When I first started learning Spanish, way back when in 2007, the tools and materials at a student’s disposal were limited. To pick up another language you had to go to class or simply work your way through a physical textbook (and audio accompaniment, if you were feeling fancy). Nowadays, of course, the learning environment is much changed. In addition, to these traditional methods you can also make use of any one of an expanding number of online platforms, courses and apps to boost your linguistic skills.
In many ways, we are now spoiled for choice. After recently investigating just a few of the online Spanish learning tools available (many kindly
suggested by members of the Learning Spanish in Colombia Facebook group), I immediately encountered a bewildering number of options. Each of the various apps, platforms and courses embraces a different philosophy and teaching technique, with near enough all claiming that their particular product offers the quickest route to language success.
Each of the various apps and and courses embraces a different philosophy and teaching technique
It struck me that all of this makes it tough for anyone just starting out to decide which is the best online Spanish course or app for them. So I spent some time investigating eight of these products (there are many more available, of course), assessing their comparative advantages and disadvantages, and drawing up some recommendations as to which tools are most suited to various categories of Spanish learner.
The recommendations below reflect my views, but bear in mind that everybody learns in different ways. You might find other tools work better for you so go for whichever best fits with your lifestyle and learning preferences. In any case, you’ll undoubtedly have to use quite a few different tools and methods to obtain real fluency – one method or tool in isolation will never be enough.
Finally, and in the interests of transparency, I should mention that some of the below are affiliate links, meaning I will get a small commission from any subsequent sale. I’ve tried my utmost not to let this sway my recommendations either way, as I hope will become clear as you read through the reviews.
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Online Spanish Courses and Apps Reviewed
MosaLingaBest Budget CourseAn easy to use, flashcard-based app (featuring Colombian audio files) that utilises memorisation research to provide you with a solid basis in Spanish phrases, vocabulary and some grammar.Read full review →
SpanishPod101.comSpanish lessons in this extensive library of audio / video content are solid, though the quality of supplementary lessons (on Latin culture/travel/entertainment) is more variable.Read full review →
DuoLingoBest Free CourseA free language learning tool based mainly around performing translations; expertly integrates gaming strategies and ‘language bots’ to motivate you to learn more.Read full review →
Fluent in Three MonthsAdvertised as a guide to deciphering Spanish’s toughest elements, this eBook from the ‘Fluent in Three Months’ site sadly falls somewhat short of the marketing hype.Read full review →
BBC – Mi Vida LocaA quality video production from the BBC in which you learn European Spanish (for free) by interacting with a series of characters during an imagined trip to Madrid.Read full review →
PimsleurBest Premium CourseAn audio-led course that is designed around the language acquisition research of a prominent academic, enabling students to maximise retention of new words.Read full review →
FluenciaPlus points for this Spanish learning app include the diversity of exercises and the stretching content for advanced learners; but these are not quite enough to justify the $15/month price tag.Read full review →
DuoLingo Spanish Desktop/App – Review
A free language learning tool based mainly around performing translations; expertly integrates gaming strategies and ‘language bots’ to motivate you to learn more.
As a business case study, DuoLingo is rather interesting. It has flipped the traditional language learning model on its head in order to deliver a quality product to language learners for free.
Instead of charging students to use the service, DuoLingo has been designed in such a way that the firm’s owners are able to make money from tasks willingly performed by language learners studying on their platform.
This is all explained by the company’s founder in this Ted talk (skip to 8m30), but essentially the model involves using translations carried out by DuoLingo students within the application to help translate real life texts (that are then paid for by external clients).
The result is that the product is free at the point of delivery for students of Spanish and other languages.
How it Works
Start using DuoLingo and you’ll be immediately launched into practicing Spanish language terms. There are no lessons to explain things to you; instead you’re presented with a series of vocab, pictures and Spanish audio files and have to match all these things up.
As you progress, you’re increasingly asked to transcribe Spanish audio and, of course, to do a significant amount of translation between Spanish and English texts. There is also some opportunity to practice your speaking also, by reading out Spanish sentences which are then picked up by the program’s in-built voice recognition software.
