uTalk Review: Here's What It Does (And Doesn't) Teach You

A language learning app that simply focuses on words and phrases without getting you bogged down in the complexity of grammar study.
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uTalk

uTalk
Pricing: $4.99 monthly per language, $9.99 for all 140 languages, $99.99 for a lifetime subscription
Positives
  • Authentic native speaker audio
  • Hundreds of available languages
  • Thousands of potential language combinations
  • Inexpensive
Negatives
  • Sloppy UI
  • Games are mediocre
  • Broad approach that isn't tailored for specific languages

Summary

uTalk is essentially a fancy flashcard app, an alternative to Memrise and a great way to learn words and phrases in hundreds of different languages. There are thousands of potential language pair combinations and tons of native speaker audio recordings with picture associations.

It’s quite simplistic in what it does however, so don’t expect a course.

uTalk is a language learning app with a simple goal: rather than getting bogged down in the complexity of grammar structures and explanations, you’re exposed to the sounds and vocabulary, and to basic phrases.

How you use that is up to you.

It’s not designed to be a standalone tool for language fluency, but is perfect for expanding vocabulary and training your comprehension.

uTalk is a comprehensive source of words and sentences in 140 languages, with thousands of potential source->target combinations.

I’ll explain this below.


In a hurry? You can jump to the different sections here:

What is uTalk?

uTalk is an app for Android, iOS (includes “offline mode”) and web that lets you “learn any language” through visuals; you see the pictures, you listen to what they are, and you play a variety of games designed to help you commit the meaning of your new vocabulary to memory.

There’s also an in-app currency call uCoins which you can earn by completing lessons (or purchasing them). You can then use the uCoins to unlock languages and features.

Not just how it’s written (unlike many language-learning methods) but also how it sounds.

This gets you speaking faster and improves your listening skills.

There’s over a hundred languages on the app, from lesser-known languages like Tibetan and Yoruba to the most popular languages like Spanish, French, Mandarin and Japanese.

It uses the same basic system for all the languages, so you don’t even need to know English; you could be a French speaker learning Mandarin, or a Bhutanese learning Greek.

Unlimited combinations. 😄

In other words, you’re learning to speak in the same way that a first-language speaker does, without needing to involve your native language at all.

uTalk’s plethora of language combinations

I had access to Rosetta Stone in primary school, and all I’d learned from it was to internalise the idea that I probably wasn’t any good at language learning.

What I hadn’t really understood at the time was that, as uTalk’s product manager Simon explains:

For those seeking fluency, one app is never going to be enough (ours included!)

If you’re expecting fluency from one app, this is definitely not the app.

The language offerings aren’t tailored for the rules of the languages in any way, unlike Rocket Languages for example which really teaches how the pieces of that particular language fit together.

But that doesn’t mean that what uTalk does isn’t valuable in and of itself.

There are some inherent limitations in trying to teach 140 languages on one platform with the same themes and vocab

Languages are incredibly diverse in their grammar, syntax, vocab, idioms and more, so even basic tailoring to so many languages wouldn’t be doable.

Frankly, you’re not going to be able to get anywhere near fluent with uTalk alone, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a valuable part of your overall language-learning journey as long as you recognise these inherent limitations.

Especially considering it’s a tiny fraction of the price of Rosetta Stone, I feel like it’s value for money.

There’s also the benefit of flexibility that comes with uTalk, because you don’t need a source language. This isn’t such a selling point for native English speakers; again, if I head to something like Duolingo as a speaker of English, I’m very lucky: I can learn around 30 languages.

Native speaker of Tagalog?

Duolingo has nothing but a 40% completed English course.

Polish speaker?

You can learn English only.

Spanish speaker wanting to learn Japanese?

Out of luck.

With uTalk, there’s 20,000 possible language learning combinations.

Whether you’re Filipino and learning French, or Spanish and learning Swahili, it’s doable with uTalk.

OK, but you’re reading this, so English is your native language, right?

