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Drops language app vs. Duolingo: How to choose the best language learning app for you

Here's how Drops' tactile and visual experience stacks up against the Duo, the cute green owl.

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The Drops app taps into how we use our phone every day to teach a new language.

Tim Robberts/Getty Images

If you've embarked on a journey to learn a language (in or out of school), odds are you've come across a number of different apps that can help you along the way.. Of the multiple language learning apps available, Duolingo might be one of the first ones that come to mind, but relative newcomer Drops is gaining traction. But how do you choose which one will work best for your learning style? 

Duolingo and Drops both offer mobile apps and resources online. Users can pick from multiple languages broken up into short lessons. When you sign up for either service, the app asks you why you want to learn the new language and what level you're starting at. 

Ultimately, you don't have to choose between the two. Try them both out for free. So the question is -- which one to try first?

Duolingo

Best for a more traditional learning experience

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If you want to try something new, Duolingo offers a free course in High Valyrian, the language spoken on Game of Thrones.

Nic Henry/CNET

As a regular Duolingo user, I enjoy the app's simple, colorful interface and short, gamelike exercises. The app doesn't restrict how many languages you can try to learn at the same time (personally, I think two is a good maximum if you want to retain anything), or how many lessons you can complete in one day, even on the free version. I use Duolingo to keep up with Spanish and German. It's an easy app to test the metaphorical waters because it doesn't require you to create an account right away.

For example, even if you start with little to no understanding of Spanish, the lessons are pretty gentle. You'll choose which picture -- paired with the Spanish translation -- accurately describes basic phrases and words. Duolingo translates from English to Spanish and back again. Most questions let you tap or click on the Spanish word to translate it in case you get stuck. The app offers additional learning resources if you click the lightbulb icon, as well as the ability to fast-track your lessons if you click the key icon. 

Duolingo
Screenshot by Shelby Brown/CNET

Duolingo's "streak" feature motivates you to keep up with your language learning efforts by tracking the number of days you've reached your point goal. It can also make it feel like your world is crashing in if you lose an 80-day streak (not that I'm speaking from experience). Resources such as Duolingo Stories, which are short audio stories that allow you to check your comprehension skills as you go, are available online and in the apps. Duolingo also has a podcast that reiterates the lessons you've completed. 

You can subscribe to the premium Duolingo Plus for $10/month for a one-month membership, $8/month for six months, or $7/month for 12 months. Premium gives you ad-free and offline access to the app or website, and the ability to repair a lost streak once a month. You can also access an experimental feature that lets you chat with a language tutor from a country where the language is spoken. This isn't available for all Duolingo Plus subscribers, though. 

Drops

Best for a gamified learning experience

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Drops

The Drops app's fun, colorful layout definitely makes the language you're trying to learn feel less intimidating, even if you have no prior experience with it. For example, when learning Spanish, the app shows users each word in Spanish and in English, pronounces the word and shows an image of it. 

Drops' 5-minute lessons teach vocabulary and phrases by matching images with their corresponding word and vice versa. Despite the repetition of phrases and simple layout, the use of minimalist graphics made me slow down and think each translation through. However, recognizing an image as "to serve" or "excuse me," instead of "bread" or "fruit" isn't as easy. There was also a weird hiccup where "el coco" or "the coconut" would trigger Google Assistant on my Pixel 3

I think it's also advantageous to match the Spanish phrase with an image, instead of with its English translation, as Duolingo does in some lessons. I think this makes it more likely that you'll associate the image with its Spanish word going forward. The quick, gamelike lessons include word search, swipe style and spelling games. If you get stuck, just tap and hold on the image to get the translation.

The overall design and gamification elements make Drops one of the most unique language learning apps I've tried so far. Though the main Language Drops lessons aren't available for PC version yet, the app and mobile browser version do offer Word Drops, which is a supplementary bilingual dictionary for PC, iOS and Android. The service also offers the Scripts app, which teaches the Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Russian and Latin alphabets in Drops style. 

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The Scripts app is a new way to learn a different language's alphabet. 

Drops

When you create an account, you can try out Drops' premium features free for seven days. The app offers three different packages -- $10/month for a monthly package, $3/month for a yearly package, or a one-time payment of $160 for lifetime access to the app.

A premium subscription is ad-free, and offers unlimited lessons, as well as offline access, the ability to restart lessons. If you don't subscribe to premium, after one lesson, you have to wait until the next day to access another lesson, but you can check out your statistics after completing the lesson (correct answers, wrong answers and words learned) and tap on the words you've learned to hear them pronounced again (and see them written with the proper accent marks, etc.). This can give you a leg up when your next lesson starts. 

If you're invested in learning a language, I think Drops' premium features are worth the purchase. For example, I noticed that when the app started incorporating action phrases, like "I serve," the actions matched with the vocabulary I was learning, so I could more easily learn to construct my own sentences. It's a bit more challenging than Duolingo, but somehow it feels like I'm learning faster. 

Both Drops and Duolingo are solid options for those interested in learning a new language (I also liked them both more than Rosetta Stone's more traditional approach). If game-based learning is your thing, I'd try Drops first. The app's dragging, tapping and swiping features also feel more intuitive to how we use our phones daily. Drops' yearly subscription is also only $3/month, compared to Duolingo's $7/month. However, Duolingo's free version is a strong option for unlimited language lessons that keep you motivated to keep going.

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