An important feature to also mention is DuoLingo’s design. The firm has gone to great lengths to make the whole learning experience as close to a game as possible: the graphics are cartoony in style, as are the sound effects, bonuses gems and other points you pick up as you advance through the material. All this is well integrated with social media so you can easily compete with your friends and colleagues.
A final innovative and recently added feature for DuoLingo users on the Mac platform is the ‘language bot’ function. This allows you to chat in your target language to an automated program that will respond to you as if it were a real human being. This is not a feature I’ve seen on any other tools and is an exciting development for the field of language learning.
- A big point in DuoLingo’s favour is that it’s free; there are very few (if any) other Spanish learning programs which offer this level of sophistication for no money at all
- It is extremely user friendly and intuitive to operate, with the well executed cartoon-style design making the whole program look immediately inviting. This makes learning language seem highly accessible, even for those who have previously been out off by grammar and language jargon
- The gamification is excellently done. The points, gems and ‘fluency rating’ that you’re awarded as you progress are all entirely meaningless, of course, but somehow you find yourself wanting more
- The inclusion of innovative features, notably the ‘language bots’, separates DuoLingo apart from a number of competitors
- The main downside of DuoLingo is that some of the sentences and phrases it asks you to translate are extremely random (e.g. “my elephants drink water”). Most of the vocabulary the app teaches is more useful, but some is utterly pointless.
- DuoLingo doesn’t include any actual lessons or explanations of Spanish terms/grammar; you’re just left to figure this all out from the examples given. This makes it harder to think up your own sentences if you venture away from the material you’ve directly covered
- Suggested translation almost always include the ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘you’ bit (the personal pronouns), which are not necessary in Spanish and may lead you into bad habits
- The Spanish audio is machine generated, meaning some files sound a bit robotic and can occasionally be difficult to understand
Most suited to
Anyone who has previously been put off from language learning by jargon and technical terms, or has lacked motivation to continue. Also good for learners on a tight budget.
DuoLingo claims their service will be “free forever”.
MosaLingua Spanish App – Review
An easy to use, flashcard-based app (featuring Colombian audio files) that utilises memorisation research to provide you with a solid basis in Spanish phrases, vocabulary and some grammar.
MosaLingua’s Spanish learning app is like a supercharged phrasebook and vocabulary learner for Spanish and a bunch of other languages. The normal app provides all the stuff you’ll need to get around, order food, make arrangements and manage some social interactions when visiting a Spanish-speaking country. There is also an app for business Spanish, that’ll be useful if you’re visiting for work purposes.
How it Works
The app is based on a flashcard system, with each word/phrase accompanied by an image and audio file to assist memorisation and pronunciation. You can easily tailor your learning by selecting the level of difficulty and topic areas you want to focus on, along with the number of words/phrases you’d like to learn each day. In the newly launched desktop version, you can also use MosaLingua’s plug-ins to create your own flashcards based on words you’ve come across from other sources.
All this info is compiled to produce your own tailored language learning routine. The app uses a variety of different methods to help you commit the terms and phrases to memory: including testing you on Spanish/English and English/Spanish translations, working from the audio files only, as well as using anagram exercises / spelling puzzles for the Spanish words.
Once you’ve worked your way through the first bunch of phrases, at regular intervals over the following days and weeks the app will prompt you to do a quick test of these phrases. At this stage you can mark each word to say: whether you completely know it, know it fairly well, struggled with it a bit, or had completely forgotten it.
MosaLingua works all this feedback into its system so that future tests will feature more of the words you struggle with and fewer of those that you don’t. Indeed, the whole app is specifically designed to Spanish vocabulary into your long-term memory by using a method known as spaced retention. In other words, the app tests you on stuff you’ve previously learnt, precisely at the time that research indicates you would be in danger of forgetting them.