As a native or near-native speaker of English, I still see an important place for uTalk in your language learning journey.

Let’s assume you’re using Duolingo to go through the lessons, and your grammar is getting pretty top-notch.

You understand how to say “I am the king of the pigeons”. You understand for the most part WHY the sentence works that way.

You know how to replace the word pigeon with something else… but because the tool you’re using is grammar-focused, you don’t necessarily have many other things that you could be the king of.

Also, you may not have realised this, but when you’re speaking the language, you kinda sound like a robot.

Or in my case, you’re amusing your Israeli boyfriend greatly when you’re trying to learn Hebrew from the owl and somehow you don’t sound like an Aussie mangling Hebrew… but wait… you sound like a Japanese person mangling Hebrew, because you’re pronouncing all the sounds like you would in Japanese.

As they say in Ivrit (Hebrew), oy vav oy (oy vey).

Learning languages from robots vs people

Let’s put my pronouncing all foreign languages as Japanese aside: if you’re using Duolingo and you sound like a robot, there’s a reason for that.

You’re, well, kinda learning from a robot.

Duolingo uses TTS (text-to-speech) voices quite widely for most languages, particularly where there’s a Google TTS available; for less common languages, they may use recorded voices, but there’s been mixed reviews about quality (for Esperanto, a user said here that they “sound like someone recorded them in one take on a mobile phone in a bathroom”).

On the other hand, uTalk is seriously passionate about getting you speaking, and they don’t compromise on sound quality.

I think this is perhaps their biggest selling point: you’re hearing native speakers say words how they’re actually said. There’s around 2,500 words and phrases in the app, so that’s a pretty solid basis for tuning your ear to the sounds of a language.

Even better, they’ve recorded male and female speakers, which is really important because the way women and men speak is not the same.

Pitch and intonation typically differ between genders.

uTalk have gone out of their way to achieve a program where you’ll actually learn how people speak: they’ve recorded in deserts and far-flung islands.

They’ve recorded over a thousand native speakers.

So, added bonus: it isn’t just a language tool, it’s a preservation effort that records the sounds of languages, including severely endangered languages like Ladino and Southern Saami. If you’re a linguistics & anthropology nerd like me, that’s seriously exciting stuff.

uTalk teaches words and phrases but not grammar

As I’ve said earlier, uTalk plays a role in fluency: it isn’t fluency bundled up in an app.

Duolingo is great with its clever way of reinforcing grammar and syntax that’s tailored for each language it teaches.

I still learned so much from old-school Japanese grammar, vocab and kanji lists that basically led me to near-native proficiency in reading and writing.

My introverted brother dedicated two years of his life to learning Spanish fluently, and he achieved that entirely without going to Spain or leaving the comfort of his room; he gets his interactions with native Spanish speakers through Skype calls and Facebook, and people can’t tell that he’s not native unless he mentions it.

While in-country immersion is the best way to learn a language, I genuinely believe that the Internet nowadays has everything you need to become near-native in a language.

Put together the right tools and the time, and you can do it.

When I took the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, it was separated into three parts: reading, writing, and listening. Speaking wasn’t involved.

Broadly speaking, you need to practice all four of these domains to be genuinely fluent.

There’s a lot of tools that will teach you how to read and write, how to string together a sentence, but there’s not many that will get your mouth and ears involved.

It’s easy to neglect that piece of the puzzle, but you can easily find you’ve learnt a language for years, become a fluent reader, and can’t understand a word when you visit. Programs like uTalk help you with that puzzle piece.

You won’t learn grammar here, but you can learn grammar elsewhere. It’s not tailored for your second language, but other tools are; those tools won’t get you speaking. And you can’t really tell yourself you speak a language, unless you can actually speak it.

I reckon uTalk on its own won’t do much; grammar & syntax are non-negotiable parts of language mastery.

But it’s a powerful supplement that grows your ability in an area that second-language speakers often struggle with.

