Are apps for language learning a bad idea?

Agnieska Murdoch has the hot take for language learning this week: Don’t learn with an app. She makes a lot of valid points, but concludes by noting that apps are good for some things after all. Which is the very unfortunate thing about apps: They’re good for getting started, but should not be confused with full-fledged language learning programs.

For quite some time, I used DuoLingo for Mandarin. And I learned to recognize a lot of characters when I’ve never been very good at that. The problem, though, is the gamification element. While the gamification element may get you started and keep you going for a little while, after a while your motivation for signing in is the game, not the learning. I eventually quit DuoLingo because I found myself doing an extra five or ten minutes on Saturdays to stay in whatever group I was in at the time. And what I discovered is that because I’d been using it long enough, following the queues from the way the game worked allowed me to get through lessons without actually paying much attention to the actual content. If you don’t know anything about a language, DuoLingo is a great place to start, but once you’ve finished the first level, you should probably move on to something else. Because after level one, being good at DuoLingo’s gamification elements is probably as important as language learning for “advancement.”

I’m going to be really controversial here, and take a shot at another app. Lots of people roll their eyes at DuoLingo, but what about Anki? I’ve used Anki, and I’ve found the same thing as with DuoLingo: If you use it to bang some basics into your head, that’s fine. But if you’re doing 100 cards a day in Anki, that’s a lot of time that could be spent listening to or reading content and forcing yourself to deal with comprehensible input. Really, learning a language has a lot to do with dealing with things you weren’t expecting or don’t actually know yet. Learning and using a language is not about knowing the answers. It’s about having enough exposure that you can navigate situations where your knowledge is imperfect and use the feedback you get on the fly to build your knowledge without getting yourself into (too much) trouble.

One app that I do think is particularly useful for beginners is Memrise. I’ve fussed with their Mandarin program off and on, and here’s it’s one advantage: While they drill the same phrases a lot, they have lots of different people with lots of different accents saying them. So in that regard, at least, you have to deal with a lot of ambiguity and work out things that can be a challenge. Still, I would never suggest learning Mandarin with Memrise alone.

So, rule of thumb: If you’re learning a new language, by all means, use an app to get started. But once you’ve learned one or two hundred words and can make it through Hello, Goodbye and Sorry, I didn’t understand, it’s time to start using new resources.

About G Barto

Geoffrey Barto has been teaching language and culture for more than twenty years. His focus is helping people use language to achieve their goals, both for personal growth and in building their careers. The right words can make all the difference in the world!
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