transport in Arabic.”

3. Babbel

- Price: Free iOS / Android (Subscription costs £7.99 / $9.99 / AU$14.99 for one month.)

Available on both iOS and Android, Babbel teaches you how to learn a language from local speakers with things you’ll actually want to say, rather than long lists of verb conjugations to memorise.

The list is pretty comprehensive as you can learn 14 languages using Babbel at present, including Spanish, German, Russian and Indonesian.

The lessons come in 15 minute chunks, which lets you slip in a lesson during a train ride and perfect for a quick set of lessons before a holiday when you don’t have to time to master the foundations.

The user experience is rather basic but entices repeat lessons through audio, visuals and written word testing - as well as different levels and a chance to review everything you’ve done so far so you gain a sense of language understanding.

Many Babbel lessons are free, but to use the course properly you’ll need to pay for a subscription, which begins at £7.99 / $13 / AU$18 for one month.

4. Memrise

- Price: Free iOS / Android (Subscription costs £6.99 / $8.99 / around AU$13.99 for one month.)

Memrise is a simple and colourful app that currently offers a great variety of languages - but that’s nothing new on this list. What impresses us here is that the app teaches you variations of languages for different countries, so you can learn to speak Spanish in Mexico or Spain to learn some of the cultural nuances.

Curiously this app is built around a narrative that you’re a space detective on the mission to other worlds and need to learn the language to fit in - and the app is filled with space imagery as a result. It makes it all feel sweeter and easier, but isn’t entirely necessary in actually helping you learn.

The Memrise app also has an offline mode, which makes it really useful for learning during your commute - especially if you travel somewhere that has frequent data-sparse spots.

The developers also tout the app’s adaptive learning tech, which means it’ll make small tweaks to the way it teaches you based on your learning style and how you perform, which would mean you’d learn at the right speed for you rather than the random speed decided by an app creator.

5. Rosetta Stone

- Price: iOS / Android (subscription needed, starting at £240 / $89)

Speak to anyone alive in the 1960s about Rosetta Stone and they’ll talk about the days when one needed to buy huge boxes of records to learn Dutch - this teaching platform has been around for a long time and as such has a heritage in teaching many the tricks of a new tongue.

Luckily for lazy, app-loving types, the company has created lessons for the smartphone for on-the-go learning that packs years of teaching smarts into a small screen-friendly package.

Like many of the other apps on this list, it does away with traditional language learning styles (such as flashcards or lots of memorisation) and instead focuses on the basics you actually need like greetings, shopping terms and useful phrases.

Each lesson is presented in a minimal, yet colorful, way to keep you entertained when you’re getting through the sea of teaching. You work through lessons gradually and in each you’ll be able to read, write, speak and listen to absorb the teachings effectively.

The developers of the Rosetta Stone app are touting its speech recognition tech too, designed to make speaking into the app more accurate and offers best-in-class accent training too.

This article is brought to you in association with Tesco Mobile

Becca Caddy

Becca is a contributor to TechRadar, a freelance journalist and author. She’s been writing about consumer tech and popular science for more than ten years, covering all kinds of topics, including why robots have eyes and whether we’ll experience the overview effect one day. She’s particularly interested in VR/AR, wearables, digital health, space tech and chatting to experts and academics about the future. She’s contributed to TechRadar, T3, Wired, New Scientist, The Guardian, Inverse and many more. Her first book, Screen Time, came out in January 2021 with Bonnier Books. She loves science-fiction, brutalist architecture, and spending too much time floating through space in virtual reality.