- Easy to use and highly customisable to your individual learning needs and interests
- Integration of spaced repetition techniques at the heart of the app proves effective at committing new vocab to memory
- App material is comprehensive for the price, and includes large amounts of bonus resources and language learning tips
- All audio files are real life recordings of native speakers (from Colombia); not the machine generated files that are included on some other platforms
- The memorisation system is based on small amounts of regular study; if you miss sessions then you’ll fail to make the most out of the app’s in-built technology
- The app’s main focus on phrasebook style expressions might not satisfy those wanting to gain a deep understanding of the language, as grammar lessons are only a small component. The desktop version is better option if you’re serious about getting good at Spanish
Most suited to
The app is best suited to casual learners, such as those looking to pick up some holiday vocab, who want to learn on the go and who have limited time to commit to studying. The desktop version (which includes the app) is better suited to serious learners, especially those who plan on reading online in their target language.
A slimmed down version of the app is available on a free trial and the full version costs $4.99. The desktop version – including the app, MosaLingua library access and a load of other tools and resources – is available for free during a 15-day period; $59.90/year thereafter.
SpanishPod101.com Audio/Video Lessons – Review
Spanish lessons in this extensive library of audio / video content are solid, though the quality of supplementary lessons (on Latin culture/travel/entertainment) is more variable.
SpanishPod101.com started out as a library of podcasts containing lessons and dialogues to help your Spanish progression. Their library has now expanded to include a large amount of video content too; indeed these appear to have now become the main focus.
How it Works
On logging into the SpanishPod system, you can navigate around their extensive library of audio files and video lessons. The video lessons comprise animations of particular scenarios (e.g. dealing with buying a bus ticket) along with Spanish audio and subtitles.
After a quick initial viewing of the dialogue, the lesson instructor breaks down the individual words and phrases in the dialogue to examine their respective meanings in turn. You then return to the dialogue at normal speed to see how much more you can understand. During the lessons, you’re given plenty of opportunity to practice the vocabulary covered; both by itself and as part of imagined dialogues. However, there is no voice recognition software to check how well you are speaking.
Unlike some of SpanishPod’s competitors, which focus exclusively on vocabulary acquisition, this program also includes lessons on other topics, such as detailed descriptions of pronunciation, voice imitation techniques and some grammar. In the premium version, each of the various lessons is accompanied by flashcards, transcripts of dialogues and other learning materials. In the most expensive membership package, you’ll also received personalised feedback on your work from one of SpanishPod’s instructors.
- More comprehensive than some of its competitors, covering aspects such as pronunciation, grammar and culture
that other platforms overlook
- Includes full dialogues (competitors often just provide expressions) and the video animations make conversations more engaging than just looking at still photos
- The video and audio lesson library is ever-expanding thanks to the paid monthly membership business model that the company has adopted
- Users recommend the mobile app version of the site, saying it is slick and easy to use
- Some of the video content is less than stellar. Browse through the available vids and you’ll come across items like someone talking (in English) about a bunch of Spanish movie stars – in a video that looks distinctly like it has been filmed in a bedroom
- The topics covered in the advanced lessons are a bit uninspiring, focusing on how to reorder office stationery or get a gym membership, say, as opposed to how to manage social situations and making friends etc.
- Tracking your progress is not as smooth as in systems like MosaLingua or DuoLingo. In SpanishPod101 you have to mark lessons as completed yourself, rather than this just happening automatically
Most suited to
Those who prefer learning via audio files and videos rather than by doing exercises on apps. The option for individualised feedback on your work (on the most expensive subscription) will also appeal to any who like the personal touch.
A lot of sample content is available for free, but for a much wider range and to gain access to the lesson materials you’ll need a monthly subscription. The cheapest option costs $4/month going up to $23/month for some personalised attention and one-on-one interaction with teachers.
Fluent in Three Months ‘Why Spanish is Easy’ – Review
Advertised as a guide to deciphering Spanish’s toughest elements, this eBook from the ‘Fluent in Three Months’ site sadly falls somewhat short of the marketing hype.
Fluent in Three Months is a well-known website run by Benny Lewis, an Irish entrepreneur who reportedly speaks seven languages fluently and is able to converse in four more. Based on his experience of learning so many different foreign tongues, Benny has developed his own specific techniques which he has subsequently developed into a range of products.
Benny’s guiding philosophy is that you should try to get out and actually use your language as soon as possible and not worry about making mistakes in the early stages. In other words, he believes you should learn to speak a language by, well, speaking the language. The actual linguistic content of many of these products is minimal, as the focus is more about providing you with the tools and confidence so that you get speaking with locals. In this sense, they are almost like self-help guides for people who have always wanted to speak another language, but have always hidden behind written exercises or found other excuses not to.
