Busuu Review: Brilliant in Some Areas, Terrible In Others

Compared to similar language apps and courses, Busuu offers you a lot in some areas but fails badly in others.
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Busuu

Busuu
Pricing: €6,66 per month or €5,83 per month (billed annually)
Positives
  • Placement testing
  • Goal setting for motivation
  • Writing lessons corrected by native speakers
Negatives
  • Regional dialect issues
  • Few opportunities to practice speaking
  • Review sections get repetitive

Summary

Compared to similar language apps and courses, Busuu gives you a lot of some features and not enough of others. Overall, the premium version stacks up nicely and offers an enjoyable user experience.

Note: I’ve recommended a far better, more user-friendly (and less expensive) alternative to Busuu.

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Make sure to check out my Essential Language Learning Tools page as well for other resources and recommendations.

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Founded in 2008, the Busuu language course/app took its name from speakers of the Busuu language in Cameroon.

Although ironically, Busuu is not an offered language in the course. 🙂

The company partnered with McGraw-Hill Education, with lessons structured as A1, A2, B1, and so on (CEFR). As an international standard, this means Busuu can test you on each level and issue a formal certificate.

The Busuu app has received warm reviews on the Google Play store and in other areas.

The free version of Busuu is quite limited, but the paid program unlocks some cool features. Busuu’s paid course offers most of the same features you find in similar language courses and apps.

The option to have your writing corrected by native speakers works well, with an active community to make sure you get feedback, though I must say that the lack of pronunciation exercises disappoints when trying to learn to speak.

The lesson system seems to improve retention, but too much fill-in-the-blank work can leave you lacking comprehension.

Busuu has courses in twelve languages (English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Arabic, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Polish, Turkish), all with native speakers ready to correct your writing exercises.

Overall, Busuu stands out among competitors for its clean, enjoyable interface and challenging coursework. It offers some helpful features missing in other programs but also lacks in some essential areas which I’ll cover below.

What does Busuu offer (free vs premium)?

Free Busuu

As a free user, you’ll miss the grammar lessons the most.

Busuu does little direct vocabulary drilling.

Instead, even vocabulary reviews will ask for the words in context or conjugated in various ways.

Since learning vocabulary with no context teaches almost nothing, Busuu’s method helps you learn the words as someone would use them in conversation.

The free version of the Busuu app has frustrating limitations, but not much different from its competitors’ free versions.

Premium Busuu

As a paid user of Busuu premium, the app asks you to set your goals for how you plan to use your new language.

The goal can range from asking for basic things while on vacation to my goal: understanding most of a movie or TV show in Spanish. You then set a plan for how much time you have each week to practice, and it spits out a guess when you will achieve your language goal.

Mine put me at about a year studying 20 minutes a day, but I appreciate this more than the “speak fluently in a month!” claims from other programs.

This app stands out for its focus on grammar, sentence structure, and conjugating verbs.

Busuu premium unlocks an attractive, functional program that uses an effective teaching method of lesson plans that build on each other, along with an active community of learners.

Busuu lesson structure

Lessons in Busuu break down into three or four mini-lessons, all on the same topic and the same words.

The first mini-lesson shows you the words you will use, and the second gives you practice using them. The lesson ends with either a quiz (no grade, so don’t panic) or a writing exercise.

This lesson format gives a contained little unit where you see new words and start using them right away, so you do not forget them.

The native speakers correcting the writing exercises help you make significant improvements in understanding. They will often correct things that are not formally wrong but sound wrong to a native speaker.

If your goal is to learn casual usage, these folks can help.

You will occasionally see different corrections from different people, which result from variations in the language but also different dialects.

In Spanish, which I’m studying, the app’s language tends toward the language as spoken in Spain, but many native speakers on the app speak Latin American dialects. This is not a disaster.

People from Latin American countries will still understand you, but with this and any other language learning tool, have an idea which dialect or regional version it teaches.

The lessons logically build on each other, with grammar lessons interspersed with the more standard ones.

The usual lesson might start with mini-lesson learning the words used to talk about sleep and getting up. Then, the words become sentences, and then a quiz.

