It’s nice to know that learning French (or any other language) doesn’t mean committing to several months in a language class. All I need to do is download the right app on my phone and I’m set. But there are a ton of apps in the store and all of them look good. How do you know which one is good for you? No worries, we’ve done the work for you.
In this post, we are comparing Duolingo and Babbel, two of the most downloaded language learning apps today. Both have four stars on average at the Android and iOS app stores. Duolingo has more languages on offer, but that does not mean it wins. Instead, we are looking at the two apps based on the following factors:
Please note that in this review, we are comparing the two apps’ ability to teach French only. We are also looking only at their first lesson. While each app follows a unique learning path, they tend to start in the same place. These limits allow us to examine different apps from an even enough standpoint.
By the way, for an exhaustive description of the apps as well as checking user reviews, you should check our page dedicated to language learning.
Now, let’s get started:
Both apps have a minimalistic design, Babbel even more so. Duolingo’s interface uses greens, reds, and blues set in almost stark contrast against a white background. On the other hand, Babbel uses cozy, mostly neutral colors that are very easy on the eyes. Its interface doesn’t grab your attention, but it does allow you to focus on what you are doing.
Duolingo’s interface can be too repetitive. Sometimes, it makes you tap several times just to move on to the next page. Babbel is faster to navigate, which is great if you are learning on the go.
However, Duolingo is friendlier to actual beginners. Babbel does not offer much context before giving you a new word, an approach which amateurs may find too heavy-handed. Sometimes, I got Babbel’s questions correctly only because I already know a bit of French. Duolingo gives you an image of the word you are learning. This lets you quickly understand a word you may be seeing for the first time.
All things considered, I think Duolingo wins in this area.
Both apps provide audios of native speakers reading out the words you are studying. This is very important when learning French, a language where words aren’t always pronounced as they are spelled. Every French language lesson should place emphasis on speech.
Duolingo does not let you practice speaking French until close to the end of Lesson 1. When it finally does, you’ll find that its voice recognition function is too lenient. It will mark your input correct even if you committed a mistake or two.
Babbel, however, does not let you practice speech at all. The app comes with its own voice recognition function which uses your phone’s microphone. You won’t be using this feature in Lesson 1 though. Needless to say, I’m giving this area to Duolingo by default.
Duolingo’s Lesson 1 gives you a lot of French words from the get-go. You’ll learn pronouns, basic nouns and verbs, and even a greeting or two. If you want to learn as many French words as you can, then this approach will work for you.
Babbel follows “quality over quantity.” The number of words you learn in Lesson 1 is much, much fewer than what you get from Duolingo. In fact, Babbel’s first lesson may feel too rushed because it doesn’t give you much to learn.
Yet I would give this round to Babbel because of one key feature. After you have learned the words, you will be given a sample dialogue. This conversation shows the words you learned as they are used in actual conversation. This gives you an excellent idea of the nuances of the verbiage and the many ways to use them.
Duolingo teaches you verb variations, a crucial part of speaking French. But while it only implies the rules, Babbel tells you the rules outright. The app provides clear instructions and advice on when to use certain words, such as “tu” and “vous.” While learning by doing works, sometimes it’s better to be told directly. This prevents you from making false assumptions, especially about something you are in the process of learning. This area goes to Babbel for me.
As someone who dabbles in visual arts, I believe that pictures tell a thousand words. As humans, we rely on our sense of sight most of the time. For this reason, using images can enhance one’s language learning experience. Babbel used vivid stock images to accompany their lessons. Duolingo also used images, but flat ones.
The problem with Babbel’s images was that sometimes, they didn’t look too related to the words paired with them. This created a disconnect which, personally, affected my ability to remember the words being taught. At least with Duolingo, I still remember the word “pomme” thanks to their apple graphic.
Finally, I felt like Babbel did not use enough repetition to help me remember. As mentioned above, there were times when the lesson felt too rushed. Duolingo fixes this problem by repeating words several times throughout the lesson. The app also does this even after you’ve moved on to more advanced levels. This area clearly goes to Duolingo.
Babbel’s minimalism works against it in this area. Its very straightforward approach, along with its almost dull colors made for an app which, while visually pleasing, did not awaken much interest. The almost random images didn’t help either. Duolingo’s game-like mechanics work to its advantage. Everything, from the prospect of getting rewards to the occasional words of encouragement, invites students to keep on learning. Duolingo wins in this round.
Babbel allows you to choose from four subscription options after you have completed Lesson 1. Only then can you access the rest of the lessons. While the prices are very reasonable, they don’t sound as appealing against Duolingo’s totally free service. I guess the winner in this round is obvious.
If you want a straightforward approach to learning another language, Babbel is for you. The app’s strongest point is in its explanation of essential language elements. Its emphasis on real-world usage of the language is also a win. It may look and feel dull at times, but it does the job and does it really well.
If you are on a tight budget, nothing beats Duolingo. This is also great if you like the idea of having fun while learning. It has some of the setbacks common in free apps (ads, ads, and more ads) though. Then again, if all you want is to get started with French, then Duolingo more than delivers.
While Babbel and Duolingo are two of the leading apps to learn foreign languages, they are plenty more available out there with different teaching methods such as live tutors, flash cards or online games to name a few. You may want to check our Language Learning page: some of the solutions listed there will surprise you!
Text by RJ
Image by Ben White