How it Works
The main guide that Benny has produced for Spanish is an eBook called ”Why Spanish is Easy”. The book claims to examine the “‘hardest’ aspects of Spanish in a new and positive spin, using fun examples and mnemonics to help you commit them better to memory”. It is split into three sections that deal with how to get started, speak better Spanish and navigating the trickier bits of grammar.
- Benny’s story can provide inspiration for anyone lacking motivation or confidence in their ability to learn a new language
- It adopts an interesting approach to language learning, by putting speaking ahead of the traditional starting points of learning grammar and vocab acquisition
- You don’t get much for your money. The publication costs $37, but contains only 61 pages of text.
- The Spanish-specific content runs to about 25 pages, and is largely just an admittedly more accessible summary of grammar rules that can be obtained from many other sources.
Most suited to
Students who are struggling with motivation or who lack the confidence to get out there and start speaking the Spanish they already know.
That said, if these are the main problems you’re struggling with, you might do better to forget about Why Spanish is Easy and instead invest in Fluent in Three Months Premium; an online platform and altogether more polished product.
This doesn’t cover much in the way of Spanish vocab/grammar/expressions, as it is instead focused specifically on tackling issues of confidence and motivation, and on general advice about the best ways to practice and improve your target language. This won’t be for everyone, but if you need some inspiration and motivation to get going with your Spanish then it could be a good bet.
The book costs $37, while access to the more general Fluent in Three Months language learning platform is priced at $99.
BBC Mi Vida Loca – Review
A quality video production from the BBC in which you learn European Spanish (for free) by interacting with a series of characters during an imagined trip to Madrid.
The UK’s public broadcaster, the BBC, has produced a detailed series of resources, exercises and lessons to help anyone learn Spanish for free. Of the various tools provided, the most engaging has to be the ‘Mi Vida Loca’ series, described by the BBC as an “interactive video learning drama”.
The course begins with you on an airplane, about to begin an imaginary trip to Spain. You’ve just discovered that your Spanish-speaking travelling companion will no longer be able to join you, so you won’t be able to rely on her language skills. It’s not up to you to deal with all the situations you’d face for real on such a trip, like dealing with taxi drivers, sorting out accommodation, paying for food, and responding to a few unexpected surprises along the way.
How it Works
The course revolved around a series of videos that are all filmed in the first person – as if it was you who was really sitting there talking to the taxi driver, waitress, or your new Spanish friend. From the very beginning you are exposed to real dialogues, at real speed. However, after an initial screening, the narrator then interrupts to rewind the conversations, stopping after each phrase to explain what has been said.
The little drama excerpts are accompanied by interactive exercises to test what you’ve learnt. For example, when the taxi driver reads out the cost of your fare from the airport, the video is stopped and you are prompted to click on the correct Euro note to pay for it.
Similarly, you might be asked to respond out loud to questions from the people you interacting with, or to stop someone in the street and ask them directions to the metro etc. Though there is no inbuilt voice recognition software, you can easily check your own responses by clicking on a button in the video which reads out the correct answer in Spanish.
- The quality of the video productions is excellent, especially for a free tool
- Use of professional actors and the inclusion of some small twists in the story line helps engage you and livens up the learning experience
- Likewise, the use of the first person perspective helps get you comfortable with what it feels like to interact in real life situations using Spanish. This is particularly useful for building up confidence if you are a complete beginner
- The course includes a large variety of diverse learning tools and PDF transcripts that are all well executed
- For those of us interested in Latin American Spanish, a downside of this course is its heavy focus on Spain. The situations, like going to order tapas, and the vocab (e.g. saying “todo recto”, not “derecho”, for “straight-ahead” etc) covered are not 100% useful outside of Europe
- You can’t sign into the program, meaning your progress is not saved and you’re not retested on vocab you struggled with earlier in the course
- It’s not that comprehensive; you could probably work through the entire content in a concentrated day or two of study
Most suited to
Travellers to Spain, budget learners and those wanting to build up their confidence in dealing with real life situations prior to their arrival.
