5 Language Learning Tools You’ll Love

Translators and Interpreters have some of the most seriously misunderstood jobs out there. Both professions entail an uncanny knack for carrying messages across under pressure, all while remaining ‘invisible’ – a good translation is one that you don’t notice, which is a conundrum for you to ponder. Added to the years of training for the professional qualifications that good agencies ask for, and your head might start to spin at the dizzying demands of the job. But that’s not all. First and foremost, a translator has to know their languages inside-out. Not just speak them, but write in them. In every style. With nuance. With many clouds of synonyms that never go AWOL or merge together. They have to understand the most subtle jokes. And then tell them to a different audience, in another language.

We’d like to take a moment and ask for a digital round of applause for translators the world over right now.

But we have the future to reckon with too, and we’re always on the lookout for Today Translations’ translators – of tomorrow! It’s for those budding linguists that we’ve compiled this list of the best language-learning tools around to give you a kickstart with your career.

#1 – Duolingo:

Which languages can you learn?
An impressive number. For English speakers – Latin American Spanish, French, German, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese, Dutch, Swedish, Irish, Turkish, Danish, Russian, Norwegian, Esperanto, Ukrainian, Polish & Welsh. And they have many more, from Hungarian to Vietnamese to Indonesian in development.

How does it work?
Duolingo is an online platform that leads you down a streamlined, crowdsourced course in your chosen language.You select the language you want, and start as a beginner or take a placement test.


Beautiful, clear design.
It is incredibly intuitive to use – an adjective rarely associated with the bewildering task of language learning.

It caters to a very wide audience with multidirectional courses – think ‘English for Indonesian Speakers’, ‘Swedish for Arabic Speakers’, and so on.

Duolingo’s eye-candy interface is like a game. It makes the tasks fun, the rewards are constantly popping up, and you are very aware of your ‘level’.As you are of the ‘bosses’. Curse you, German plurals!

Modular learning gives you a good grasp of your progress, and really focuses your study.

It keeps track of your weaker skills and encourages you to practice them.

Variation in the lessons – you translate to and from the language, memorise vocab with images, transcribe recordings, and if you wish, do out-loud speaking exercises.

It provides tips and notes on the relevant point of grammar at the bottom of each lesson.

Its user base. There are upwards of 40 million people who use Duolingo Spanish alone, and each topic has a discussion thread with knowledgeable native speakers.

Motivation – you can set daily or weekly goals, and if you don’t log in you get encouraging emails to your inbox. Although this could get annoying if you have truly packed it in.

They have wheeled out the free service ‘Duolingo for Schools’ in classrooms around the world – an inspirational initiative.


Speaking is the most important part of learning a language, and Duolingo doesn’t push you to do it far enough or often enough.

The spoken phrases are computer generated. It’s one thing sounding foreign when you practice your language; it’s another to sound like a robot.

Repetition can’t teach you to have a conversation.

It teaches you language in an intuitive, babyish way – which is great. But it’s also vital for a translator to know explicitly the rules of a language’s grammar, on which point Duolingo is sadly quite weak.

Some of the phrases you will have to learn might be utterly irrelevant in any situation you will ever find yourself in – or so we hope. Consider using ‘Somente três pessoas tentaram me matar hoje’ – “Only three people have tried to kill me today”, or the equally perplexing ‘Hvorfor er de ten svensk telefonselger I sengen min?’ – “Why is there a Swedish telemarketer in my bed?”

Duolingo is a fantastic tool, with amazing depth and variety – and the fact it’s free means learners should treasure it. However, while their courses are very well-rounded, it’s unlikely you will *master* the language if you just use Duolingo. Supplement it with something else, and it’s invaluable.

#2 – Memrise



Which languages can you learn?
Almost anything. 200+ languages are offered, with hundreds of courses for each. You can take courses in anything from major languages like “French subjunctives” and “Mandarin Menu Reading” to ones you’d probably never thought of – like ‘Colloquial Tibetan’ and “Quechuan Body Parts”.

