How to Learn a Language on an iPhone / Smartphone (Ultimate Guide)


My iPhone has helped me a lot in learning Italian. It helped me from when I was just starting out, to now when I’m quasi-conversational after just a month and a half of self-teaching while living in London. And I’m sure I’ll be using it all the way up to fluency and beyond.

This progress hasn’t been made by buying any expensive language learning apps, or for that matter, through even particularly using language learning apps at all. Instead I’ve achieved what I have through really starting to use all of my smartphone’s – if you like -‘smartness’, to ensure that I am surrounded by and learning the language as much as possible.

So now… let’s see how yours can help you:

Step 1. If you’re really serious about Learning that Language, then…

Change your phone’s language to that language. You can do it right now, It’s really not that bad… mainly since you probably know how to navigate your phone without reading the menus anyway! I’d say it probably only takes a couple of days to adjust to and then instantly you’ve learnt a whole bunch of new words (though admittedly a lot of them will be words like cancel, copy, select all, paste etc… but hey, a start’s a start…).


Additionally when sending texts/emails, this will then give you the option to switch the auto-spell between your language and the language you wish to learn (by pushing the key directly to the left of the space bar), which will come in very handy later when we talk about how to start using your phone to get and keep in touch with natives in your desired language. Switching the language your writing in at the tap of a button is definitely a most suave feeling also, and it gives you a quick taste of being the bilingual badboy your on course to becoming.

So do it now! Changing your phone’s language makes a statement of intent. It’s letting everybody know, especially yourself, that you really want to learn this mother.

Step 2. Screw most the language learning Apps… Get Flashcards

Regardless of whether you decide to follow step 1 (which you should!), I would advise not to really bother getting any of the language learning apps available for your smartphone. They are often geared towards survival phrases (ie. how to ask for directions/order food) rather than towards giving you any real grasp of how the language works. When Rosetta Stone is only an OK way to learn a language, and it costs you £300 or so, you’ve got to wonder how much you’ll get from an app on your IOS/android that costs £4.50.

Instead download Anki flashcards, then go to the market and download a flashcard deck of the 1000 most commonly used words in your desired language. If you can’t find one of these decks, find a list on the internet and make your own! Apparently people on average only use around 600 different words during a day of conversing, so if you get to know even 500, you’ll be a lot further into knowing a language than you might have expected. If you’re learning a European language, get an app called Mosalingua instead (or as well). This is a flashcard app that comes with over 3000 different words and phrases for you to learn in the language you choose, while it also reads them out so you can practice that all important pronunciation.

THE beauty of the these flashcard apps is that they they give you reminders to look at the cards again at specific intervals. These intervals are based on some studies and are apparently optimised for long term memory retention. What’s great though is that it takes the pressure off having to remember words, as instead your phone just regularly presents them to you until you are sure that you know them. Just decide to learn 10 words a day, and let the rest sort itself out!

After 1 month and a half, mosalingua now tells me that I know 1000 words and phrases, while 600 of them are stored in my long-term memory… and I believe this.

Step 3. Supplement the vocab with a little verb grammar

Verbs make up the backbone of a language. With just a tiny bit of verb knowledge, all the new things you are starting to read and hear will start to make a lot more sense.

If you’ve got a bit of dosh, I’d recommend getting Pimsleur or Michel Thomas, then putting it on your phone and listening to it whenever you go to work/are travelling/as much as you can be bothered basically. This gives you a bit of spoken practice and shows you how the verbs work with different subjects and tenses.

However, these are quite expensive and I’ve actually done pretty well by just grabbing a grammar book from the local library. And even if you do get Pimsleur/Michel Thomas, I’d still recommend getting a grammar book as well just for a bit of quick perusing here and there. Though personally… I’m a bit techy, and so I like to keep everything on my phone. Thus I went and downloaded a grammar book onto my iPhone and that way I could have everything I needed in one hand. Heck, I could even double-dip; sitting on the tube, listening to a bit of michel thomas while simultaneously checking up on how to use verbs in the past tense!

IMPORTANT GRAMMAR TIP: Just work on the verbs at the start, though don’t worry about knowing how to use these verbs perfectly. Don’t obsess over verb grammar, don’t try and memorise the conjugations, just try and understand them. As you continue your exposure to the language, you will see examples of what you’ve learned over and over again, so don’t threat remembering it now!

Step 4. Increasing Exposure Through Your Phone: Writing and Even Speaking in your new Language

So if you follow the above, you’ll then be set up to have an effortless stream of new words and a bit of grammar coming at you every day through your phone. Amazing, if you keep that up you’ll find yourself improving a lot faster than you might’ve expected. Remember… language learning doesn’t have to take forever, just check out as evidence!

Now, something the above website would definitely say – and that I agree with – is that it’s important to try and start writing (or ideally even speaking) in your new language straight away, no matter how little you know. You know the word ‘Ola’, then find a Spanish person to text and say ‘Ola!’ to, and then find out how to say ‘how are you?’.