The quizzes ask questions similar to the second mini-lesson, so they provide more practice.

Most lessons will have new verbs in new conjugations or tenses.

The grammar lessons dig deeper into irregular verbs, reflexive pronouns, and tenses. Since only paid users can access the grammar lessons, free users miss out on a valuable (but not essential) resource.

Besides the grammar lessons, the typical lesson focuses on a topic such as what you did yesterday.

Dialogue lessons

Once you have moved past the basics, you will start seeing (and hearing) mini-lessons to read and hear a conversation between two native speakers.

You fill in the blanks in the discussion or listen to parts and decide whether a statement is true or false.

These conversations help when learning new sentence structures or how to use new irregular verbs, for example.

The speech goes fast, and I would like to slow it down, but that option is not available.

In some questions where you type what you hear, you need to listen multiple times to understand the speaker.

Teaching a foreign language, though, does mean being exposed to the way people speak it.  

Learning languages from Busuu

In appearance and general use, Busuu gets credit for a clean, attractive interface with colorful photos and easy navigation.

Moving between sections on the mobile app drags a bit, but unless you are ridiculously impatient, it shouldn’t bother you.

Overall, the user experience with Busuu feels enjoyable.

Some other apps do not look friendly, but Busuu does.

You have the option to skip ahead, go back to previous lessons, or slide over and do a grammar or vocabulary review session.

Lesson review feature and feedback

I’ll address some of the issues with the review section, but as a tool for catching up on areas you missed, make sure you use it often.

At least they offer an interactive review session instead of a tiresome drill: the reviews will demand that you use the word in context instead of just spitting it out.

Even in a vocabulary review, the app will make sure you gender the noun and conjugate verbs in a Spanish lesson.

As far as whether the app punishes users too hard for mistakes, it has zero patience for spelling mistakes. However, it tolerates incorrect or missing accents, although it will chide you for your error.

The more times you mistake a word, the more times the review session will quiz you on it later.

Unlike some apps that make you repeat the same word or phrase until you get it right, no matter how long that takes, Busuu will present you with the same question one or two more times.

If you still miss it, you will not see it again in that lesson, but it will pop back up in the review later.

The app remembers questions you missed but will present them the second time in a different format to give you another chance, such as a “listen and type what you hear” after you’ve missed a “here’s the phrase in English, rewrite it in Spanish” question.

Why does the way a language learning program handles mistakes matter so much to me?

In my personal experience, some programs (and I’m looking at you, smug little green owl) punish you for mistakes in a way that hinders learning, such as taking “lives” away or not allowing you to move on until you get an answer right.

This kind of negative feedback can hold back the user’s progress, especially those with low confidence or who lose patience with repetition and quit.

The Busuu app’s strategy gives you the more supportive option by saying, in a way, “OK, we’re not getting this right now, so we’re just going to shuffle it over to review later, and we’ll move on.”

This keeps learners from feeling stuck on one question or phrase forever.

Is it a community or a “community”?

I’m happy to say that the learning community in Busuu always stays active.

Within a few minutes of posting a writing exercise, at least two or three people will provide corrections or comments.

Busuu encourages this by giving you points toward your daily learning requirement when you help others - a feature other apps could try since their communities have much less action.

Since learning one language at a time is plenty for me, I cannot speak for the Busuu communities in languages with fewer learners.

I expect that most languages have enough users to stay busy.

You can also make friends in the community, call upon them to correct your exercises, or they can call on you to correct theirs.

You’re able to reply to a correction if you would like to discuss it, so having a few people you go back and forth with often can give you a “study buddy” to check your work.

Tutoring

If talking to native speakers and other learners leaves you wanting more, Busuu also offers private tutoring (also see italki).

A one-on-one session lasts half an hour with a person advertised as an expert tutor.

This costs less than with many other similar products, but more than a privately hired tutor probably would.

They can review your progress in the program and fine-tune your lesson plan to help you meet your goals faster.

Issues and weaknesses with Busuu

Of the language apps I have used, Busuu premium has moved my language learning forward more than others. Overall, it offers a fantastic user experience.

I have some gripes, and the app lacks some things I would like to see.