How does it work?
It relies on the ancient tool of the mnemonic. This fancy-looking word refers to any of a wide range of conscious strategies that improve your recall and make memorization of individual factoids easier. (Hence the pun. +1 point.) To give an example, you could link a target word with a memorable image that sticks in the memory. For example, if you had trouble remembering the German verb for ‘to write’ (‘schreiben’), you could link it to the phrase ‘Scribes write’, which would recall ‘schreiben’, which you learnt –then forgot – 15 minutes ago. Memrise provides you with a platform to create whatever kind of mnemonic flashcard suits your learning style. And while you definitely get the most out of it if you design your own courses and your own flashcards, there is already a massive database of courses that other users have designed.


Rapid vocabulary learning – if you devote some time to Memrise, you’ll notice your mental tank of words will be that much broader and deeper.

It’s funny – the more absurd the mems you create, the more they’ll get stuck in your brain.

Time – Memrise is a great way to spend those little minutes between things that would otherwise be vacant. Little and often really adds up.


Half of becoming proficient in a language comes with understanding the culture. Memrise offers nothing in the way of this.

Some of the user-designed courses are… A bit erratic. And don’t teach you things that are necessarily useful, or correct.

As the sole method on your language learning quest, Memrise won’t take you all the way. It won’t give you a great command of grammar or culture. But with some consistent effort, Memrise can help you improve by leaps and bounds – particularly with expanding your vocabulary, which is a challenge common to every language. Highly recommended.

#3 – Brainscape

The basic service is free – but there are several grades of feature-laden packages which will cost you something.

Which languages can you learn?
They have a compact set of Brainscape-curated language courses – think Mandarin, French, Spanish, German, Portuguese, etc – and a whole host of other user-created courses. However, much like memrise, the true scope of the platform goes well beyond language learning. You can use it to study anything from Computer Science to Microeconomics to, er, Yoga.

How does it work?
“My brain just doesn’t do languages.” – A common complaint of those who struggled with languages at school.
Well, newsflash for you. If you’ve processed any of this sentence, your highly evolved brain is a language specialist. Brainscape’s mission brief is to optimize your brain’s learning capacity. The founder created it for his own use, and developed the platform while doing a Master’s in Education Technology, during which time he drew a lot of lessons from Cognitive Science and built up the central method of Brainscape – Confidence-Based Repetition (CBR).
It is fundamentally a flashcard system, of which there are already many on the market. What CBR does is allow you to rate each item you have covered in a unit on how well you think you have memorised it on a scale from 1-5. The platform the tailors the frequency of each appearance in the course to your own needs. To borrow some of Brainscape’s patter, this creates a system of “flashcards on steroids”, with excellent spaced repetition that allows you to focus on learning the items you want at the most helpful points in your progress.


Brainscape gauges the success of your learning based on your own feedback.

It strikes a good balance between ‘fun’ – appealing to restless 8-year olds – and ‘effective’ – appealing to stressed 21-year olds before finals.

It comes with a stats tool to give you a data-driven analysis of your progress. Which may not tell you all that much, but it’s definitely satisfying to see those graphs heading up.

Its user base is wild about it. Nothing else speaks more highly of the method.

Often, flashcard services only focus on reading. Brainscape flashcards all have audio files attached.

A nice, slow progression from words to sentences.

Excellent spaced repetition – repeating information too soon or too long after the first exposure is counterproductive. Less familiar language appears more frequently and vice-versa for those words and phrases with which you are confident.

Brainscape provides linguistic usage notes with their curated cards to give you context for what you’re learning.

You have the ability to delete flashcards as you go, so you don’t have to re-run information that you’ve already mastered or that you’re not interested in.

Offline access! But…


The premium features – like offline mobile access and unlimited curated content – cost more money. Quelle surprise.

Brainscape is downloadable from the App Store, but disappointingly isn’t available on Android – which is slightly incomprehensible considering what a big market that represents. While they can’t offer offline access for android, they have a handset-optimized webpage, but it just isn’t the same.

Not enough pictures for visual learners like yours truly.

It probably has less total content than Memrise. But the content is top-notch.

Brainscape is intriguing in its methods – and even if you don’t fancy reading their whole scientific paper on the founding methodology and evidence for its effectiveness, you can your own practice will be the best evidence that they’re on to something. It’s probably worth paying to reprogram your language-learning brain.

