I used to sneer at language learning apps. How helpful could they really be? After all, it probably wasn’t a coincidence that many beginners were coming to me for 1:1 classes after having initially started with a language learning app. To me, that was just proof of the limitation of these apps and that they were just fun games and not serious and effective language learning tools.
That was until I repeatedly met with intermediate students who had achieved a pretty good level through the usage of one particular language learning app: Duolingo.
So, willing to stand corrected and give them the benefit of the doubt, I decided to test and use some of these apps to see what the deal was and whether there truly was a place for them in the language learning journey or whether they were just a waste of time and money.
Here’s my verdict.
What makes language learning apps so popular?
First of all, they’re free. Free is great if you’re just trying out the language or testing out the app. At this stage, you’re usually not committed to the study of your chosen language. However, you will discover soon enough that if you want to reap anything, you have to sow first. It’s true with language learning as with most other things in life: Free only takes you that far.
Second, they promise big returns for a small investment. When you’re ready to invest a little to take your language learning a bit further, you might consider subscribing to a higher end language learning app. Many of the most popular language learning apps promise great results in a short amount of time for a small monthly fee. It’s true that a little investment can take you very far if you make the most out of it. Subscribing to an app, buying a book or an audiobook or even a course often doesn’t cost much. It’s how you use it and especially how often, that will decide how much “bang for your buck” you get out of the product.
Finally, they are built to become addictive. Elements such as gamification, points and rewards are all things that popular language learning apps incorporate into their products. Often, the more successfully these elements are included, the more popular the app becomes, regardless of whether or not it’s truly effective for learners. Because these apps are built with the purpose of giving the user the impression of quick wins and success, they can often give you the illusion that you’re making progress when in reality, all you know is just more vocabulary but you still couldn’t string a sentence together if your life depended on it.
How can you use language learning apps as a part of your language study?
Language learning apps, despite their limitations, can serve a purpose in language learning in a couple of aspects.
I’ve especially noticed three aspects where language learning apps can serve you as a language student.
1. Dipping your feet
First of all, language learning apps are a great way to get your feet wet when starting to learn a new language.
Most beginners are unwilling to spend a lot of money when starting to learn a new language. They try to do it for free first, which is understandable, since in most cases they don’t yet know whether or not they are going to stick with it. (Plus, who doesn’t like free?)
Using language learning apps is a great way to estimate the difficulty of a language and to see whether or not you “click” with it (this is important!).
Learning a language is very similar to finding and going on a date. You need a sort of chemistry with the language, its history and culture as well as its people and country in order to enjoy the long and strenuous journey of mastering a language. If you don’t love what that language stands for, do everyone, yourself included, a favor and pick another language to learn. If you have no choice for professional or personal reasons, try to learn to love a few things around that language. It will make learning it that much easier. Resentment is not a good language learning companion.
2. Building Vocabulary
Building vocabulary in a new language is tedious at best. It often seems like the flashcards are endless and not every one enjoys using them. And long gone are the days where people used to open a physical dictionary to find the translation of a word and write it down in a notebook.
We want instant results and instant feedback.
Because language learning apps are built with the end in mind to entertain and form an addictive habit in the user, they are a great way to learn and build new vocabulary. They make repetition, which is key to vocabulary memorization, fun and entertaining. Finally, the gamification aspect also gives it a competitive edge (with yourself or others) that makes the learning and memorization process more exciting and motivating.
3. Entertaining Revision & Repetition
If there’s one thing you need to be aware of when learning a new language, it’s the fact that you won’t get around endless repetition and revision. It’s the only way words, structures and other linguistic elements will stick in your brain long-term.
When using language learning apps, many students make the mistake of thinking, “Oh, I now know this word, great! Check!” or “Oh, I understand how X tense works, super! Check!”
There is a big difference between KNOWING (or understanding) something and MASTERING it to the point of being able to use it without a second thought. In order for language elements to become so second nature to you that you can pull them out of your repertoire correctly at an instant’s notice without making any mistake requires extensive practice and revision.
It’s just like someone who’s learning an instrument and who must practice for endless hours to be able to reproduce a piece perfectly without looking at the scores.
I’m sorry to have to be the one to break it to you but you will not get around practice. You will not get around repetition. #sorry
Where Language Learning Apps Fall Short
Even though they have a couple of points that speak for them, don’t let this fool you.
You cannot learn to speak a language only with a language learning app or software.
No matter how promising it sounds or how many “experts” have worked on its creation. (Names and personal linguistic records, please?)
Most of the language learning apps only give you the illusion that you’re making progress, that you are mastering the language, that you are improving and learning something. But, unfortunately, for most of them, this isn’t the case. For the simple reason that knowing vocabulary does not mean being able to speak the language. #truth
This is where many intermediate learners get stuck. Here they are, with a few months of language learning under their belt, probably a lot of money invested already in books, lessons and courses, countless flashcards they know BUT they can’t string more than a couple of sentences together for the life of them.
Why? Because most flashcards or apps teach these words out of context. And a stand-alone sentence doesn’t really count as context. Most sentences created within language learning apps are pulled out of thin air, let’s be honest. You will remember words and vocabulary much faster and more easily if you meet and learn them within the context of a story. (Have I mentioned audiobooks yet? :P)
In conclusion, I’d say that most language learning apps (except for Duolingo or similar language learning apps) won’t really teach you a language. However, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use them as part of your language learning.
They are a great tool to have in your toolbox because they bring variety, change and entertainment in your language learning process. They are especially great to use for revision of things you’ve already learned or to discover and learn new words.
Revision and repetition is usually boring and tedious but language learning apps help make it fun and enjoyable. They give you this high of quick wins which boosts your motivation and your confidence in your progress. And that is very important to help you stick with your language learning efforts.
However, never forget that they cannot substitute 1:1 lessons with a native teacher or more “serious” language learning material such as books, audiobooks and courses. At some point, you will want to upgrade to these if you’re serious about learning that language.
Now, time to get to work! Any questions or comments, just shoot them below and I’ll do my best to answer!
To your success,