So how do you find this elusive Spaniard? Maybe if you think about it you might already know someone who speaks it, get their number! Otherwise if you live in a major city, there are usually tons of people on gumtree/Craigslist/equivalent who are in desperate need of language exchanges. Email them, get their number! you can do this all on your phone when out and about! Alternatively go on, sign up, message some people who want to learn your language (and you theirs) and get their number/email! Get WhatsAPP, add their number to it…. BAM! Free international texting. Sending emails and texting in Italian everyday has not only been fun, but has immensely improved my understanding, grammar and vocabulary also. In fact, I even then started dating one of the girls I was texting.

But what if you don’t understand the messages they are sending you? Get the penultimate app on my list: Google Translate. Whenever you find a new word that you like or want to learn, star it, and it adds the word to your list of words to learn. SWEET. Whatever, bloody put whole sentences into google translate and then star the results, it can translate anything! Then get the final app; SKYPE. If you build up a little portfolio of connections on (easily done), whenever you’re at home or in a cafe with some wi-fi, you can then try your luck at skyping one of them and seeing if they’re up for a chat.

The above is a really social and fun way to go about starting to learn a language, while it also gets you communicating, which is definitely the most important part – and the point – of learning a language. It took so much of the chore out of Language learning and instead just added it into my life socially, and it felt great to start using my phone as this portal to the world that it always should’ve been. But you don’t need to be running round thinking about doing this all the time, simply having the people in your phonebook will make you want to as you will receive messages from them and you will then want to reply (especially if they are hot).

Step 5. Increasing Exposure: Listening

The problem with language exchange partners is that they often want to speak your language. Although you will also naturally hear them speaking their language quite often, it’s good to be exposing yourself to as much of the language as possible and this is very possible with a smartphone.

I know this will seem quite obvious, but go on youtube when you have some free time on a bus or something, find cartoons or things that you’ve seen before in your language, then watch them in the language you wish to learn. Download podcasts from shows in your desired language and listen to them when you are walking to places sometimes. Again you don’t have to do this all the time, but even just a few minutes a day will greatly increase your ability to understand. Don’t worry about how at first you won’t understand anything, just wait and persevere a little… it’s really such a satisfying feeling going back to a show or podcast you watched a month ago and seeing how much more of it you can hear and understand!

Step 6. Increasing exposure: Reading

Reading is a great way of increasing your vocabulary and understanding of the language. If you found some exchange partners, then you will already be exposed to a bit of this when messaging each other. Another thing you can do is go on news websites or find articles on your interests in your chosen language, but this can be a bit laborious and the language can be often difficult (writers have a knack of showing off). Additionally, this post’s not about telling you just the things you can do to learn a language, it’s telling you how to incorporate a language into your life, by incorporating it into what is essentially your hub of daily activity; your mobile phone.

And this brings me onto my final app (this time actually final), twitter! Get an account (then follow me obviously @samlynnevans) and start following some people who live in Spain, Italy, France or whatever your interested in. These people will regularly fill your twitter homepage with coloquial, everyday expressions and sentences in their language, and if you don’t understand them then well click on the tweet, BANG, copy, BOOM, paste, google translate app = understand it! Or send them a message asking them to explain it, maybe they speak English too, who knows, maybe they’ll want to do a language exchange with you! OH MY GOD IT JUST ALL WORKS OUT SO DAMN WELL! …but yes, whenever you use translate, do try your best afterwards to analyse and understand why/how it translates.


I did all the above, and my iphone has now become a regular and fun source of Italian information and teachings. I seem to be in contact with the language all the time, whether it be through checking my mail, texts or twitter, watching videos on youtube, listening to Italian music and podcasts, or through just receiving a call from an Italian who wants to meet for coffee.

But it is important to note that even in doing this, my learning is never passive. It still requires an effort to bother trying to translate and reply to an email or to think about and try and decipher a tweet, or to listen to an Italian podcast when I’d rather listen to Bruce Springsteen… But I get the mails, and my iTunes is on shuffle, so I hear the podcasts, and I’m at least this way made to have to deal with it everyday. And although this can be a b*tch sometimes, it’s far more than this a fun and richly rewarding addition to my life, where I’m extremely proud of the process I’ve made.

UPDATE: I’m now in Italy, using my Italian to do a 3 month cycle tour where I try to find great recipes by getting myself invited into the house of Italian Mamas. So far I’ve managed to get myself invited into loads of people’s homes, which is great as I don’t have enough money for hotels so otherwise I would have to sleep on the street (…which also happens fairly frequently). Click on the Home tab for other articles on language learning, recipes, and generally what life is like when you just decide to go somewhere and see what happens.

Thanks! Samuel.

About Sam

Hi I'm Sam and I write here exclusively at Samuel's Travels. Exclusively as by and large no-one wants me writing anywhere else. Please enjoy yourself while reading.
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