#4 – Michel Thomas Method

Varies between courses. A starter set is £15 to get you hooked, while the more complete, advanced courses can cost around £70-£80.

Which languages can you learn?
French, Spanish, Italian, German, Dutch, Greek, Portuguese, Japanese, Polish, Russian, Arabic, Mandarin Chinese.

How does it work?
A quick word about the man who designed the method – Michel Thomas was a cool guy. A Polish Polyglot from Łódź, he spent WW2 with the French Resistance movement, during which time he made a habit of escaping from Nazi prison camps. After the war, he moved to Hollywood, where he opened a language school for the rich and famous. There he designed this audio-only method, where you listen to 10-minute lessons with an expert and two students, who also start knowing not a word of the language in question. You start with tiny building blocks of words and phrases, and eventually move on to creating sentences without confusing grammatical terms, which tend to be replaced by interesting mnemonics, analogies and metaphors. You are encouraged to avoid the stress of memorisation, and instead to relax as you learn. Thomas claimed that his students could “achieve in three days what is not achieved in two to three years at any college”.


The small steps make the challenge feel achievable. Probably the least stress-inducing method of language learning around.

Quite interactive for an audio course – the lesson is designed with you in mind as the third student.

The practical examples are linked to every-day occurrences.

It exercises your puzzle solving skills – using the X and Y we already know, how then do we say Z?

When possible, the method helps a lot by pointing out cognates between the target language and English – that way you realize that you have a lot of foreign vocabulary hidden in the English you already speak.

The small timeframe. As audio-courses go, you invest relatively little time for a lot of reward. For example, the Foundation courses come in at just 8 hours.


Only available for English speakers.

Some people find Michel Thomas’s English accent grating. (I don’t.)

More likely to be grating are the two students in each class – without meaning to be harsh, I remember one of them on the Portuguese foundation course seemed to have been pulled in off the street without any idea of the activity they were going to be engaged in. The pace of the lessons is great, but the pace of the students can be infuriating if you pick it up quickly.

You listen to all the mistakes the students make, which you could end up accidentally memorizing.

#5 – Pimsleur

Expensive. A full course will set you back about twice as much as Michel Thomas.

Which languages can you learn?
Over 50 – including dialect splits, like German vs Swiss German, European vs Brazilian Portuguese, two different kinds of Persian, and so on. They also offer 14 courses for English as a second language. All of which is very impressive.

How does it work?
Another audio-only language acquisition method that claims to leave behind the rote memorization tactic that put people off languages at school. It focuses on conversations – hours and hours and hours and hours of them. Yup, you have to put a lot more time into this audio method, and it’s a lot less fun than Michel Thomas. But if you can stay awake, you will make progress in the language.


There is a lot of pressure to recall the phrases you’ve learnt, which can be useful – that’s how it is in real life!

Repetition and linking in course structure – what you learn in the first module will come in useful later, so nothing should feel pointless.

Lots of native pronunciation for you to absorb and reproduce.

If you can stick through a whole course, you will definitely have had some of the language hammered into your long-term memory.



So dull. Language learning can be a joyous experience, just not this way.

The conversational contexts they provide belong to a different era. They can seem quite forced and irrelevant.

They only teach stilted, formal language.

Not just a serious investment of money, but of time too.

In some ways Pimsleur is very good – it’s probably the most thorough and structured of all these options. However, it is pricey, time consuming, and a grind. On the other hand, this is language learning; to do it well, it’s going to cost money, take up a lot of time, and make your brain hurt.

In sum

Technology has given us more varied methods for picking up a new language than we’ve ever had access to before. The best thing about this is that we all learn in different ways – so any of the above could be best suited to your style. However, to get to the level of expertise that our translators have, nothing is a substitute for perfecting your knowledge with years of graft, your nose at the grindstone of a grammar book. Even more important is immersion in the foreign language environment for an extended period. The fact remains, though, that having the courage to start with a new language is one of the hardest things – so download one for your journey home! Bonne chance.

Images courtesy of Duolingo, Memrise, Brainscape, Michel Thomas & Pimsleur