Reviewers say that in order to learn a language, it's necessary to have engaging, practical lessons and feedback. Many are enthusiastic about features designed to keep them motivated -- like interactive games instead of dreaded vocabulary drills, and sharp images instead of dull screens of text. Basically, they don't want a repeat of high school Spanish.
At the end of the day, however, the goal is to learn and use the language; what gets you there is a highly individualized experience. Some of us learn by listening, while others need to read text or look at images. Some want cultural lessons and to be "immersed" in the language, while others need software with instructions in their native tongues. Some need to study during commutes or on long-haul flights, while others are happy with software installed on their home computers.
Because the needs vary greatly, the best all-around language-learning software should use a comprehensive method with plenty of engaging features that will guide you to proficiency. It should be simple to install, have a great design, be fun and interactive, and cater to a wide range of needs. Voice recognition software is a fantastic tool, but human communication and feedback is undoubtedly important, which is where online community forums and tutoring come into play. But most of all, the best language software should do what it was created to do: teach.
Learning a language is tough enough as it is; purchasing and setting up your software should not be another challenge. Most of the products we considered for best all-around language software have a straightforward setup process and all can be purchased online.
Unless you're a beginner, the biggest issue with purchasing language-learning software is choosing your level. Tell Me More is the only company to offer a placement test and it gives you the most purchase options. You can buy individual products and services, or you can purchase a bundled package including a CD or online software and private tutoring. Rosetta Stone's TOTALe (*Est. $180 and up) gives consumers some choice (CD or online packages) but you'll need to buy both to take advantage of all of the resources (for example, games and coaching with a native speaker). You can't purchase these services separately; not surprisingly, some users grumble about this, along with Rosetta Stone's prices.
Like its rival, Babbel, popular web-based Rocket Languages doesn't offer learning levels. Paying once (*Est. $100 per language) gives you lifetime access to Rocket Language's audio-intensive lessons, cultural tips and written grammatical resources -- but most are beginner level. You can also get Rocket Languages on CD-ROM for $299.95. Babbel's online software and well-reviewed app are available in a limited number of languages but offer a robust vocabulary and, like Rocket Languages, an easy setup that doesn't require downloads.
The best language-learning software products have clear, crisp and logical layouts that are easy to navigate. Along with offering more resources and tools, language-learning software is increasingly using graphics and images to enhance the user's experience. Most companies offer demos or trials, which are useful in determining if the teaching approach, software features and design suit your needs.
Web-based darlings Babbel and Rocket Languages have simple designs with audio and text. Users appreciate that Babbel lets you choose the interface language, as in which language the instructions are in. Tell Me More's myriad of resources -- ranging from extensive vocabulary to maps -- impress reviewers. One PCMag reviewer, however, maintains the software is so layered it requires more guidance. She praises Rosetta Stone's TOTALe, which uses high-quality photos, for its "polished" interface and "highly intuitive" format.
Language-learning software companies have improved the quality and quantity of their features in recent years while slashing their prices. It may be a consumer's dream, but wading through the many options can be a daunting task. Interactive lessons and exercises, games, chat rooms, mobile options, online glossaries and speech recognition tools have become par for the course.
Language students adore the speech recognition feature, which enables you to record and play back your voice, as well as compare your pronunciation with a recording of a native speaker. Babbel's tool scores your pronunciation, which users find especially helpful. PCMag's Jill Duffy and some users say that Tell Me More's speech recognition tool is weak, which is unfortunate given the depth and breadth of Tell Me More's resources.
Small, web-only language learning ventures like Babbel, Mango Language (*Est. $80 and up) and Rocket Languages are nipping at the heels of veteran players by offering interactive options and games along with creating some stellar (and affordable) apps. The competition has forced established companies like Rosetta Stone, Tell Me More and Pimsleur (*Est. $150 and up) to vastly improve their products. Rosetta Stone has met the challenge by rolling out its comprehensive (and pricey) TOTALe software, which receives excellent reviews from experts.
Unlike the quick and simple approach of many other options, which teach beginners to speak in simple sentences, the Rosetta Stone software offers highly comprehensive, broad-based language learning. Professional reviewers and users alike point out, however, that it is a long-term, intensive learning process that requires a high level of dedication and that it can be boring and repetitive. They caution that Rosetta Stone isn't ideal for picking up a few practical phrases before a trip.
Arguably the best-known name in language software, Rosetta Stone's vocabulary-intensive approach draws enormous scrutiny. It aims to "immerse" you in a language by teaching reading and listening comprehension, speaking and, to a lesser extent, writing -- without any translation or much grammar. Critics (including some users on sites like Amazon.com) say it's expensive, teaches impractical phrases and excludes cultural information and context. For example, one Amazon.com review of the Japanese TOTALe software notes that Rosetta Stone teaches sentences with subjects, which are rarely used in Japanese.
For every critic, however, there are loyal supporters who swear by Rosetta Stone's immersion method and say dedicated students will become proficient. Its TOTALe software -- which includes huge perks like live video sessions with native-speaking coaches -- is the best-reviewed of any language learning tool, drawing praise from ZDNet, Time Magazine and The Street, which called it "the language-learning leader for a reason." PCMag awards Rosetta Stone its Editors' Choice award for best language-learning software along with Rocket Languages. It is also the first language-software firm to run a credited language course, which is being taught online through James Madison University.
Rosetta's Stone TOTALe is our choice for best all-around language software. More affordable options like Rocket Languages and Babbel are fantastic for travelers, but offer fewer languages, features and teaching methods. Tell Me More and Living Languages Platinum (*Est. $180) offer customizable options and tutoring, but users report they have spotty or no speech recognition technology. While Rosetta Stone has room to improve and is geared toward only the most dedicated learners, TOTALe's wide range of tools and resources surpasses its rivals.