Pimsleur (Latin American) Spanish – Review
A recommended audio-led course that is designed around the language acquisition research of a prominent academic, enabling students to maximise retention of new words.
The Pimsleur Spanish course is a premium language learning product, but one which came recommended by several members of our Spanish learning community. The courses (which are available in numerous languages) are all based on what they call the ‘Pimsleur method’; a technique developed by a professor of applied linguistics using his research on how children first acquire language skills in their native tongue. The lessons that Dr. Pimsleur learnt during these investigations were then adapted and applied to suit adults during their acquisition of a second language.
How it Works
There are three principles at the heart of the Pimsleur method. First, avoid information overload and focus principally on the few basic words and structures at the heart of communication in any language. Second, use ‘graduated interval recall’ methods (reminding you of words you learned earlier at increasingly spaced intervals) in order to commit words to long-term memory. And third, always introduce new vocabulary in context and immediately get students to engage with it by repeating aloud several times and then using it in new sentences and questions.
Though the course includes plenty of reading exercises, quizzes, flashcards and whatnot, it remains an audio-led course. There are four levels of tuition available, each consisting of 15 hours of audio that is designed to be studied for half an hour a day. The lessons work by introducing you to a sample dialogue – at normal speed – in the expectation that you won’t understand it.
Afterwards every phrase, word and even syllable is broken down by the instructors, and repeated multiple times. On each occasion, you are expected to say the terms out loud to help commit them to memory. You then return to the dialogue and a similar procedure is followed and the handful of terms are repeated again. Shortly after, you’ll then be expected to respond to questions and make oral translations using these words. You’re also instructed to mix up the few words and phrases you’ve just learnt to make new sentences and communicate new ideas.
- The repetition system works surprisingly well, helping hammer foreign terms into your memory rapidly (as I already know Spanish, I experimented with the Italian version to test this)
- This course is much better than most others at forcing you to create new sentences and phrases from the limited terms you already know. This is a key skill that you’ll need in real life situations, but which isn’t a priority for other digital Spanish-teaching tools
- Pimsleur comes independently recommended by several members of our own community, increasing my confidence that their system continues to deliver results beyond the first few days of lessons
- It’s not cheap. One small consolation, perhaps, is that data from large online learning platforms suggests that by spending a lot on a course, you’re much more likely both to stick with it and to be satisfied with the learning experience.
- At first, you might find the pace of classes a bit slow as all terms are repeated over and over (a result of the memorisation technique used by the platform)
- The nature of the sessions is that they are quite intense and intellectually demanding. Those seeking the “learn Spanish while you sleep!” style product might not enjoy this
Most suited to
Serious language learners who want to progress quickly and have some money to spend to reach their goal.
In theory, each 15-hour course costs around $150 and the full set of four is $450.
However, promotional discounts are frequently available. Signing up for the free trial before purchasing also appears to be a good way to access discounts.
Fluencia – Review
Plus points for this Spanish learning app include the diversity of exercises and the stretching content for advanced learners; but these are not quite enough to justify the $15/month price tag.
Fluencia is a Spanish-specific learning platform developed by the language experts from SpanishDict.com. The idea is that learners focus on conversational Spanish from the outset, not just business or tourist Spanish, and the available content later goes right up to a very advanced level.
How it Works
Fluencia offers a lot of material as it has 9 levels, each of which is broken down into 10 units that are in turn comprised of between 5 and 7 lessons. Within each unit there is a good mixture of learning materials and exercises, including a sample dialogue, vocab lessons, a bit of grammar, pronunciation guides, some cultural information and then a review section.
The dialogues at the beginning of the unit are accompanied by graphical transcripts and images, with each phrase separated out into a clickable section so that you can easily return to listen to any particular phrase after the conversation has finished. The exercises and quizzes, at least in the early stages, mainly consist of putting words from Spanish phrases in order or matching up the Spanish words with those heard on the audio.
The latter lessons in the paid version include much more extended conversations held in near real speed. Paying subscribers can also use the voice recognition software, receive email reminders to study and are added into Fluencia’s ‘smart review’ system that purportedly increases testing and retention of words/phrases you don’t know well.