You’re learning in the same way that people learn when they arrive in a new country: contextually.

There’s about 180 hours’ worth of material here, so team it up with resources that teach you sentence structure, and you’ve got a holistic approach to language learning that helps you bridge the communication gap.

My uTalk experience and results

I decided to give uTalk a go with Mandarin Chinese, a language which I have some basic understanding of already: the Japanese writing system is based on Chinese, so there’s plenty of words that I can read because they’re the same in Japanese.

I also did two years of Mandarin at university many eons ago, and studied in Taiwan for a few months.

I’m good at Chinese grammar, because it’s practically the easiest language out there where grammar is concerned; hanzi (the writing system) is easy because I was used to learning Chinese characters before I started with Chinese. But because it’s a tonal language, I open up my mouth and hilarious word salad comes out.

You may have heard about how difficult Chinese tones are for English speakers. Change your intonation a bit, and instead of asking how someone’s mother is, you’re asking about how their horse is. English speakers making tonal mistakes is an enormous source of mirth to Chinese speakers; you’re basically a walking comedy act.

In Taiwan, I became a selective mute: I could have conversations by writing things down, but I was too embarrassed to use my voice.

For a language where the pronunciation is so fundamentally different from English, you can either withdraw into your writing-reading bubble and have lengthy conversations with your hairdresser where you’re writing and she’s speaking (yes, this happened), or you can accept that speaking takes effort and time.

I’ve largely done the former.

I was so frustrated with not making progress in my speech that I gave up on the language altogether for a decade, and then when I got back into it, I just focused on reading & writing.

But I have a big motivation now: my daughter is half-Chinese, she’s learning the language from me, and I want to be able to teach her properly.

So I used uTalk for a week with just that purpose.

I hear a lot of words that I’ve only ever seen written, and I repeat them. The tones are listed on the app, which is very helpful for reference – but the main reason I’m here is to listen and repeat. When the app tells me how to pronounce something, I repeat it a few times, and then I look at the tones after.

Remember, I’ve seen these words written down with their tones included before, but I haven’t just listened to what the words sound like first.

This might surprise you, but Chinese native speakers don’t necessarily explicitly know what tones a word has. Sure, they’re pronouncing it right (it’s their mother tongue), but if you ask a Chinese speaker to mark down the tones used on all the characters on the front page of a newspaper, they’ll likely look at you baffled.

My first Mandarin teacher was a native Chinese speaker with no teaching experience, and when I asked her to mark down what tones were being used in the sentences she was saying, she just looked at me blankly.

It’s like someone asking me to write down what I’m saying in the International Phonetic Alphabet, I guess; I just make the sounds of my language, I don’t think about it.

So, less analysis, more listening.

At first, I feel overwhelmed as usual by the strangeness of Mandarin sounds; I press that repeat button endlessly, waiting for the sounds to make sense in my brain.

And by the end of just a week, it no longer feels anywhere near as much of a tongue twister as it used to.

A week isn’t long, which might leave you wondering: am I going to keep it up?

Yes.

I can already put together sentences in Mandarin, I can read and write a lot.

But I can’t speak, and with uTalk, I reckon I can make inroads, and help my little girl to capture this important part of her heritage.

I also learned a few new words, like sandwich and champagne.

When you think of language-learning, you might expect a focus on the most important things to that culture; you’re not going to learn “mapo dofu” on here, but really, that’s fine. You’ll learn it elsewhere.

In the globalised & developed world, there’s a lot of words that are important across cultures, so even though the vocab & themes you’re learning on uTalk aren’t specific to any language or culture, they’re still important words to know.

Ganbei (cheers) to that.

How uTalk could be better

Like I said, this is an honest review, and honestly, I’d like to see some more work done on the UI.

This isn’t a dealbreaker.

After all, the value of the app is empowering you to speak with confidence.

