How Effective are Language Apps?
If you’ve been asking yourself this question, you are not alone. This is one of the most common questions I have received in recent months, along with questions about the best language learning apps, limitations of language apps, and how best to use them. In this article I will explore some of these topics with perspectives from researchers, language teachers, and our students.
Benefits of Language Apps
When a student asks me if they should practice their language skills through a language app, my answer is always YES. But why? It is because learning a language takes daily practice, and language apps offer a convenient and affordable way to practice.
From many teachers’ experiences, using language apps regularly helps build vocabulary skills, along with reading and listening comprehension. Language apps, like Duolingo or Babble, are built for convenience. You can practice your French while waiting at a doctor’s office, on your lunch break, or on your daily commute. Learning a language more than anything requires regular practice and short games and listening exercises can boost your exposure. Many of these apps are free or allow you to buy month or year subscriptions for a modest price, offering accessibility to a wide range of language learners.
From my observations as a teacher, I notice if someone has practiced using a language app, particularly over the holidays, because of the breadth of their vocabulary. Students who regularly use apps grasp a wider array of words when compared with those who don’t, often due to the repetitive nature of activities common in apps like Duolingo. Best of all, students who use apps often noticed patterns in grammar and words that don’t quite make sense to them, so they come to class with questions and ready to take the next step in the language learning process.
These observations of the benefits of language learning apps are further backed by research. A recent study by Loewen, Isbell and Sporn (2020) from University of Michigan had undergraduate students use Babble to learn Spanish for 12 weeks. The goal was for students to use Babble for at least 10 minutes a day and results indicate that 59% of students in the study improved in oral proficiency by at least one sublevel on the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages proficiency scale. Unsurprisingly, those who used the app for longer periods of time improved their vocabulary and grammar skills even further.
However, this same study showed that 36% of participants who started the study ended up quitting, which indicates the importance of engagement above all else. When a third of students stop learning a language, this points to one of the major limitations of language apps.
Limitations of Language Apps
What are the major limitations of language apps? As the study above noted, motivation is key to learning any language. Without motivation to continue to communicate with others, often students (both adults and youth) fall off the language learning bandwagon and can become even less inclined to continue their studies. This is why many scholars, teachers, and language learners have asserted that apps are no substitute for classroom and human interaction.
Through human interaction people can feel connected with one another and interested in what others have to say; therefore, students are motivated to continue to learn. Recent research in an edited volume by Sato and Ballinger (2016) points to the importance of peer interaction in second language learning, both in terms of furthering motivation and attaining language proficiency. Working with another person also allows each individual to articulate goals for their language learning experience. These goals can be improving your language skills before upcoming travel, connecting with your family members who speak another language, keeping your mind active by trying something new, or communicating more effectively with your clients, patients, or employees. Regardless of your reason for learning a new language, small group learning can help individuals meet their needs and keep them motivated.
In addition to apps’ challenges to help people stick to learning a new language, teachers and students alike often note another limitation. While individuals can learn many words and how to answer multiple choice questions after using language apps extensively, they still struggle to carry on a conversation. I would venture to say that at least a third of our students at Bend Language Institute began their language learning adventure with a language app, yet discovered that these exercises didn’t suffice when it came to having a conversation. This observation is echoed by many of the students in Loewen et al’s study (2020), editorials such as one by Freeman (2018), and many of our students. When it comes to learning another language, the objective is to be able to speak it in order to communicate effectively. Without the feedback and interaction with another person, this objective cannot be met.
Perspectives from Our Community
As I was writing this article, I reached out to a number of our language students at Bend Language Institute who are learning Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Mandarin, German, French, and Arabic. I asked them for their perspectives on the benefits and limitations of language apps, as well as any suggestions or tips on their favorite apps they may have for others interested in this question. Here are some of their statements:
I have been using Duolingo for quite some time. I have used it for three different languages but primarily Italian. I use the app both on my computer and my phone. I find the phone app to be much more interactive as there are more listening and speaking drills whereas the computer program seems to focus more on writing and some listening skills. It’s been a great way to increase my vocabulary and grammar while studying with the BLI – a great combo! (Leila Thompson, Italian student)
I think apps can be a great addition to the language learning toolbox. They cannot really mimic real world interaction, but if used regularly, they can be a powerful supplement. Over the years I have noticed a difference between students who use them and students who do not. Students who do use them tend to pick up vocabulary and grammatical structures easier and more quickly. There are many helpful apps and websites out there. Most importantly though, it’s about finding one you like and using it on a consistent basis. Make it a habit. A few I like: Spanishdict, Duolingo, studyspanish.com, Quizlet. (Joshua Savage, Spanish teacher)
I have had Babbel and Duolingo but neither kept me engaged. I use Google Translate and a verb conjugation app that seems a little clunky but helps if I am trying to figure out what tense a verb is. It’s called Spanish pro. I like Spanishdict especially for the grammar explanations. And I have been liking the StoryLearning Spanish podcast. But best of all is our personal teacher!! (Chris Wright, Spanish student)
I’ve used Rosetta Stone, Duolingo, and Babbel. I liked Rosetta Stone, but it’s really expensive and, at that time, required downloading software that took up a lot of space on my computer. Duolingo is fun and free, and one can do it in small chunks, like while waiting in line or sitting in the car. However, after using Duolingo for months I was lulled into thinking I knew more Italian than I did because the bar is so low for comprehension and overall language acquisition. Then I tried Babbel and it’s a really good fit for me. There are four learning modes (reading, writing, listening, and speaking) and I can choose which I prefer. There are regularly scheduled reviews, and the software remembers what you forgot last time. The stories and practice dialogues, etcetera, are interesting and not patronizing or boring. There are a variety of voices (male, female, younger, older) and accents and not just the same person all the time. (Allison Hart, Italian student)
I think language apps are a great supplement to language learning! Regardless of the type of app, here are the pros and cons. Pros: The more exposure we get, the better. Apps can be a great way to use the “5 minutes here, 5 minutes there” that we have. We need to see, hear, and use words in many different contexts to make them “real.” Apps can help us do this! Cons: Depending solely on an app to learn a language just won’t work. A language must be used with real humans! If the app becomes frustrating or boring, dump it! It should be challenging, fun and engaging. Apps may only tell part of the story; sometimes the complexities of a word or concept must be explained by a good teacher or mentor. Ask real people about the things you have learned from your language app. (Janet Gesme, German teacher)
These are my comments about apps: 1) nothing beats a real-live instructor as I can ask questions! 2) I get some benefit out of Duolingo, although I do seem to find some inconsistencies 3) I really enjoy the YouTube videos by “Italy Made Easy.” They are good for listening comprehension, and reinforcement for what we learn from our live lessons. (Diane Troolin, Italian student)
A Final Word
In conclusion, check out some of the language apps out there such as Duolingo, Babble, Pimsleur, Memrise, and Rossetta Stone. What do you have to lose? Get going on your language learning adventure and have fun! You can build your vocabulary skills and enjoy daily practice in your free time. But remember – a language app cannot substitute the human interaction needed for speaking another language.
By: Christina Cappy, PhD
Freeman David H. (2018). How to Almost Learn Italian. Atlantic, 322(5), 26–27.
Loewen, Shawn, Isbell, Daniel R, & Sporn, Zachary. (2020). The effectiveness of app‐based language instruction for developing receptive linguistic knowledge and oral communicative ability. Foreign Language Annals, 53(2), 209–233. https://doi.org/10.1111/flan.12454
Sato, Masatoshi, and Ballinger, Susan Gail. (2016). Peer Interaction and Second Language Learning: Pedagogical Potential and Research Agenda. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.