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May 2019

Do Language Learning Apps Really Work?

The benefits and shortcomings of language apps

There is no shortage of language learning apps in the world today. From vanguards like Rosetta Stone to mainstays like Duolingo, it seems as if there’s a language app to satisfy all styles of learning. The most successful language apps utilise a fun, gamified system with short lessons. Duolingo and Memrise both use a tree approach, allowing users to progress down branches as they learn.

But do these language apps really work, or are they a waste of time? The answer, as presented by a recent New York Times article, lies somewhere in the middle.

What language apps can do

One of the biggest draws to language apps is the low barrier for adoption; they’re very easy to use. A quick download to your mobile phone allows you to begin learning your target language right away, wherever you want (some apps and upgraded versions don’t even require an Internet connection). Lessons are simple, short, and fun, taking as little as five to ten minutes per day.

Today’s language apps are also flexible and well-rounded. Many allow for the use of your own source material or the creation of your own lessons, particularly with smart flashcard apps. Language apps also usually feature reading, writing, listening, and speaking, and some even offer conversations with either live or AI partners.

The limits of learning

With such ease of use there is, of course, a drawback. ‘You get what you pay for’, as the adage goes, and with learning it’s no different. It all comes down to how one defines ‘learning a language’.

The phrase ‘learning a language’ is deceptively reductive. A language isn’t a singular monolith, but rather a complex interconnected system of components that build a way to communicate. The lexicon consists of the individual words, which speakers have to memorize. The syntax and grammar tell speakers how to properly structure those words in a sentence. Then there’s the writing system, which is the visual representation of words or sounds that allow words to be constructed (for example, in English, the writing system is the alphabet).

What language learning apps can easily promise is to familiarise users with their target languages. But when it comes to become truly fluent, they may not be enough for most people who hope to have real conversations with native speakers. In other words, language apps provide a great starting point for new learners of a language, particularly languages that are much more diverse than the learner’s native tongue.

For languages that have a different writing system, like Japanese, Russian, or Korean, language apps can be an excellent way to learn. Duolingo and Memrise both use a combination of flash card and simple matching exercises to train you to recognize symbols in a new writing system, while Babbel goes an extra step further with in-lesson explanations for how new symbols or sounds work.

These apps are also better at teaching basic conversational phrases that are useful when you’re traveling. When you visit a city in a foreign country, it’s helpful to learn a few phrases like “Where is the bathroom?” or “How much does it cost?” Using a phrase book to memorize these phrases in another language is a quick and dirty way to get the job done, but that’s not really “learning” the phrases, it’s just memorizing them.

Far from fluent

While serving as an excellent start for language, language apps, according to the NYT article, will not help learners approach the highest level of fluency without additional help in the form of intensive learning (such as attending a course or finding a human tutor). The author illustrates the levels of fluency to help us understand how progress is traditionally evaluated:

The six CEFR levels are necessarily broad and can overlap a bit, but here’s a (very) brief overview of what each means:

  • At level A1, learners should know basic phrases, be able to introduce themselves and ask simple personal questions, and understand basic interactions if their conversation partner speaks slowly. Level A2 includes understanding common expressions, communicating about routine tasks, and describing simple aspects of the speaker’s background. Together, these two levels make up the Basic stage.
  • Level B1 starts to introduce more complex ideas like explaining their opinions, dreams, and ambitions, or handling complex tasks while traveling. Level B2 expects speakers to be able to speak with native speakers of a language without straining, and have complex technical discussions related to their field of expertise. These two levels make up the Independent stage.
  • Finally, a level C1 speaker should be able to communicate flexibly in social, professional, and academic settings, understand a wide variety of topics, and recognize implicit meaning. C2, the highest level, expects the learner to “understand with ease virtually everything heard or read,” and summarize information from different sources. Levels C1 and C2 make up the Proficient stage.

Language learning apps can help us reach the middle of B1, which is enough for most people, particularly those who hope to know enough for travel. Initial learning (starting from zero) often sees exponential progress, however, as the student progresses from an intermediate to advanced level, incremental learning becomes more demanding and nuanced. For such students, it may be time to leave the apps and head to a human.

Do you agree with the conclusions put forth by the author? Have you found much success with language learning apps? Share it with our community on our Facebook Page, and be sure to “like” telc English for more articles on language learning!

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