Services & Software

Duolingo vs. Rosetta Stone: How to choose the best language-learning app

Does Rosetta Stone's language legacy give it the edge over newcomer Duolingo?

Having a language lesson on your phone can make it more motivating to learn.
Gregory Costanzo / Getty Images

If you've embarked on a journey to learn a language (in or out of school), odds are you've come across Duolingo or Rosetta Stone. Of the multiple language apps available, these are the two that come to mind first for many people. But how do you choose which one will work best for your learning style? 

Duolingo and Rosetta Stone both offer versions for online and mobile use. 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. 

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


Best for free, casual learning

Screenshot/ Duolingo

As a regular Duolingo user, I enjoy the app's simple, colorful interface and short, game-like 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'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 also subscribe to Premium for $10 per month, which gives you access to 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. 

Rosetta Stone

Best app for beginners (but serious ones) 

Rosetta Stone
Screenshot/ Rosetta Stone

Perhaps the best-known language learning service, Rosetta Stone has come a long way since it launched in the '90s. My parents still have a box set of discs for learning Spanish somewhere in their house. It's a lot easier now with the Rosetta Stone mobile app.

Rosetta Stone's method for teaching you a language is more formal and traditional in comparison to Duolingo. The lessons are primarily auditory with images, but if you're in a place where you can't listen to audio or repeat the phrases, you can tweak your lessons in Speech Settings and Lesson Settings to choose another setup like "reading and writing only" or "speaking and listening only." The lesson structure revolves around grammar, pronunciation and vocabulary, broken down into 5- to 10-minute sections. A full Core Lesson takes about 30 minutes to complete. 

In a typical lesson, the app displays four photos and a word. You must choose a photo that corresponds to the word. It can be tricky if you're totally green to a language. There's no option to tap the word and see a translation like in Duolingo. This might actually lend itself to learning faster since research shows that immersing yourself in a culture is a great way to learn. If you're not sure what the activity wants, you can tap the lightbulb at the bottom of the screen for directions. Some question sections will show a translation if you long-press on the image. Overall, I found Rosetta Stone to be less intuitive than Duolingo, especially if the sound is off. 

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When you sign up for Rosetta Stone, the program lets you choose the language you want to learn and your overall goal for learning -- travel, career, heritage or just for the sake of learning. The app also asks which level of learning you consider yourself to be -- beginner, intermediate or advanced. I expected to be able to test out of certain levels when I chose intermediate Spanish, but no matter what level I chose, Rosetta Stone put me at a beginner level on the free version. In Duolingo, even if you're advanced, the app unlocks more advanced lessons but you still have access to easier ones.

Rosetta Stone has a variety of subscription options: A 3-month subscription runs $36, a 6-month subscription is $66, a 12-month subscription is $96, and a 24-month subscription is $144. Pay attention to the fine print if you don't want to subscribe to a plan though, as the option to continue on a free version is pretty easy to miss. You can stick with the free version, but you'll only be able to take lessons on the app, not a PC. The app also limits the number of lessons you can complete each day on the free version. 

Personally, I prefer Duolingo for its ease of use, quick lessons and extra learning tools, but Rosetta Stone is good for diving head-first into a language and challenging yourself by only working in that new language. Try them both for free to see which better matches your learning style.

Originally published Nov. 7 at 4:00 a.m. PT.
Update, at 8:37 a.m. PT: Adds more details.

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