Babbel Review: Not Great But Still Better Than Its Rival
- Written byDonovan Nagel
- Read time11 mins
- A more professional alternative to Duolingo
- Lessons developed by in-house linguists
- Covers a wide variety of languages
- Reasonably priced
- Doesn't live up to well-marketed hype
- Tedious lessons
- Feels too much like an imitation product
Babbel is far better and more professional than Duolingo by a long shot (for the languages it covers). The platform is well-funded and the lessons are developed by in-house linguists rather than community contributors.
However, I still find the lessons tedious and the Babbel product fairly uninspiring overall despite its marketing.
This Babbel review has been a long time in the making.
If you spend any amount of time watching TV, language-related content on YouTube, or browsing language sites and blogs, you’re pretty much guaranteed to see ads for Babbel (and reviews).
Every time I hear of Babbel now, I immediately think of that bearded hipster from Manchester.
In fact, I was mostly unaware of its existence until my wife commented one day, “Have you used this Babbel app?”
I replied, “No”.
To which she responded, “It’s always on TV so it must be pretty good.”
For someone like my wife who isn’t familiar with all that’s happening the world of language learning, their marketing obviously works.
Babbel’s become an enormously popular web and mobile app for learning languages with an interface and style somewhat reminiscent of (but very different to) Duolingo (see below).
It teaches the following languages at present: German, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian, Swedish, Turkish, Dutch, Polish, Norwegian, Indonesian, Russian, Danish and English.
Perhaps not as much of a household name like Rosetta Stone or Pimsleur, but certainly not far off.
I decided to take some time this week to put together a Babbel review, the company’s history and how it all works.
Most importantly, I wanted to find out just how effective it is as a learning tool and whether or not it lives up to the claims it makes in its effective marketing.
Today I’ll share my findings with you.
Note: I’ve recommended a far better, more user-friendly (and less expensive) alternative to Babbel recently.
Select a language here:
Make sure to check out my Essential Language Learning Tools page as well for other resources and recommendations.
UPDATE: Babbel now offers a service called Babbel Live, which is a separate subscription to the main app (though the app is also included).
Babbel Live offers unlimited, small classes tailored to your specific level.
There are 4 pricing tiers: 1 month ($99), 3 months ($209), 6 months ($359) and 12 months ($599). I have to say, the 12 month tier is actually incredibly good value (an entire year of unlimited language lessons with a teacher).
Definitely worth taking a look at:
In a hurry? You can jump to the different sections here:
Table Of Contents
A note on Duolingo and how it compares to Babbel
One of the things you’ll hear a lot (especially in Babbel reviews) is that Babbel and Duolingo are competitors (in fact, a lot of people come here searching for Babbel vs Duolingo!).
There’s really no real comparison in my opinion.
I’ve talked at length about Duolingo and Rosetta Stone before which are also often compared, and the main point I made is the fundamental difference between buying a product and being the product.
Duolingo has made a killing out of selling your translations (every time you translate something in their app, it’s sold to companies like CNN).
The company was founded by the same guy who invented reCAPTCHA (which gets you to type in text you see or match images when you log in to various sites which are also sold).
Babbel, like Rosetta Stone, does not have a business model like this.
They operate entirely off paid subscriptions (which according to Scottish Equity Partners), recently hit the 2 million mark.
That’s a lot of paid subscriptions!
Other points of major divergence between Duolingo and Babbel:
1. Babbel, unlike Duolingo, does not have ‘crowd-sourced’ language content.
This means that Babbel’s courses are intentionally designed and created by their own educators and linguists.
Duolingo relies on volunteer contributors who oversee course creation and moderation. This is one reason Duolingo is notorious for bizarre, impractical translations.
2. “Free” vs paid obviously.
Duolingo is free if you don’t mind having your translations sold.
3. Duolingo has significantly less content and depth compared to Babbel.
Babbel has clearly invested more time and money into the fewer languages they cover.
4. In Duolingo’s favor, it has a much more active and vibrant community of learners (do doubt because it’s freely accessible).
The Duolingo forum is enormous and full of learner activity.
So it’s important to remember that you’re dealing with two very different platforms that have different aims and a totally different business model.
Just like Duolingo vs Rosetta Stone.
I’ve never been fan of Duolingo personally and regard it as more of a procrastination app with courses created by hobbyists than a serious, educational platform in the language sphere.
Babbel alternatives that are similar in style
I’ve already mentioned Duolingo which is the obvious alternative.
In terms of other apps that are very similar in style to Babbel, I’d recommend taking a look at Mondly.
