Why you can trust ZDNET : ZDNET independently tests and researches products to bring you our best recommendations and advice. When you buy through our links, we may earn a commission. Our process

'ZDNET Recommends': What exactly does it mean?

ZDNET's recommendations are based on many hours of testing, research, and comparison shopping. We gather data from the best available sources, including vendor and retailer listings as well as other relevant and independent reviews sites. And we pore over customer reviews to find out what matters to real people who already own and use the products and services we’re assessing.

When you click through from our site to a retailer and buy a product or service, we may earn affiliate commissions. This helps support our work, but does not affect what we cover or how, and it does not affect the price you pay. Neither ZDNET nor the author are compensated for these independent reviews. Indeed, we follow strict guidelines that ensure our editorial content is never influenced by advertisers.

ZDNET's editorial team writes on behalf of you, our reader. Our goal is to deliver the most accurate information and the most knowledgeable advice possible in order to help you make smarter buying decisions on tech gear and a wide array of products and services. Our editors thoroughly review and fact-check every article to ensure that our content meets the highest standards. If we have made an error or published misleading information, we will correct or clarify the article. If you see inaccuracies in our content, please report the mistake via this form.


Free and popular language learning apps

Interest in language learning apps surged during the pandemic. Here's a look at some free apps that can allow you to start a virtual language learning journey.
Written by Nate Delesline III, Staff Writer

When the COVID-19 pandemic first turned American life upside down in early 2020, people discovered — or sometimes rediscovered — creative ways to engage their minds. Faced with a sudden surplus of at-home time, people chose cooking and baking as a way to create and connect. Others brought musical instruments into their lives.

At the start of the pandemic, language learning surged too. Many of the world's top language learning apps and platforms reported huge gains in the number of users and downloads. Despite facing self-imposed or legally mandated restrictions on travel, the pandemic failed to squelch our wanderlust. If anything, quarantines and lockdowns only amplified our desire to travel

Most language learning apps take one of several approaches to help people learn. Some people learn better by hearing. Others learn better through visual experiences. Apps frequently engage people to learn through storytelling or gamification. 

Many of the most popular apps have free features. However, to access their full functionality, a subscription is often required. Some apps offer deals if you sign up for an annual subscription. Keep reading to learn more details about some of the most popular language-learning apps.

Quick takes on five free language learning apps 

Features: It's free to start learning a language on Duolingo. At the end of 2021, the Pittsburgh-based company reported that it had more than 500 million users worldwide in nearly 200 countries. Duolingo has mobile apps for iPhone and Android and also works on desktops. The app creates personalized lessons with AI. You'll learn to read, listen and speak another language through exercises and characters.

User experience: To remove ads, you can choose to level up to Duolingo Plus. You'll receive a free 14-day trial. After that, Duolingo Plus starts at $6.99 per month — that's about $84 per year.

Languages: About 40, including Spanish, Japanese, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin

Features: Rather than focusing on vocabulary lists, Rosetta Stone focuses heavily on pronunciation and accent. This platform also engages people through an immersive approach to learning new words and phrases in real-world contexts. The goal, according to the company, is getting people "ready for real-world conversations that don't follow a script." 

User experience: Rosetta Stone offers a free, three-day trial. After that, pricing starts at $35.97 for three months — that's about $144 per year. Virginia-based Rosetta Stone's consumer language business had 516,000 subscribers in 2019.

LanguagesAbout 25, including French, German, Russian, and Vietnamese

Apple App Store

Features: Babbel users can access live online classes, podcasts, and games. Learners explore languages through real-world conversations, vocabulary words, and culture. Babel says its lessons are created by language experts.

User experience: It's free to register, and Babbel offers the first lesson in each course for free. According to the Berlin-based company, you could take advantage of 30-80 free lessons. The exact number will depend on what language you choose. After that, pricing starts at $13.95 for one month or $9.95 for three months — that's about $120 per year. Babbel's paid experience is ad-free.

Languages: 14, including Italian, Polish, Indonesian, and Portuguese

Apple App Store

Features: Memrise says fun enhances learning. Toward that end, Memrise includes what the London-based company calls "learn with locals" videos. The company collected thousands of videos from native speakers in Europe. This content is part of the learning experience.

User experience: With a free account, you can learn vocabulary, basic phrases, and sentences. Leveling up to Memrise Pro starts as low as $5 per month for an annual subscription — that's about $60 per year. With Pro, you'll receive a personalized learning experience delivered with "a variety of entertaining and scientific memory techniques."

LanguagesAbout 20 for American English speakers, including Korean, Turkish, Norwegian, and Yoruba.

Apple App Store

Features: Busuu focuses on reading, writing, listening, and speaking. It's free to sign up and use. However, an upgraded premium membership grants access to additional features. Premium Plus features include an offline mode, study plans, and the opportunity to receive feedback from native speakers. The app works on desktop browsers and on iOS and Android devices. 

User experience: According to a study commissioned by the London-based company, 22 hours of Busuu equals a college semester of language learning. You may also share the app across multiple family devices, but you can't share a single paid subscription. Premium costs about $6.50 a month for an annual subscription — that's about $78 per year. For about $1 more per month, you can step up to Premium Plus. You'll have to subscribe to the top tier to get native speaker feedback. The Premium Plus level also allows you to study all languages on the platform if you choose — that comes in at about $90 per year. 

Languages: 12, including Chinese, Russian, Arabic, and Italian

What are the world's most commonly spoken languages?

There are approximately 7,000 languages in use around the world today. About half a dozen of these languages dominate the global conversation. According to multiple sources, the languages below are among the world's most spoken:

  • Mandarin Chinese
  • English
  • Hindi
  • Spanish 
  • French 
  • Arabic
  • Russian
  • Portuguese
  • Indonesian

As for the most global language, the United Nations recognizes six of these as the organization's official languages: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. According to the UN, "correct interpretation and translation of these six languages, in both spoken and written form, is very important" for the UN "because this enables clear and concise communication on issues of global importance."

Editorial standards