By Victor Luckerson
October 2, 2014

It’s common these days to hear of a new mobile game that racks up impressive downloads and sales almost overnight–and then disappears just as fast. A growing raft of gamelike apps hope to stay in your pocket for the long term. How? By offering users the ability to learn a new language, practice web coding or improve their memory. As smartphones become a constant part of the human experience, more and more people are wondering what their phones have done for them lately. So-called brain-training apps propose we spend our downtime bulking up our minds. “There’s a long-term secular trend and consumer interest in health,” explains Kunal Sarkar, the CEO of brain-training company Lumosity. “Taking care of your mind is another part of that.”

The difference from past generations of educational software–think programs that teach typing or basic math–is that these apps feel like games, not homework. More than 18 million people have downloaded Lumosity, a puzzle program created by neuroscientists in collaboration with game designers, since it launched last year. Duolingo, an app that teaches foreign languages, grants users experience points and badges as they learn new grammar skills, much as console titles like Call of Duty do. And Codecademy teaches the basics of computer programming in short tutorials.

Brain apps are hardly a cure-all. Conversing with native speakers remains the best way to learn a foreign language, for example, and some experts question Lumosity’s long-term mental benefits. At the very least, though, these apps work on the same basic concept that teachers have been trying to drill into our heads since kindergarten: learning can be fun.

I WANT TO…

[The following text appears within a diagram. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual diagram.]

LEARN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE

DUOLINGO

AVAILABLE FOR: Web, iOS, Android

COST: Free

This language-learning app offers courses in Spanish, French, Italian, German and Portuguese. And it’s not all reading and writing–it uses the phone’s microphone to gauge users’ pronunciation skills as well.

IMPROVE MY MEMORY

LUMOSITY

AVAILABLE FOR: Web, iOS, Android

COST: Free trial; $14 per month

Lumosity aims to improve users’ thinking abilities by using simple games and tests that adapt to your cognitive level to improve memory, attention and decisionmaking speed. The company says no two users will have the same experience.

BECOME A PROGRAMMER

CODECADEMY

AVAILABLE FOR: Web, iOS

COST: Free

Programming skills are increasingly important in the digital age, and Codecademy offers in-depth lessons in HTML, JavaScript and other languages. Novices can download the Hour of Code app and learn the basics of programming syntax on the go.

KNOW MORE ABOUT ART

DAILYART

AVAILABLE FOR: iOS, Android

COST: Free

Each day the app presents a different classic painting from storied artists such as van Gogh and Monet. Even if you already know the work, you may not know all the fascinating details the app serves up on the backstory of the art.

BECOME A WORDSMITH

VOCABULARY.COM

AVAILABLE FOR: Web, iOS, Android

COST: $2.99 on mobile

Never again get embarrassed using the wrong word at a dinner party with this app. It boasts more than 120,000 questions that can help you learn over 12,000 words. Users can even battle their friends to see who’s the bigger word geek.

BE A HISTORY BUFF

TODAY’S DOCUMENTS

AVAILABLE FOR: iOS, Android

COST: Free

The U.S. National Archives manages this educational app, which serves up a historical document or photo each day of the year. Past docs have included everything from a letter by Woodrow Wilson creating Mother’s Day to a photo of Gerald Ford as a toddler.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

This appears in the October 13, 2014 issue of TIME.

SPONSORED FINANCIAL CONTENT

Read More From TIME

EDIT POST