As some of you may already know, I recently got married. My wife is originally from Vietnam. Her English skills are excellent. Her parents are not conversant in English, and I’d like to some day have an actual conversation with my in-laws, so I’ve been trying various apps to learn Vietnamese in the past few months. I have some thoughts about how they stack up, which I’ll share below.
The three specific apps that I have in review are Rosetta Stone, Duolingo, and Mond.ly. These three in particular were chosen because they offer ways for English speakers to learn Vietnamese with iOS devices. There are other language learning apps out there, but they did not have (or have in a way that I could easily identify) the Vietnamese language.
Which languages can you learn? For Duolingo, “in beta” means the courses are available but not yet thoroughly tested, and “hatching” means the courses are being created but cannot be accessed yet. Rosetta Stone is the most specific when it comes to dialects, and is more likely to specify which you are learning. For example, it specifies Mandarin for Chinese, but Duolingo and Mondly support Chinese with no indication about whether or not they have Mandarin or Cantonese available.
|English||American and British||Yes||American and British|
|Portuguese||Brazilian||Yes||Brazil and Portugal|
|Spanish||Latin America and Spain||Yes||Yes|
Rosetta Stone uses the approach of immersive learning. There are no translations of any kind: you work entirely in the language you intend to learn, with heavy use of graphics to support it. All learners start at lesson one. If you are paying any amount, then you have the option to jump ahead to any lesson you would like to do, but the app will warn you that it’s best to go in order so that the prerequisite skills are in place. The upside is that you can learn regardless of your native language, so if you only speak, say, Konkani, then you can still learn any language you want to learn. Lessons have the estimated time for completion plainly listen on them so you can plan appropriately. The majority of those I’ve encountered are in the 5-10 minute range, but some have been as long as 30 minutes. If you subscribe through the website, you also have access to the content via the app, but if (like I did) you buy through the app, then you do not have website access. (This is “coming soon.”) If I had chosen a monthly subscription, then I’d just cancel one and enroll in the other to work with both, but I went with the one-time lifetime access, so that’s not a practical option with my current financial situation. You have the option to purchase 25 minute lessons with native speakers to get practice with natural conversations. I have not done so, and can’t judge how well this works. Proprietary speech recognition technology is used so you can hone your accent and verify pronunciation, at least as well as your computer can understand you. The website touts adaptive recall technology which sounds great, but which does not appear to be a feature of the iOS app version, or is only accessible in some non-intuitive way that I haven’t found yet.
Duolingo uses an approach in which translation and vocabulary are key. On the website, background and introductory lessons are easily accessed. On the iOS app, these lessons are not accessible. On the website, mistakes are tracked, and you cannot complete a lesson until you have answered every question correctly. A lesson may start with 20 items, and if you make a mistake on item 3, you go on to item 4, but then get another chance at number 3 after you complete item 20. You can make 40 mistakes on item 3 but will complete the lesson after you get it right. On the app, the item sequence is handled the same way, but you only have 5 health points, and each mistake costs you a point. When you run out of health, you cannot continue immediately. Health regenerates over time (it takes 24 hours to earn back full health), but you can also regain a health point by doing practice lessons. Practice content is linked via the website and the app, so if you make a mistake on either one, that item gets added to the practice list. If you get it wrong 40 times in a row, it may appear in practice lessons 40 times in a row. When working from the website, you can choose regular or timed practice. 20 items are prepared with 30 seconds on the timer. Every correct answer adds time to the clock, and every mistake takes time away. Duolingo has the most game-like feel of the three with its health points, and with character levels and experience points, including daily XP goals that the user can select. First time users with some language experience can start with a placement test, and the app will place them appropriately in the learning progression. You also have the option to “test out” of certain skills, skipping ahead in the skill tree. The tree can have 80-90 specific skills, each requiring different amounts of practice to master, with up to 3 skills per level. Each skills has 5 “crown levels,” and you must have all skills at a given tree level at crown level 1 before you can move forward. The number of lessons needed to reach a given crown level varies from skill to skill. You do have the option to try and skip batches of skills at a time, as well. Speech recognition used to be a feature, but was removed in early 2017. An upgraded replacement feature is “coming soon.” Duolingo’s iOS apps also have a club feature, in which people can get together and chat in the language they are learning for practice, although there is an element of “the blind leading the blind” going on unless native speakers join the same club.
