The Pros and Cons of Language Learning Apps

Can you learn a language just from an app?

There are so many language learning apps available nowadays each claiming to help you learn a language easily in record time. Popular apps include Duolingo, Busuu and Rosetta Stone. Language learning apps use images, audio and activities such as matching up exercises, re-ordering words in a sentence to help you pick up the basic language. However, just how good are these apps when it comes to actually communicating in the language effectively in real life? This is what we will look at in this blog post.

Who are the main users of language learning apps?

A recent study of over 4,000 busuu users found that most users were already studying the language via a course so they were only using the app for extra study and revision. The research also found that over half of the users were beginners and more than half were between the ages of 18 and 25. The study also found that the higher the level you are in a language, the less likely you are to use an app. This shows then that apps are mainly good for people starting to learn the language and those at beginner levels. The main reason those using the app were learning a language was for holidays or to work or study abroad.

Intense or light study?

The report found that most users used the app an average of 15 minutes per session several times a week. It also discovered that female users used the app for longer sessions but less often than men.

Pros

Good for learning vocabulary

Because the apps use images and audio they are particularly good for memorising words rather than whole phrases. Seeing the word with what it means will make it stick out in your mind much better than just trying to learn the word on a written or typed list.

Less fear of making mistakes

If you were to attend an evening class or a group conversation class to learn a language you may fear speaking in front of the other learners or be scared of making mistakes. These apps allow you to learn on your own so no-one knows when you make a mistake, so they are less daunting for people.

Good for practising grammar

The apps make learning and practising repetitive grammar a little more bearable than some of the boring textbooks. When you have a spare ten minutes during the day, whizzing through a few irregular present tense verbs is much more achievable than sitting down with a pen and workbook in the evening.

Learn whenever, wherever

Because you get the app on your smart phone or tablet you take them with you wherever you go. You don’t have to wait until you go to your Spanish evening class to study the language or wait until you get home to read your textbook. You can pull out your phone at any time during the day when you have a spare 5-10 minutes; waiting in the bus queue, during the bus or train journey, whilst waiting for a meeting to start or while waiting to pick someone up.

Cons

Little feedback / explanation

A drawback with these apps is that they give little feedback as to why you got an answer wrong. It just simply tells you if you got it right or wrong. If you were studying in a class and answered a question wrong or translated something wrongly, your teacher would not only tell you the correct answer but the reason why. Apps cannot do this and even if they do give a brief explanation, students often have further questions as they don’t understand grammatical jargon.

No opportunity to ask questions

There is no option to ask a specific question about any aspect of the language. You just have to follow the structure of the app.

No interaction with native speakers

By using an app there is little opportunity to practise what you are learning with a native speaker. You are continuously typing or swiping with your phone. You would have to combine using the app with other activities such as setting up a language exchange session with a native speaker so that you are practising what you are learning and talking to someone.

No reading or writing practice

Apps allow limited practise of reading and writing in the target language. You may be asked to type what you hear but this is likely to be a short phrase. There is no opportunity for you to write about something you are interested in or to put into practise what you have been learning. Again you would need to set yourself extra exercises to make sure you are doing this; writing a diary, an email to a Spanish friend, writing a book or film review and so on.

However the good news is that 92% of the busuu users that were surveyed were happy with the app saying that it had met or exceeded their expectations. 86% rated the app as “good” or “very good” and more than 82% felt they had improved from using the app.

It is clear to see that as long as you bear in mind the constraints of what language learning apps allow you to do, they can be an effective way to improve your language skills. However, to become fluent in a language and to actually have a conversation with a native speaker you need to combine them with other activities especially listening and speaking.