Three fun, free, addictive foreign language apps to help travellers get around abroad

The smartphone is changing the way we learn languages. Google Translate is great for instantly translating a menu or sign, but these interactive apps will get you reading, writing and speaking the basics of a foreign language in no time

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 March, 2016, 1:45pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 March, 2016, 1:45pm


Ideal for using in short bursts on a smartphone while travelling, Duolingo (free, Android, iOS & Windows Phone, already has 110 million users. It’s presented as a game, with short exercises unlocking new levels, extra lives to earn for surviving mistakes, and ‘streak’ points if you use it every day. Although there’s a good mix of speaking and translation, you do learn sentences that are perhaps not vital when travelling (‘my cat likes to drink milk’ won’t get you far in Spain!). Languages are currently limited to Spanish, French, German, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish and Irish for English speakers, and to English, Spanish and French for Mandarin speakers.

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Based on brain science and memory research, Memrise (free, Android & iOS, uses a series of images – often funny and thoroughly memorable – with regular testing and reminders to help learners more easily recall vocabulary and phrases. There’s also audio from native speakers. Memrise is a community learning platform, so some courses will be better than others, but there are a staggering 30,000 to choose from (and for English, Mandarin and Cantonese speakers). Covering languages and much more besides, many of them bite-size and just a couple of hours long, Memrise courses are perfect for swotting at the airport on your way to a new country.

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Busuu (free, Android & iOS, takes a social networking approach to language learning and is all about practising speaking a new language with help from native speakers. It claims to have 50 million users around the globe. Busuu has a clean user interface with plenty of listening, reading, speaking and writing tasks, with actual feedback on the latter available from native speakers. There are 12 languages in total, including Mandarin for English speakers and vice versa, Russian, Arabic and Japanese, and the main European languages. There’s also a Travel course of bite-size listening and vocabulary exercises, which is handy for learning on the plane, but it’s the community feel that makes Busuu different.