My Favourite Language Learning Apps: Spanish

I’ll admit, after almost fourteen months of living in Madrid, my Spanish is pretty terrible. I got complacent. I learnt what I needed to know (restaurant talk, bank talk, basic pleasantries), and then just stopped. Whether it’s because I’m lazy or because shrieking ‘NO HABLO ESPAÑOL’ when people try to engage me in conversation is an introvert’s dream, I’m not entirely sure. But somehow it happened. Occasionally, however, I do go through bursts of inspiration and/or guilt over my terrible language skills, and crack down for a week or two… but it never lasts for long. Especially with a Spanish boyfriend who I can look at expectantly whenever anyone asks me a question. But with a new academic year comes a new eruption of determination. So I figured I’d review my favourites of the countless language learning apps I’ve used over the last year, in the hopes it can help other little clueless expats out there. De nada.

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Duolingo:

Duolingo seems to be everyone’s go-to language learning app, probably because it’s so easily accessible on both mobile and PC. My first experiences with it were a few years ago when I attempted to relearn German… which didn’t go great. But once I decided I was going to move to Spain, I decided to give it another try.

Pros:

  • The language tree is a great way to quickly see which areas you need to work on. It’s bright and clear and not cluttered, which doesn’t make you feel overwhelmed by everything you need to learn.
  • The point based system makes it like a game, and if you’re as competitive as I am, earning those lingots is a great way to get motivated when you feel like skipping a day. Particularly with the chance to ‘buy’ extra levels, such as the flirting pack, which I love to terrorise my boyfriend with.
  • The comments on the questions make it really seem like a community. Sometimes the example sentences on Duolingo are odd to say the least, and seeing what other people had to say about the hilarious statements is a good way to remind yourself that other people are going through the same thing.

Cons:

  • Along with the strange sentence choices, some of the topics on Duolingo are a bit useless. In the job category I learnt about soldiers and commanders and lieutenants, words that I barely ever use in English, whilst completely skipping out professions such as butcher and baker and, uh, candlestick maker?
  • The fluency percentage thing. There is no way in hell I have 47% fluency in Spanish. 4.7% maybe, but not this. How is this even worked out?
  • THAT DAMN OWL. It looks so disappointed when you miss a day, that I’ve found myself not going on the site for weeks because I can’t deal with his judgemental little face. Thank you, uncanny valley.

Verdict: Duolingo is a great starting point for language learning, and also a great supplement to other services, but as a whole it just doesn’t do enough to help you really learn a language. For vocabulary stuff, it’s great, but I found that it didn’t help progress my grammar at all, so I ended up talking like a simpleton all day (whereas now I can speak like a toddler, yeaaaah).

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Cat Spanish:

Cat Spanish was my first paid language learning app, and you can only use it on your mobile. I am a very visual learner, so Cat Spanish was great for me, as it uses hilarious and adorable cat pictures to help you remember phrases easier. It probably helps if, like me, you are obsessed with cats. This app is definitely more a memorisation type of learning, rather than teaching you to figure things out for yourself, and although that might not be everyone’s way of learning, to me it really helped me find my confidence and gave me a basis to work off of.

Pros:

  • Lolcat-esque images that relate to specific phrases. If you’re a visual learner, a cat rolling around in toilet paper might help you remember what to say if you need toilet paper (which came in useful for me when I couldn’t reach it in a store).
  • Small levels which feel manageable. The app only introduces a couple of phrases at a time, so you’re not overwhelmed by words and grammar and pronunciation.
  • It’s in Castilian Spanish! Most of the language apps I’ve tried have been in South American Spanish, which is completely useless for me living in Spain. My biggest language app pet peeve is that developers don’t clearly mark which continent their language is for. Cat Spanish means I can actually use the phrases I learn in confidence knowing that people will understand me (other than my awful pronunciation, of course).

Cons:

  • Sooooo much repetition. I know that repetition is key to learning languages (spoiler alert, I’m an English teacher), but this app really takes it to a whole new level. I find myself screaming ‘yes, yes, I’ve got it now THANK YOU’ at my phone when it’s asking me a question for the millionth time. This is particularly relevant in the part where you have a conversation with a cat… they don’t flow fluently and even if I didn’t know the answer it would be easy to guess anyway because they give you all three choices. Come on guys, give me a challenge.
  • Refers to itself as a ‘social language learning app’ but for those of us who don’t have FB friends also using the app (or don’t like connecting absolutely every account we make to FB), social doesn’t even come into it. It paired me up with some random people who I guess downloaded it at the same time as me, but they stopped using the app months ago. So for me, this is the most solitary of all three apps I use.

Verdict: This was the first app that really got me to stick my teeth into learning Spanish, and acted as a great stepping stone to me -finally- starting to understand the language. For me, the memorisation technique works really well, but other people might prefer a more grammar based approach. I love this app, and think it’s worth the money, but it will all depend on what learning style works for you.

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Memrise:

The most recent app I’ve tried, but definitely my favourite (and actually from the people behind Cat Spanish). I’ve been using this app all summer now and feel I’ve progressed more with Spanish in these last few months than the entire year I’ve been here. Like Duolingo, you can use both the mobile app or the website, set a daily goal, and keep up your learning streak… but for some reason it just works so much better for me.

Pros:

  • Whereas other language learning apps start at the very beginning, Memrise offers a whole variety of courses so you can start at whatever level you feel comfortable at. I’m currently dabbling in two different levels, so it really feels like a more personalised course than the others. Yay.
  • The option to skip levels is really useful. Sometimes constantly failing on one aspect makes you not want to continue, so when ser vs estar was getting too much for me, I jumped ahead to the next level, and went back to tackle the earlier level later.
  • The review option actually seems to work. As in, the things it chooses are phrases that I probably should be reviewing at that time. Unlike Duolingo which seems to make you review everything every damn day. It just makes using this app an actual pleasant thing to do instead of something I dread. Go Memrise!
  • When you’re struggling with a word or phrase, you get the option to pair it with a ‘meme’ to help you remember it. More of that good ol’ visual learning stuff again! For me, the word for wrong is an angry avocado.

Cons:

  • Sometimes I don’t really understand the order it teaches things in. Like taking a million different levels to teach me the numbers, something I learnt myself before I used this app in about ten minutes, but trying to cram every variety of ser and estar into one level. One of these things is not like the other.

Verdict: Memrise pretty much gives you the best of both worlds mixing traditional and visual learning together depending on when you need it. I feel as if Memrise is more customisable than other apps I’ve tried, making it more enjoyable to use as I actually feel like I’m getting somewhere. More enjoyable to use, better Spanish skills. Yay!

So I think it’s pretty obvious which tool is my favourite. Memrise just ticks all the boxes for me, and although I’m still guilty of skipping a day every now and then, I’m more dedicated to this app than I have been the others (owl or no owl). I’d recommend Memrise to anyone trying to improve their language skills, particularly the Spanish course. Of course, I’m supplementing my use of this site with a textbook and activities of my own creation (as well as, y’know, going outside and interacting with Spanish people), but I like to consider Memrise the centre of my current language learning endeavour, and I doubt I’d be as learning as much without it there to guide me.

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Author: Rosanna Parrish

Brit exiled in Spain.

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