It’s not exactly the same as Babbel but it offers more language options and has a very nice user interface.
I’ve used it for Greek and found it very useful in my own study (but I would not recommend Mondly for Arabic).
European languages definitely seem to be better than non-European languages on their platform.
A review of Babbel lessons – what they look like and how they’re put together
Babbel does a fairly good job at one of the more difficult aspects of putting a language app together: learning paths.
When you have a course or program with tonnes of content like Babbel has, it can be a real challenge arranging this in a way that creates an easy flow for users of all levels.
This is an issue we’ve been trying to tackle with our site, TalkInArabic.com.
However, I tried out the Russian edition of Babbel and found the structure and navigation a little confusing at times.
They use a placement quiz to help you find out where you’re at which helps you get started.
But for Russian, there’s nothing beyond the Beginner content and navigating to the lessons within the Beginner course was harder than it needed to be.
I found myself asking, “Is this it?”
I wasn’t sure if I was missing something.
There’s obviously a lot more for the other languages like Spanish and German (which have courses up to Advanced). As expected from a German company, German is definitely better-stocked.
Within the course categories, lessons are either topical (e.g. countries), vocabulary (e.g. transport) or grammar (e.g. Russian verbs).
Once you select a lesson, you set up your microphone (if you decide to use their speech recognition component — see below) and then start learning.
Babbel lessons are fairly tedious
I’m not going to go into the specific aspects of the lessons since it’s all available for free trial but I’ll sum it like this:
Most of Babbel consists of fill-in-the-blank exercises, matching words to images and repeating words into the microphone.
That’s basically a Babbel review in a nutshell.
Much like Duolingo, some key vocab is introduced with images that you need to match words or phrases to, and then different variations of comprehension and pronunciation exercises are given.
One thing that’s different is the inclusion of grammar exercises where you’re tasked with filling-in-the-blank on a grammar table.
Since my belief is that you don’t need to study grammar in order to speak a foreign language, I still see this as a mostly pointless inclusion though to be honest.
What Babbel does well is forcing you to review what you’ve covered and I feel this reinforces the content of each lesson well.
For Russian specifically, I found that Babbel did a decent job of teaching Cyrillic too in the Newcomer course and the Russian pronunciation that’s used throughout the entire course is very clear and easy to listen to.
Babbel isn’t tailored for Intermediate – Advanced learners
I suppose you would expect this to be the case with an app like Babbel.
Particularly for Russian which only has Beginner and ‘Newcomer’ courses, but true for all languages on their platform, there isn’t a whole lot for higher-level learners.
I feel like Babbel’s missing out on a good opportunity here and a large chunk of the market.
For a learner like myself with a solid foundation in Russian, I’d happily pay for a service like Babbel if I could use it for Intermediate content.
Review of Babbel’s speech recognition technology
Speech recognition technology has generally come a long way over the past few years.
I’ve talked about other programs and apps (e.g. Rosetta Stone’s TruAccent™ speech recognition) and Rocket Language’s use of Google’s Web Speech API for instance.
Babbel has developed its own speech recognition system.
The program listens to your voice and then compares it to their own native speaker samples for instant feedback.
According to its developer, it’s browser-based which means that it doesn’t require server or API calls to check your pronunciation (not that this matters much to the end user but it just means that the app is able to work faster — which is good because the rest of the app is incredibly slow loading).
I’ve reviewed and tested it out with Russian and found it works quite well.
I usually don’t recommend relying on speech recognition software as it’s never going to be 100% accurate (RS often gives wrong feedback for instance). You’re always better off jumping on italki and getting natural feedback from a human (read my full italki review).
But for what it does, I think Babbel has developed a quality speech recognition component.
Babbel has very competitive pricing which I think is great (even better if you use a Babbel coupon).
It’s priced around $13 a month ($7 if you go for an annual subscription). There are also 3 and 6 month options too.
This low pricing probably explains why they have millions of paid subscribers to their app.
Of course, since Duolingo is considered a competitor and is ‘free’, it makes sense that Babbel wouldn’t want to price themselves too high.
If you compare this to other SaaS language services (e.g. Glossika), you’ll see how affordable Babbel has been able to stay.
Apps like Babbel will never compare to authentic language practice
I feel like this should be a very obvious point but I’ll make it anyway.
The problem with programs like Babbel and Rosetta Stone is that they’re marketed as a be-all solution to language learning.
Their target demographic are people who generally haven’t got a clue about learning a foreign language and want to have their hands held through the entire process – usually without the pressure of human interaction.
Of course, you can’t learn your target language to fluency by playing tedious games on an app.
I often see comments from people online who say things like:
“I finished the entire French Duolingo course. Now what do I do?”
Umm… how about you go outside and actually use it?
Even though Babbel employs experts, educators and linguists to help polish their program, it’s just that – a program.
Use it as a supplement to actual practice.
Don’t know anyone to practice with? See if you can find someone on italki.
Just don’t rely solely on Babbel or anything else to get you to the goal you’re aiming for.
Review summary: Is Babbel worth the money?
Babbel may be useful as a supplemental resource but be cautious of well-marketed hype.
If you’re after a frank summary of my experience using Babbel in this review, here it is:
It’s far better and more professional than Duolingo by a long shot (for the languages it covers) but I would only ever use it as a supplemental resource.
Babbel, like Duolingo, is a procrastinator’s course for the most part.
What Babbel has in its favor compared to Duolingo is that its course content is created by educators and linguists rather than crowd-sourced (however it still lacks important languages like Japanese, Chinese and Arabic).
But you’re not going to learn how to effectively and naturally communicate with people by clicking around a gamified web app, matching pictures and filling in the blanks.
That’s not to say these activities are harmful or wasteful – they can certainly help.
But you’d be better off taking inexpensive lessons on italki combined with a quality book or resource for the language you’re learning and an abundance of free media content on YouTube.
Overall, Babbel is an extremely well-marketed yet mediocre language learning supplement.
Have you used Babbel before?
Share your thoughts below.
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I am using Babbel to learn German from scratch. After two months I have completed the beginner level and I have just started the first intermediate course. I don’t agree that the courses are tedius, I really enjoy doing the lessons. What I really like is the amount of practice. Each day there are new practice lessons which help me learn previous work. It looks like they use spaced repetition, a scientifically proven method to learn information. The grammar is explained at a pace that suits me, not too much, not too little, with plenty of usage. It seems to be sinking in even if it is not easy. I also like that they present conversations with lots of sentences that I don’t really understand. The student has to fill in the missing words. It doesn’t matter that I struggle with the sentences, it’s a way to gradually introduce more complex structures, whilst testing the student on the less complex stuff. I have the impression the course was created by people who know how to teach languages, unlike Duolingo for example, and the overall impression is of a professional product. It won’t get me to fluency, as there is not enough listening practice to really drill the grammar and vocabulary into my brain, but that’s a flaw in most if not all courses. My view is that this is a well written course that is introducing me to the German language, and it will allow me to go on and read and listen to German and eventually reach fluency. These courses are really meant to be used with other resources such as podcasts and native language articles online. Finally, the price is very reasonable.
Several years ago I used Rosetta Stone when preparing for a trip to Italy, finishing the entire course just before I left (it took eight months). I t got me a long way; I could read the labels in museums and do “tourist” things., I guess about A level. As an example, I could ask a museum guard if he had seen my wife who was wearing a grey shirt and had black hair .
This year we went to Italy again. In the meantime Rosetta Stone had shifted from CDs to the Web and our old computer with the CD drive had broken, so I signed up with Babble and started from zero. I only had about a month to work with it before we left, but it was a good reminder. Since I came back I’ve continued with Babble, and am now up to B2 course 1 lesson 3. I am also reading “Pinocchio” in the original and looking for other Italian input. I haven’t yet signed up for the live conversations. I also have my wife’s old intro. Italian book from her college years.
Of the two, I prefer Babbel, as it explains things -- e.g. “use subjunctive after verbs of opinion” -- while Rosetta Stone would just present the verb form and have you repeat it. It’s not game-like, which I think is a positive. I very much like the dialogs in Babbel, where I can listen to spoken Italian and try to understand it at speed -- this is much harder than reading, when you can go as slowly as you want and the words are separated. Yes, it’s slower and clearer than on-the-street Italian, but it’s a step to that.
I have been using Babbel Spanish regularly for several months and do not feel any closer to conversational competency. I don’t foresee my continuation for much longer than a few additional months. Duolingo was a little less tedious but was even less effective.
While I appreciate the above review, I have to say that Babbel is setting me back in my language study. Verb conjugations that I knew through Duolingo are being forgotten because of the overwhelming amount of new material being introduced in Babbel. Even though I don’t like the fact that Duolingo sells my contributions, at least it was not turning me off trying to Learn a language. I need to stop using Babbel before it causes more damage to my interest in learning.