Busuu progresses much faster than the other apps I’ve tried (see Mango Languages), especially when it comes to sentence structure and conjugation.

I find myself somewhere between enjoying the challenge and trying to remember if I ever learned these verbs the first time.

The grammar lessons, in particular, stuff a lot of new ideas into one lesson. This can cause the learner to make many mistakes the first time through, a frustrating experience.

However, the grammar review feature lets you review those as many times as you need to, so you haven’t missed anything you cannot catch up on.

The grammar lessons and grammar review bring up the annoying fact that neither of these features are available in the free version, only in Busuu premium.

All apps of this type limit what you can do unless you pay for the full program, but the loss of these grammar lessons will be painful later if you want to continue learning since they cover some important concepts.

The free version of the app only allows you to do some of the mini-lessons in each lesson, but not others, making the learning experience patchier.

Again, not unexpected for a free version of a subscription-based app.

Dialect confusion

One problem I have found only with Busuu: a heavy focus on the pronoun “vosotros”, a plural pronoun that replaces the formal plural “ustedes” in Spanish.

Besides making conjugation even more complicated, this pronoun is only used in Spain and by some in Columbia and Argentina.

The rest of the Spanish-speaking world does not use it. I understand that learning this pronoun will make you sound more at home while speaking in Spain, but most language-learning apps do not teach it because you do not need it to be understood.

The app also has several speakers who speak with a heavy lisp.

This may be normal in Spain, but not in Latin America (see Rocket Spanish for Latin American Spanish).

The gap between the languages spoken in these regions can be vast, and a few apps let you choose between the two, but most of them do not.

Users unaware of these distinctions should learn, along with the language, some lessons about where the uses differ. For example, you will only hear the lisp if speaking in Spain, or that “vosotros” is never used in most Spanish-speaking countries.

Lack of speaking or pronunciation practise

A serious flaw with this app, and one that is hard to overlook, is the lack of pronunciation or speaking practice.

Each lesson might offer one chance to test your speaking, but there are no lessons focused on practicing pronunciation. You will not have the opportunity to test your pronunciation of almost any words.

The only option for testing your speech in the app happens during the exercises, which occur at the end of some lessons.

You either write or speak the exercise, which is then corrected by your learning peers. You could also practice it with a private tutor, but this option requires some extra investment.

Most apps of this type have you speaking words and phrases in most lessons, so finding out you barely get to do it at all in this one came as a serious disappointment.

Busuu pricing and refunds

Pricing for this program varies, as they offer discounts frequently if you sign up for emails.

I signed up for a 12-month program at 50% off, which came in at $42.99 USD for the year. The website only lists the pricing per month, and currently, due to error, it will only list them in Euros.

Overall, prices seem in line with those for similar apps, and like at least one of their major competitors, they offer frequent discounts. For private tutoring, prices start at $15.99, but with a discount of $60.99 if you purchase five lessons.

Busuu offers a 14 day satisfaction (refund) policy.

However, the Google Play comments are full of complaints from people angry that they got charged again for a recurring subscription and even more furious that they cannot get their money back.

Under most conditions, you cannot get back what you already paid (recurring payments), but you can cancel the renewal and keep using Busuu till the paid period is up.

Busuu review conclusion (is it worth it?): Stands out from the crowd, but there’s room for improvement

In this review of Busuu, I’ve shared what I think are strengths and weaknesses of the language course.

Compared to similar apps, the strengths outweigh the weaknesses.

Attractive and easy to use, it offers a better language learning experience than most other programs I have tried.

While the free version cuts you out of many useful tools, the paid version has a lot to offer, including an active community of learners and an immersive teaching style.

Although Busuu struggles in some areas, especially in its lack of pronunciation and speaking exercises, it excels in most areas.

The setup of the lessons and mini-lessons guide the learning process.

Lessons proceed quickly and can get challenging in a hurry, but Busuu forgives enough mistakes to keep even the easily frustrated coming back for more.


Have you used Busuu? Share your thoughts below!

Pricing: €6,66 per month or €5,83 per month (billed annually)
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Here's what you should read next:

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Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Icelandic

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