- Language learning apps like Duolingo and Babel have become popular due to their convenience and gamified learning experiences.
- However, these apps have drawbacks such as lack of contextual learning, limited cultural understanding, inefficient learning methods, lack of motivation over time, and missing the human element.
- To learn a language effectively, it is recommended to combine language learning apps with other methods like reading, writing, listening, and speaking.
Language learning apps like Duolingo and Babel have become incredibly popular due to their convenience and gamified learning experiences. With smartphones vastly increasing our access to information and learning, many people are able to start learning a language by downloading an app. But are these apps actually effective?
Like any tool, they have their drawbacks. In today’s article, we’re going to dive deep into a few common pitfalls you’ll experience with language learning apps. By the end, we’ll offer you a few alternative methods and techniques you can use alongside apps to help you learn a language more effectively. Let’s get into it!
Some Background on Language Learning Apps
I started my language-learning journey several years ago. As a monolingual and avid traveler, I knew I had to add another language to my repertoire if I wanted to have a more immersive experience in other countries. The path of least resistance, when it came to learning, was to simply download an app and see what it had to offer.
Unlike the old days, when you had to open a book or visit an in-person library or tutor, smartphones make everything instantly accessible. But, at the same time, they cut out a lot of the necessary aspects of learning a new language.
Language learning apps take simple approaches such as gamification and spaced repetition to help you learn. Ever since Rosetta Stone came on the market at the dawn of the internet age, in the early 1990s, many people realized they could learn via their computers. Since then, countless copycats have emerged to offer their own take on language learning.
Today, apps like Duolingo, Babbel, Anki, and many others make up the most popular language learning apps. While they certainly have their strengths, they are often lacking in several important areas. Let’s look at some of the reasons why you might want to approach them with caution.
Reasons to Avoid a Language Learning App
Language learning apps can be a great start to language acquisition, and there are plenty of reasons to use them. But there are a few drawbacks that you should keep in mind if you really want to make progress.
Reason #1: Lack of Contextual Learning
Using language learning apps in isolation from any other methods is a surefire way to burn out and lose motivation. You’ll find it harder to grasp basic concepts or make any progress at all. And this is due to the lack of context.
A major part of learning a language is understanding the context behind vocabulary and grammar. Understanding why things are the way they are is just as important as learning the actual rules of the language.
If you’re just getting started, language learning apps have their place. They give you an easy introduction to a language and show you the ropes. But beyond that, their use quickly diminishes. If you don’t combine apps with other study methods, then you’ll miss out on an important part of the learning process.
Reason #2: Limited Cultural Understanding
Let’s face it, the best way to learn a language is by immersing yourself in the culture. Visiting the country where the language is spoken is a sure way to thrust you right into the thick of things. But language immersion is difficult if you’re just firing up an app for a few minutes a day.
Many language learning apps like Duolingo focus strictly on grammar and vocabulary. They will help you put together simple sentences and correct mistakes. But you’ll lack a deeper understanding of why things are the way they are.
Learning a language isn’t just about memorizing vocabulary and grammar rules – it’s also about understanding the culture surrounding the language. Not everybody can spend a few months in Mexico to learn Spanish or go to China to learn Chinese. But you can certainly do more to learn a language than relying on an app.
Reason #3: Inefficient Way of Learning Languages
So, you know that you need to immerse yourself in a language and its culture to have the most success. And language learning apps don’t offer that. As a result, it is not the most efficient way to learn.
But besides just skipping out on the culture, you’re also slowing your learning journey down in other ways. Spending only a few minutes, or even hours, a day on an app won’t give you the same results as a multifaceted approach. If you’re relying solely on an app, you’ll make very little progress.
You might not realize your lack of progress, though, due to gamification. Many apps, like Duolingo, are designed like a game. You get medals and awards, and have a path to follow. You can unlock achievements and buy customizations for your avatar. But none of this is actually teaching you anything. Instead, it is just giving you the illusion of progress.
In reality, you might find yourself knowing very little about your target language even after a year of using an app. As someone who struggled with apps for a long time before moving on to more effective methods, I can speak firsthand to the inefficiency of language learning apps.
Reason #4: Lack of Motivation Over Time
Gamification and repetition can only keep you going for so long. Eventually, you’ll find it easy to just open another app when you’re on your phone. Every notification is another distraction. You’ll find yourself lacking motivation over time.
In-app rewards and customizations mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. While some apps offer motivation in the form of competitions and weekly leaderboards, it is all too easy to get sidetracked and lose motivation.