I just signed up for a year of Babbel and am trying it out. The most obvious thing I have realized is that it is not intuitive to my level of knowledge. It is presenting me with way too much vocabulary too soon, and that is turning me off. The endorphins in my brain go into hiding and the learning stops while the frustration levels rise. This surprises me because I am paying for this. I was using Duolingo for free, and if I was’n’t learning as much as I co uld with other avenues, at least I was having fun.
I’ve use Babbel for about 18 months now and I’m almost done with the Spanish course, only the last part left, a bunch of phrases and podcast left to do. The thing is if you really wanna learn a language, you’ll make any app work. Maybe there’s better resources out there, I’ve tried Pimsleur but it was to complicated and outdated for me. but Babbel works for me. My gf is halfperuvian and can speak decent Spanish, but my grammar is getting better than hers (which is awesome). Also worth noting is that we don’t speak Spanish with eachother and she’s not that involved in me learning Spanish. I’’ve done the learning all on my own.
I use Babbel and Spanishdict to learn Spanish atm, I also write down all the grammar I’m being thought by hand in a notebook, so I can easily look through and repeat some of the rules. This works real well for me and since I got a lifetime subscription for 200€, I think its a lot of value for money. Next language I’ll try to learn is probably French (a language I started learning in school years ago) and then probably Italian. It’ll probably take me a few more years, but languages take time, I’m prepared to invest that time.
For me I’ll try to learn some basics and then travel to the countries and live there for a month or two during the summer and immerse myself in the language. Since I myself live in Europe, that won’t be hard, and I have summer break between my med-school semesters so I also have time. But it all depends on you situation and opportunities.
Conclusion: If you want to use Babbel to learn a language, it’s possible. You’ll probably have to use other resources tho (like I use spanishdict and write down grammar in a notebook). If you have the possibility you should learn a little language and travel to that country and immerse yourself in the language., that’s the best way. Good luck with your learning!
Speech recognition is a waste of time and money on my opinion, basically recording yourself with no feedback.
In addition to native speaker I use Google Translate for Portuguese after hearing a word or phrase I then say it to Google in Portuguese and look at the results.
I get very discouraged with Babbel. Its insistence on using grammatical terms to explain conjugations for verbs leaves me confused. I probably didn’t learn the terms when I was at school 45 years ago , let alone now! “The reflexive verb is often pair with the reflexive pronoun”.
I spend so much time going back correcting my mistakes (several times) that it’s a relief to finally finish the lesson. By that time I’ve lost the will to revise.
I have used Babbel now twice, each time for about 1 year, on average 3 times per week for a couple of hours, learning Italian. There was a 4 years gap between the two sessions and now I have a basic understanding of Italian but still not comfortable having a conversation. In favour of Babbel is the forced rehearsals which eventually make words and phrases stick, although not to the extend that they come out easily when speaking Italian (I am level B1 of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR)).
However, although I am comfortable with the Babbel user interface, recent changes with silly “encouragement” phrases and constant switching required between mouse and keyboard have become increasingly annoying. That combined with the low confidence of actually speaking Italian after the time invested has made me change language course from Babbel to an alternative method.
I actually think Babbel is quite good... If you know how to use it correctly... I use it for French so maybe I am treated to more content than some of the other languages; but as a resource I think the app is really good. Unlike in duolingo, and even in other courses I’ve tried you have full access to different levels of content, different grammar explanations and vocabulary within different themes and contexts, whereby you can use and revise at anytime within your leisure! I’ve found it a good way of building up your language knowledge in a way that’s personal and without restrictions... Duolingo you don’t have full access to the course until you’ve completed the whole thing; also in Babbel, everything is organised for you to choose and read from at any point... I know it’s not rocket science, but as a resource I think Babbel is actually quite useful... Love to know what other people think! Tom
It does a spotty job of pointing out rules and concepts in the English to Spanish course. It’s so bad at times you would think the goal is to confuse you. It could be that these comments are written by people whose native language is Spanish. Result is you really get torqued off.
Also, the audio features a woman who speaks very fast, aspirates syllables, and joins words together. I know this is very authentic but if you are a beginner, which most subscribers are, this is another thing that will frustrate you like crazy.
I agree with you about the fast speech. I often play the phrase over and over and..., I still don’t realise that she merged ‘te’ or suchlike with the next word. And she pronounces ‘te’ and ‘de’ almost exactly the same.
Was so disappointed to see how difficult it is to navigate the web site once you secure the service. I simply tried to figure out if I could use my app in a mobile fashion and the “Help Desk” -for me- was a bunch of doubletalk leading me back to their programmed question suggestions. Too bad.