But gamification works wonders when it comes to memory, and while uTalk has embraced gamification, the games are a bit mediocre compared to other language learning apps I’ve used, and the interface is a bit mid-90s.

My little girl has spent countless hours enjoying Duolingo, because the games are really fun; but again, if you’re looking for Duolingo, you can just download it (or try Mondly).

uTalk’s offering is unique.

And for a fraction of the price of the next best alternative (Rosetta Stone), I’m not complaining… still, I’d really like to see the games improved a bit.

It’d be nice to be able to click on the individual hanzi (Chinese character) and copy-paste it so that I can Google what it means elsewhere; that’d add a lot to the value of the learning experience. Otherwise, having the hanzi there doesn’t serve much of a purpose.

This could something to look into in the future; again, though, there’s lots of tools for learning hanzi, so it isn’t a dealbreaker.

In real life, we learn our first language through visual and audio aids, immersed in context.

It’s hard to replicate that with a picture; for example, there’s one where there’s a guy about to eat and the Chinese says “I am hungry”, but it could just as easily mean “I am eating”.

It’s a fundamental limitation of an app covering so many languages and not translating anything into the source language, and a reminder why uTalk should be a complement to other language learning tools, not a one-stop-shop.

It won’t be hard to find an app that teaches you how to say “I am hungry”, but it could be hard to find one that teaches you to pronounce it.

uTalk Review conclusion: Is uTalk worth it?

I would recommend uTalk but only as a secondary language learning tool.

You can reach a pretty good level of understanding how a language works with something like Duolingo or Babbel, or with books like the Teach Yourself series, etc.

uTalk would be helpful as a supplement to these.

No two languages are the same, and a curriculum that’s tailored is important.

But that doesn’t mean you can just tell yourself that speaking doesn’t matter, and there’s a shortage of tools that really empower you with speaking confidence.

Immersion is the classic way around this, but in the age of COVID-19 it’s not really an option.

You could get a tutor who is native in the language you’re learning, but it’s expensive, and you’ll only really benefit from that when you’ve got the fundamentals of speech down anyway.

You’ll learn about 2800 vocab words and phrases in uTalk, but in my opinion, you won’t really learn how to use them as such.

This isn’t like being a baby where you learn by watching, because you’re not really immersed in watching real-life situations. Online reviews about uTalk are mixed because of this: users download it expecting a holistic all-in-one language-learning solution that will guide them to fluency.

This isn’t it.

But on the other hand, apps that are tailored to your second language of choice may be helping you excel at reading and writing like a native, but they could also be teaching you to speak like a robot.

So that’s why I consider uTalk to be a secondary tool. so if you’re using it alongside something that gets your sentence structure up to speed, then voila, you also have 2800 vocab words thanks to uTalk to put into those sentences.

uTalk alone won’t teach you a language, and it’s not shy about that; it doesn’t promise fluency.

But it will teach you an important and oft-neglected part of language-learning.

You can learn the ins and outs of language to functional fluency without opening your mouth; after all, deaf people do it all the time.

But if you want to talk to people, to share thoughts, to have great conversations, and so on, then learning to speak and listen isn’t optional.

If you want to learn to speak a language, uTalk is a powerful learning tool.

uTalk pricing and refund policy

uTalk’s pricing is very reasonable in my opinion:

  • $4.99 monthly per language
  • $9.99 for all 140 languages
  • $99.99 for a lifetime subscription

Compared to other language apps, that’s pretty good.

As for the refund policy, it seems that they do offer one but no details are provided on the cooling off period.


Have you used uTalk before?

Share your thoughts below.

Pricing: $4.99 monthly per language, $9.99 for all 140 languages, $99.99 for a lifetime subscription
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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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Shaun

The Hebrew course on duolingo is one of the few (that I'm aware of) that actually does use recorded audio from Native speakers. This is why individual words cannot have their audio played back. I will admit that their pronunciation is a bit weird at times (as a modern Hebrew learner somewhere between upper intermediate and lower advanced).

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein