Language Learning Doorway and Three Apps I use

I love learning other languages. It isn’t the studying part that I enjoy or the books, or the memorising vocabulary. I love being able to talk to people in other countries, to gain a deeper insight into their cultures and to participate more in their communities.

Fluency is a term that is overused I wouldn’t throw it around lightly. I am nowhere near “fluent” in another language if fluency is a comparison of that language to my level of English. Given that I grew up speaking English and did all of my education in English that would be a tall order.

I am able to converse on a fairly wide range of topics in Farsi however, and also in Urdu (although it has become very rusty over the last few years). I also studied Russian in University and have dabbled on and off with a few other languages.

I have found that there is a tipping point when learning languages that is exhilarating. It is that point when all of the timid attempts at reproducing sounds and the disjointed vocabulary and the awkward sentences come together to create real conversation. Not just a few memorised phrases but real two-way conversation. It is like stepping through a doorway and into a new world. For me, that is where learning a language changes from hard work to an adventure.

Sousse, Tunisia

Because conversation is the ultimate goal for me, I have always been somewhat skeptical of language learning software and apps. Like books, they can be a tool towards learning a language, but to claim that they can teach you a language or make you fluent is ridiculous. Much of the advertising for language learning apps and software make incredibly misleading claims of effortless learning in hardly any time.

In real life, language learning takes hard work over a sustained period of time and requires considerable motivation. Above all, it requires talking to real people.

That said, I do dabble with a few apps and I do find them to be valuable. Not as complete language learning systems but as tools that can contribute to the overall learning journey. Here are my top three picks:

Anki and AnkiDroid: This allows you to study flashcards using spaced repetition. You can set up your own list of vocabulary (or import someone else’s). You get a daily list of words to review. When you feel you have learned the word you click an option that makes this word come up less frequently in future lists. If you struggle with a certain word you can have it repeated again or more frequently in upcoming lists. Sometimes I still prefer a good old-fashioned deck of flashcards or a handwritten list of words, but I do really like this app as a means of maintaining vocabulary. Bonus: it is free!

Duolingo: I have been using Duolingo Russian over the last few months and will be able to complete the “tree” fairly soon. I am still not even close to being able to have conversations in Russian. But I do have to say that the app has done a good job of bringing back my rusty University Russian. It has been fun, and is kind of like playing a game. I highly doubt that I would be able to go to Russia and engage in any real conversations once I complete it, but I would be able to read some signs and understand a few words and phrases. It is also free to use.

PimsleurI came across Pimsleur by accident. A friend had the level 1 Conversational Pashto CDs and gave them to me because he no longer wanted them. I tried them and loved it. The half-hour audio-only lessons suit my learning style well and can be used in the car or when out for a jog. While the vocabulary and conversations were limited in scope, I felt that I could remember them well. I put what I had learned into practice with a shopkeeper and a taxi driver in Kabul. They were excited when I pulled out a few Pashto phrases, but I quickly exhausted my repertoire so they switched back to Farsi. Still, I thought Pimsleur was great for building some conversational ability – until I discovered the price that is.

Have you tried any of these? Do you have a favourite language learning app of your own? Let me know in the comments section below…



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10 thoughts on “Language Learning Doorway and Three Apps I use

  1. I found your post interesting, and potentially useful. I, too, have dabbled in many languages. My first was Spanish, which I began in secondary school, then French which I took to France and learned well enough to converse and write, though these days writing is excruciating for lack of practice, then dialectical Moroccan Arabic, which I learned well enough for conversation, then literary Arabic, which I never learned well enough to do anything with, and a bit of Farsi, which I studied in Teheran at a language school.

    Oh yes, Russian, three years from which I now remember little, having even forgot the cursive.

    So in my retirement, I find myself wondering about improving my written French, learning to read Spanish well enough to take pleasure in it, and learning Catalan, in case a trip to Catalonia materializes. The Catalans are happy to help one, and want to encourage the use of their language. There are free online courses at

    Still, as you say, learning without native speakers around isn’t easy. Nevertheless, I get a great amount of pleasure from reading French, and perhaps I can broaden my base, at least in the Romance languages.

    Thanks again for the suggestions. And the shots of Sousse.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. The beauty of living in a large city is that you can always find native speakers of almost any language! The ease with which Farsi came back to me in Afghanistan last year surprised me a little but it’s because I have regular interactions in Farsi here in LA that I don’t lose it—in fact I think my vocabulary has improved over the last few years.
    Urdu, on the other hand, I can read as well as I used to (which is not well at all), and understand the same, (Because I still occasionally read something in Urdu or watch a Bollywood) but my conversational ability has gone down the drain, because all the Urdu speakers I know here are either fully bilingual or speak English better, having grown up here. So I don’t get to practice, and while I can surprise the occasional stranger or new friend, it’s not the same as being conversant.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Very interesting post, thank you. I grew up in a Welsh speaking household so I’ve been fluent in two languages for as long as I can remember. I also did a French ‘A’ level a few years ago and dabbled in German and Italian. I definitely agree about the “tipping point”, mine came when I realised that I could listen to the French news programmes on TV and understand them directly without having to mentally translate into English!

    Thanks also for the link to Anki. Many years ago I wrote some similar, but very much simpler, software for myself and I found it extremely useful in learning vocabulary. My approach to learning languages has always been to learn the basic grammatical structures ( verb tenses etc ) and then as much vocabulary as possible. There’s no secret sauce, you just have to test the vocabulary over and over again and practice listening and speaking.

    For me though, the biggest revolution in language learning has been the internet. There are just so many high quality, often free resources out there that you don’t need to buy any expensive language courses. Just get a basic text book and the internet and you’re good to go.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for stopping by and for taking the time to comment. I agree with you about the internet and free resources. Having access to the news and TV programmes in other languages has often
      been helpful to me.


  4. I hear you on the tipping point… where the hard work stops and you are able to have a conversation with a real person! I learnt French when i was 10-12 years old. Then German, when I was 14-15 years old. I prefer French. Anyways, would be interested in getting a free app and pick up on both languages. Soon enough I would love to blog in both…
    Thank you for your post.

    Liked by 1 person

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