Mondly’s approach allows a (paying) user to jump to any lesson in the course at any time. It seems to be more in the rote memorization style, with no explicit grammar lessons, although some can be learned by osmosis. The content appears to be focused on tourism and travel, with heavy emphasis on navigating airports, train stations, taxis, hotels, and restaurants. The daily lessons keep a good variety of skills going, with weekly and monthly review. The chatbot features an AI that can have a conversation with you based on speech recognition. Each unit also has a conversation component, in which you listen to native speakers talking and repeat what they say, so you can hear yourself speak and try to eliminate your accent that way.
Impression of Completeness
As I have not completed any of these courses yet, I cannot be a final judge of their completeness. I have been using Mondly for about half an hour per day since July 3, and I will finish all content at the beginner level by the end of August at about 20 minutes per day. Intermediate and advanced levels, peeking ahead, seem to have the same material with more complex grammar. There are a lot of things that I will not be able to say after having completed the entire Mondly course, it seems. It feels like the least complete of the three. Switching to French learning, I see identical options, so this appears to be the same in all languages.
Rosetta Stone is much more complete than Mondly, and seems somewhat comprehensive in its content. The 12 unit descriptions seem to cover everything I could think of on my own. That said, the website states that there are 5 levels of learning in the languages, and Vietnamese only goes up to level 3 at this time, so there is clearly more content that could be included. Naturally, this also means experiences in other languages (such as English, French, and Spanish) would be more comprehensive than my own. It also seems to be the only one with native content, such as stories to listen to in order to test oral comprehension.
Duolingo seems to have the most complete Vietnamese content of the three, with 84 specific skills, with latter skills having titles like Astronomy, Economics, Paranormal, and Slang, which seem to be absent from the others. They also build, naturally reinforcing earlier skills via the skill tree.
Of course, pricing is always a part of the conversation. Rather than talking about numbers, which may change at any time and vary from country to country, I’ll talk models in a “can I pay with method X” table:
|Pricing Option||Rosetta Stone||Duolingo||Mondly|
|Free Access||Yes, but only to the first unit on the mobile apps.||Yes, with complete content access with ads.||Yes, but only to certain content|
|Monthly Subscription||Yes, but only in 3, 6, 12, and 24 month increments with increasing discounts, and only for one language at a time.||Yes, for all languages.||Yes, for all languages.|
|Annual Subscription||Yes, with discounts for a single language||Yes, with discounts for all languages||Yes, with discounts for all languages|
|One Time Lifetime Purchase||Yes, for a single language||No||No|
Final Thoughts and Recommendations
In the end, which do I recommend? I’ve been using all three, and will continue to do so, for at least a little while longer, because none seem to be completely comprehensive. Naturally, you are restricted to those apps which teach the language(s) you want to learn, so that’s the first major decision making point. If you want to learn Afrikaans, Dari, or Klingon, your decision is made. For the rest, if your purpose is to be a world travelling tourist that just needs to interact with staff in hotels, restaurants, and transportation hubs for a week or two at a time, then Mondly will likely get you far enough for your trip. If you want to be truly fluent, then the primary options are Duolingo and Rosetta Stone. The educator in me really likes what I see of Duolingo’s approach, and the placement test facility makes it easy to “jump ship” and try it out if you’ve already started your lessons elsewhere, but the lack of speech recognition is a serious roadblock for anyone who wants to interact offline. Rosetta Stone appears to be the most well rounded in general, but if you aren’t in a language that has the full five level support, then it may not have all of the content you need. The fact that you need multiple subscriptions to learn multiple languages is also a limiter. My day job is in private education, and a lot of our clients speak English as a second language. Learning Arabic, Farsi, and Hebrew would be an asset at work, which is a single fee (or possibly free) with Duolingo or Mondly and additional costs with Rosetta Stone. I’d really like to recommend a single package to get the entire job done, but I don’t know that I can. Odds are good that I’ll be cancelling my Mondly subscription soon, and just sticking with the other two, as neither one alone seems to have comprehensive coverage with all of the features I’m looking for.