It’s easier than ever for Americans to move abroad, thanks to the growth of remote work, apps for travel and navigation, and expat groups to make friends and ask questions. One barrier that remains for the 77% of monolingual Americans? Learning the local language.
Although 23% of Americans are bilingual, it’s not because one in four native English speakers have been hitting the books, but because we have such a robust immigrant population. Almost all of those Americans — 67 million — speak English as their second language.
Americans’ monolingualism puts us at a great disadvantage. It’s estimated that 75% of the world’s population doesn’t speak English, which leaves us unable to communicate globally.
My husband and I are moving from Birmingham, Alabama to Yucatan, Mexico next year, and we’re learning Spanish so we can assimilate in our new home and build relationships with Spanish speakers. With dozens of apps available, we decided to try the most popular options and see which was the most effective.
Duolingo is definitely the “It girl” of apps right now, thanks to clever marketing. The company’s green owl mascot interacts in funny ways with content on social media like TikTok, creating loyalty among younger folks. The phone app gives short lessons alongside colorful animations, and it’s highly gamified. You get awards for practicing every day or scoring higher than your friends.
The app offers dozens of languages, including fictional ones like Klingon and High Valyrian, but it doesn’t distinguish between the Spanish spoken in Spain from that spoken in Latin America.
What it costs: Free but you can pay for additional features in the app, just like a game.
What it’s best at: Keeping you consistent. You won’t want to miss a lesson when you’re competing with your husband. Not that I’m competitive (but for the record, I’m winning).
What it’s worst at: Making you fluent. So far, the short quizzes only require deduction. I don’t feel like it’s taught me much, other than the word for apples (manzanas).
Even if I didn’t learn a ton, I had fun using Duolingo. If you think of it as a game rather than a learning tool, you’ll be happier with the outcome.
If Duolingo is the young upstart, Pimsleur is the wise old-timer. Which makes sense, because the Pimsleur Method is named after the man who created it (Paul Pimsleur), and he was born in 1927.
You can use Pimsleur on the web, app, or even by loading up old-fashioned CDs from the library. The process is straightforward: you repeat a common conversation over and over again in thirty-minute lessons, like this:
“Are you American?”
“Is he American?”
“I am not American.” (Glad I learned that one!)
“I am Spanish.”
“Are you Spanish?”
And so on.
The lessons come in 20 languages and slowly grow more complex, but many lessons later you’ll still be asking if he’s American. Pimsleur’s logic is that we learn language by listening and repeating, like we do when we’re babies.
What it costs: $14.95/month, and you can get a discount on an annual subscription. Check your library for free resources.
What it’s best at: Helping you speak and listen, teaching phrases for travelers.
What it’s worst at: Teaching you quickly or helping you with grammar or reading.
My over-the-hill brain enjoyed repeating phrases over and over, but a few weeks later I can’t even remember how to say I’m American.
Many people who move to the United States learned to speak English by watching TV. That’s how Lingopie works. The app partners with Netflix to offer TV shows and movies combined with tools like interactive subtitles, quizzes, and flashcards. You can use Lingopie on the website or app. On the app version, you can also record yourself reading the subtitles, and the app will score your pronunciation.
The app only offers eight languages, but it notes the origin of each show and movie, making it perfect for choosing what kind of Spanish to study.
What it costs: $36 for three months, or you can save with an annual or lifetime subscription.
What it’s best at: Getting you from intermediate to fluent.
What it’s worst at: Helping you get started.
As absolute beginners, we struggled to find a show that was basic enough for our skills, even though you can slow down playback or repeat episodes. We and our TikTok followers all loved one show about Chester the cat and the words you use to describe him sitting in, on, or near a box. Could I get an app for just Chester?
Babbel is a one-stop shop for language lessons and offers both self-study lessons and small group classes. The giant German company says it has 10 million subscribers who can choose from 13 languages and learn on web or app. The Spanish lessons are specifically for Latin American Spanish.
I used self-study lessons, which were functionally similar to Duolingo but included several ways to learn the info. You could hear the phrases, read the phrases, answer multiple choice questions about them, spell them out, and speak them.
What it costs: $14.95/month for self-study lessons, or you can save with longer plans or a lifetime subscription. One note: I was quoted different prices on the app than I was on the website. $99/month for group classes, or you can save with longer plans. All class subscriptions come with free access to the self-study lessons, but I think the group classes are web-based only.
What it’s best at: Building confidence in reading and grammar.
What it’s worst at: Encouraging you to speak.
I have to say, I really enjoyed using Babbel. I felt like I could work at my own pace, unlike Pimsleur that kept me mired in one lesson or Duolingo that doesn’t give you the big picture.
I was going to try Rosetta Stone because I thought you could get it through the library, but our library now offers Mango instead. You can use Mango on the web or app.
What it costs: $7.99/month for one language or $17.99/month for 70+ languages. There are discounts for subscribing annually. Check your library for free resources.
What it’s best at: Being free.
What it’s worst at: Everything else.
Each Mango lesson starts with conversational and grammar goals, which I appreciated, but the lessons were boring and buggy. It has a voice recording tool, but it didn’t work for me. The built-in narrator speaks excruciatingly slowly, but if you turn her off, you don’t get any instructions.
I’m definitely going to stick with Babbel. I appreciated that the app is similar to how you learn language in school, based on grammar: first pronouns, then regular verbs, then irregular verbs, etc. Many apps seemed to wander through conversations, first with greetings, then with introductions, etc., but I can have conversations faster if I understand the foundations.
Of course, I’d hoped to have the best experience with any of the free options I tried, but no such luck.
We plan to incorporate in-person classes once we’ve made our move to Mexico. In addition to immersing ourselves in real-life conversations, I think it will be a great way to make friends.
This article was produced by Media Decision and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Jen Barnett is an expat influencer and co-founder of Expatsi, a company that's helped thousands of Americans on their moving abroad journeys. She created the Expatsi Test, an assessment that recommends countries for aspiring emigrants based on lifestyle data. Jen has an MBA from Emory University with concentrations in marketing and innovation. She's written for BusinessWeek, Health, Cooking Light, and Southern Living. Prior to Expatsi, she created Freshfully and Bottle & Bone—two businesses in the local food space—and spoke at TEDx on being brave. She's moving to Mexico in 2024, along with her husband and co-founder Brett, pitbull mix Squiggy, and three rotten cats. How can she help you move abroad?