Since you might not see much actual progress over time, it only gets easier and easier to skip your learning sessions. You need something or someone to hold you accountable. That brings us to our next reason.
Reason #5: Missing the Human Element
You’re not learning a language so you can talk to a computer. You’re learning so you can converse with people in their native tongue. So, if you remove the human element from your learning process, you remove a critical component of language learning.
Since language learning apps are all preprogrammed and lack any human element, you miss out on all the benefits that come from learning alongside an actual person. A human tutor will be there to guide you through the process of learning, hold you accountable, and help you focus on your weaknesses.
Humans are also imperfect. You’ll deal with different dialects, slang, and distinctions depending on who you talk to. And this is critical for helping you learn the intricacies of a particular language.
If you’re speaking with someone who doesn’t speak your native language, you’ll have to get creative in how you phrase things. This will help you uncover weak spots in your knowledge and ultimately make you a better speaker.
Alternatives to Language Learning Apps
We’re not saying that you should avoid language learning apps entirely. In fact, quite the opposite. You should use them. But don’t rely solely on them.
They are fantastic for getting started with a new language, especially if you have no previous experience. But beyond a certain point, you’ll notice diminishing returns.
As someone who went from a hopeless student with barely any grasp of Spanish to figuring out the best way to learn and seeing some actual progress, I can say that there isn’t one method that is ideal. You need to immerse yourself.
To truly learn, you’ll need to add other methods besides just apps. Not everyone has the time or money to fly to another country just to learn. But you need to create immersion somehow. You can do this by combining multiple different learning techniques.
I like to break these down into four categories.
Language learning apps give you a taste of reading in your target language. But they don’t give you the whole picture. Reading throws you in the deep end. As soon as you have a grasp of basic vocabulary and grammar, pick up a simple book and see how much of it you can understand.
Start with a children’s book if you need to. Highlight any words you don’t know and look them up. Read through several times until you can actually comprehend the material. As you progress, you can build up to more complex books.
Think of learning a language as a little bit of give and take. You have your input (reading) and your output (writing). Writing helps you form your own understanding of the language and shows you where your weak spots are.
Think of when you learned your first language. You practiced writing simple words and simple sentences, as well as building up your vocabulary until you could form coherent thoughts.
Try keeping a simple journal in your target language. Talk about your day, your goals, and whatever comes to mind. The important part is to put pen to paper. In my personal experience, writing out my thoughts with actual physical pen and paper is vastly superior to typing on a keyboard.
Plus, if you use a computer to write, you might find yourself cheating by looking up what you want to say and translating it. Don’t do this.
Instead, work with what vocabulary you have, and add to it slowly. If you learn five new words in a day, try to incorporate them into your daily journal. You’ll find that you progress significantly faster this way.
It is important to be able to understand not just the written word, but the spoken word too. It is best to start this process early in your language-learning journey. You want to train your ear to recognize the language. As you pick up new words, you’ll begin to pick them out in conversation.
Listen to music in your target language. Watch TV shows. Listen to podcasts. Take in audio input from multiple sources to get a better understanding of how different people, accents, and dialects sound.
If you’re watching a TV show, don’t be afraid to use the subtitles in the beginning. If you are learning Spanish, for instance, turn on Spanish subtitles. This way, if you can already understand written words, you can more easily pick them out when you hear them.
This is often the most difficult aspect of learning a language. Reading and listening are passive activities. So, it is easy to let your mind wander. But speaking means you are multitasking. You’re listening to what is being said, while also trying to formulate your own thoughts.
You don’t need to speak to other people at first. Just talk to yourself in your target language. Sound out words and work on your pronunciation. When you have a basic understanding and at least moderate listening abilities, try striking up a conversation with native speakers.
This might not be easy to do if you’re not residing in an area where your target language is spoken. That’s where the internet comes in handy.
You can turn to sites like iTalki or Hellotalk to find a real live tutor to help you or just practice casual conversation. Many residents of other countries offer their services online to help beginners. You’ll find real teachers or just people who want to do a language exchange.
Speaking in your target language can seem intimidating at first. But it is ultimately the end goal. So, you’ll need to take the plunge eventually.
Most importantly, don’t be afraid to make mistakes and sound silly. We all start somewhere. When you talk to someone in their native language, you’ll often find that they will love you for even trying.
|Lack of Contextual Learning
|Limited Cultural Understanding
|Inefficient Way of Learning Languages
|Lack of Motivation Over Time
|Missing the Human Element
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