(Written by Callum Madle)
With user numbers of language learning apps like Duolingo up 67% globally and up 132% in the UK in the last few years, more and more people are accessing the chance to learn a language through an app. Unlike more traditional language learning methods, language learning apps are more easily accessible, flexible, and quite a lot cheaper compared to their offline equivalents. But can language learning through an app really provide the same experience and benefits that come with traditional language classes? What other disadvantages might language learning apps present? Let’s find out!
What are the pros of language learning apps?
Rather than worrying about being able to make time for an in-person or online language class, mobile apps provide their users with a lot more flexibility. With a class that relies on a teacher at a specific set time, you might have to make time in your schedule which could impact on your downtime. On the other hand, when using an app, there aren’t these same problems, as you can simply open the app and complete a language learning activity for 10-15 minutes in your own time and move on with the rest of your day. In addition to this, you are in control of what you learn via an app, whereas a teacher sets the curriculum, and you would not have the same level of control.
Apps can be used anywhere
Unlike in-person or online classes, a language learner can use their app wherever they like! You could be at home, on your break at work, maybe even in the queue at the shops. As long as you have decent connection to the internet, you can access a language learning app wherever you want to and at whatever time you like, removing a lot of the time pressures that can arise from equivalent language learning classes.
Using an app is cheaper
Although some apps like Babbel are only free for a limited time, there are completely free versions of apps like Duolingo and Busuu. Even when you might have to pay to use a language learning app, the price of a premium version is significantly cheaper than an in-person language class. If pricing is a concern for a new language learner, then an app might be a significantly more practical way to start learning a language.
What are the cons of language learning apps?
No feedback from teachers or human interaction
In a language class, you can get feedback from your teacher and specific solutions to problems you might be facing when learning a language. When it comes to learning a language thorugh an app, there isn’t the same chance for feedback which greatly inhibit your ability to learn consistently and efficiently. Unlike a teacher, when a learner gets a question wrong on a language learning app, the app will inform only the learner that they have answered a question wrong, but not specifically why their answer is wrong.
Switching apps for books, music, or TV when learning a new language
It might sound strange, but another potentially more efficient way to learn a language is through consuming media in another language, acquiring language skills through a comprehensible input. According to the linguistic Stephen Krashen, when a language learner is exposed to comprehensible input (reading, listening, or viewing material), they understand the meaning of what is being said, rather than focusing on structure or grammar. However, Krashen argued that the material you read, view, or listen must be compelling to the language learner, referring to students who made improvements in learning Mandarin after finding stories they wanted to read in the language. When it comes to app-based learning, it’s possible that a language learner might be provided with content they aren’t interest in, and subsequently lose interest in learning the language at all.
No interaction with native speakers
Language learning apps don’t provide the opportunity to talk to someone who is a native speaker of a language. Bernhard Niesner, the founder of one of the most popular language learning apps, Busuu, admitted that “the best way to learn a language is to be in the country, and be fully able to speak with native speakers”. Unlike an app, talking to a native speaker of a language can help a language learner to practise their accent and pronunciation by listening to the native speaker, and listening to the specific way that they pronounce words in a way that can’t be replicated with an app. This process, known as “shadowing” uses repetition, by getting the language earner to repeat what the native speaker is saying, which could potentially help improve one’s fluency, by reinforcing the speech patterns and pauses in the way a native speaker communicates.
Completely dependent on the internet
Many language learning apps are connected to stable servers, which are very unlikely to go down suddenly. However, if your home Wi-Fi internet connection crashes, your experience with using an app might be greatly affected. Moreover, if you have poor internet connection in your home in the first place, you might not be able to consider using language learning apps at all.
There are some obvious benefits to language learning via an app, such as the lack of time constraints, flexibility, and the vast difference in price between teacher-based classes and subscribing to the premium version of a language learning app. If you are choosing to learn over a long period of time, or just to learn a few language basics then app-based learning might be preferable. However, learning a language through an app won’t provide the same person-to-person interaction that comes with classes, or talking to a native speaker, and will be unable to provide the same immersion that comes with consuming media in a foreign language.