- The voiceover acting in the sample dialogues is well done. Interactions sound believable and conversations feature accents from across different countries (mainly Latin America)
- The mixture of learning exercises and tutorial is more interesting and extensive than that on some competitor platforms
- The content in advanced lessons is quite stretching and goes beyond the level that you will get on most online courses
- The main downside is the price. While it does offer some extra features over DuoLingo and similar products, there doesn’t seem quite enough here to warrant paying $15/month for the subscription (at least, not for beginners)
- Images accompanying the dialogues are generic stock photos, which are rather bland. They also do not always match up well with the dialogues (witness the brilliantly blonde ‘Honduran girl’ talking about her “moreno” brother in the above screenshot)
- Some users complain of problems with the voice recognition software, and of occasional difficulties in hearing the recorded voices in the more advanced conversations. The addition of a pause button for the dialogues would prove useful on this front
Most suited to
Intermediate and advanced learners would benefit from the later lessons. Beginners would probably do better on one of the other cheaper (or free) platforms.
After a 15-lesson free trial, you’ll need to pay for full membership. This costs $14.95/month or just under a $100 for the year.
Colombian Spanish Study Kit – Bonus “Review”
A series of tools that let you leave beginner’s Spanish behind and start speaking natural sounding Spanish, with a Colombian twist.
I should state from the outset that this suite of products is one which I’ve developed myself. As such, this section isn’t a full review, so much as an overview of what these products are designed to do and who they are aimed at. (If you’re interested, you can find some full reviews from previous customers on GoodReads.com.)
How it Works
The materials contained within the Complete Colombian Spanish Study Kit are designed to let you leave behind beginner’s Spanish and start speaking like the locals do in Colombia. The set includes a range of products: a 230-page eBook; 850+ printable flashcards; access to audio files, games and tailored learning in the Colombian Spanish classroom on Quizlet; and community and expert support via a closed Facebook group.
The products focus on the fun parts of the language which are not covered in traditional sources. You will not find much in the way of dry grammar or boring exercises here. Rather the aim is on teaching you how to move on from the stiff-sounding, overly formal version of Spanish taught in the textbook, and start speaking like the locals actually do.
This does include explanations of the slang terms unique to Colombia, but it’s far from only about that. A major focus of the eBook and associated study materials is on the idiomatic expressions and phrases from international Spanish that are essential for any social interaction in Colombia and beyond. It also covers the hundreds of little turns of phrase (stuff like: “what have you been up to?”, “by the way”, “you’ve gotta be kidding me!”, “long time, no speak!”) that we often take for granted in English, but generally struggle to find equivalents for when speaking Spanish.
In working you way through the Complete Colombian Spanish Study Kit, you will pick up hundreds of language and cultural tips covering subjects like: making friends, dating and romance, socialising and nightlife, cracking jokes, swearing, exaggerating, and mastering local sayings and expressions.
- The products teach how to speak natural-sounding Spanish and master Colombian slang; material that is not easy to find elsewhere
- The eBook is designed to be easy to read, making it much more accessible than a standard Spanish textbook
- Includes hundreds of extremely useful phrases and expressions that you’ll immediately find yourself using in real life conversations and social interactions
- Flashcards and Quizlet access provide a handy way to bolster your learning and to commit the hundreds of terms and example sentences covered to memory
- Audio files – though machine generated – are of very decent quality and provide a good insight into how a host of Spanish terms, including obscure Colombian slang, should be pronounced
- The requirement for students to have at least a very basic knowledge of Spanish means this study kit won’t be suitable for all
- Similarly, around a third of the content covered is unique to Colombia, meaning it won’t be of much use to those never planning on talking to people from that country
- Inclusion of some explicit terms means it’s best avoided by children and the easily-offended
Most suited to
Anyone with a basic knowledge of Spanish (and above) who wants to speak more naturally and to connect better with Colombians.
Well, that’s the reviews concluded for now. I’ve only been able to touch on a small proportion of the available online learning tools for Spanish here and I’m sure there are many more great platforms available. If you’ve used a different app or course that you’ve found to be very helpful, please do share this with others by leaving a comment below.