On this episode of Thinking in English, let’s discuss language learning apps like Duolingo, Babbel, and Memrise! There are so many, they are so convenient, and so accessible: but will they actually help improve your English? And if you keep listening to the end, I’ll leave you with a few personal recommendations!
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Scores (plural n) – a lot of things or people
He received cards from scores of local supporters
Religiously (adv) – if you do something religiously, you do it regularly
He visits his father religiously every week
Phonetic (adj) – a spelling system can be described as phonetic if you can understand how words are pronounced simply by looking at their spelling
German is a largely phonetic language
Correspondence (n) – written communications such as letters and emails
He was ordered to supply copies of any correspondence between his office and the client
Barrier (n) – anything that prevents people from being together or understanding each other
Despite the language barriers, they soon became good friends
Tedious (adj) – boring
My last job was so tedious
Syntax (n) – the grammatical arrangement of words in a sentence
Donald Trump was well known for his incorrect syntax
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At the beginning of 2021, there were over 3.5 million apps available on the Google Play store, and 2 million found on Apple’s app store. That is a lot of apps. From games to news, productivity to company loyalty cards, you can find almost anything on the app store.
This includes language learning applications. There are literally thousands of different apps online promising to help you improve your language through as little as five minutes of study a day. And not just for English – you can find apps to study all languages: from the largest to smallest.
When I thought of the idea for this episode, I decided to check what language learning apps I currently have on my phone and tablet. On my phone I have three apps for studying language: one I pay for and use regularly to learn Japanese vocabulary, a free Chinese character app I’ve not used for years, and the app Memrise which I’m sure some of you have used or heard of!
Memrise is also on my tablet, as well as the famous Duolingo (according to my profile I was trying to learn Hawaiian language at some point) and an interesting app called Master Any Language. Master Any Language actually does offer lessons in scores of languages: from Abkhaz, to Greenlandic, to Wolof.
Although I have all of these apps downloaded, I don’t really use them too often. There have certainly been times in my life where such apps have formed a large part of my day. For a while, I religiously engaged in daily Spanish classes on Duolingo – not missing a 15 minute session for almost six months. At the time I was taking evening classes in Spanish and was thinking about taking a trip to Spain or South America (instead, I accepted a job in Japan and all the Spanish I learned quickly left my brain).
After accepting that job in Japan, I quickly looked online for help in learning the Japanese alphabet. It turns out Japan has three alphabets, and six years later I’m still studying the character based system. The phone app Memrise was incredibly useful in helping me to learn to read and recognize (but not write) the two phonetic Japanese writing systems.
Once I started to really study the language, however, I gradually lost my dedication to the applications. Overall, the language skills I have in Japanese and Chinese didn’t come from a smartphone app – they came from attending lessons, spending hours studying from textbooks, making myself speak in the languages, and years of practice.
How to Learn English for Free?
Despite this, there is something very appealing about language learning apps. The idea that you can spend a few minutes a day on your phone, sat on the train to work or while you’re family is watching a TV show you don’t like, and gradually learn to speak sounds amazing! It’s why I have so many language learning apps. It is also why I tried to encourage my mum to use Duolingo to relearn her high school French and German a few years ago.
And I’m not alone in being attracted to these kinds of education apps. Duolingo, as a free app, has over 30 million monthly users, while Babbel has over a million paid subscribers, and businesses like Rossetta stone have transitioned from pre-smart phone correspondence services to popular internet apps.
But does it work? Do language learning apps actually help you improve your skills? Or are they a waste of your time? What can language apps actually do?
What Can Language Learning Apps Like Duolingo Do?
Let’s start with some of the things language apps are good at doing. They are easy to use, accessible, and often affordable. In less than a minute, you can download Duolingo or something similar from the app store, register an account, choose a language, and get started on your language journey. You can take the classes wherever you want (at home, on your lunch break, on the train, or on the toilet), whenever you want, and you choose for yourself how long you want to study.
This flexible style of learning is particularly appealing to people with busy schedules. In 2018, while studying in London I took additional evening classes at my University. Every Wednesday evening from 18:30 until 20:30, I sat in my pre-advanced class in the centre of London to improve my skills.
Not everyone can do this – some people cannot or don’t want to commit to a regular schedule, are unable to dedicate a whole two hours to study (not including commuting time), and don’t want to make such a commitment.
What do I mean by a commitment? Well, let’s say you want to take in-person classes like I did. You need to pay first – for either one term, or a whole year. In-person language classes are not cheap – as I’m sure you are all aware. And if you decide you don’t like studying after a few classes… you probably won’t get your money back. You need to commit time and money. Online classes are usually a little cheaper, but still require a time and money commitment. Even buying a textbook can be expensive!
This is one reason free apps like Duolingo, Memrise, or HelloTalk are good – they have such a low barrier for adoption – anyone with a smartphone can begin studying languages without a commitment. So, apps are an excellent introduction to language learning and can help encourage a studying habit.
Duolingo, for example, is a really addictive platform. Apps have turned language study into a game and competition. They encourage you to set goals, praise you when you learn something new, celebrate when you complete lessons, and remind you to keep studying.
You can also compete against friends to see who is rising through the studying ranks quickest. Rising through the different levels is a feature in many different language apps. They use what is called a skill tree: the higher you climb the more branches you have to face (or study). And the way of studying is fun! There are no tedious grammar lessons, intensive vocabulary writing sessions, or long listening tasks. Usually lessons take the form of multiple choice quizzes, translating phrases, with occasional listening and speaking challenges. Quick and easy!
So language apps can introduce new languages, help learners become familiar with new vocabulary, and allow you to flexibly study. Moreover, for people hoping to learn languages with different writing systems – like Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Russian, Hindi – apps have been shown to be an excellent way of learning new symbols. It is how I learned to read Japan’s phonetic alphabets.
What Language Learning Apps Don’t Do!
So, what are language learning apps not very good at doing? Well… they are not very good at teaching you languages for a start!! Learning a language is a never ending and complex process – but apps make it seem like a simple process. In reality, to learn a language we must memorise individual words, learn correct syntax and grammar so we can build our own sentences, recognize and reproduce the symbols the language uses to write, and be able to make the correct sounds.
Now, if you only want to get to an upper-beginner or lower-intermediate language level – apps might be ok for you! As apps often focus on vocabulary and simple grammar, they can help you improve quickly in the early stages of learning. But they cannot help you to become fluent or conversational. Apps are good at teaching basic conversation phrases which are useful for travelling – like “where is the bathroom?” or “How much does this cost?” – but remembering phrases like this is not learning a language, it is just remembering a phrase.
In a 2018 article in The Atlantic, David Freedman documented how he “almost” learned Italian using Duolingo. After spending months taking Duolingo’s Italian classes, he felt prepared to travel to Italy and try out his new skills. However, when his wife decided to test his Italian before their trip, he realised that he couldn’t answer her questions. When she asked how to say “Do you have a table for four?” or “I’d like two glasses of red wine” in Italian, he was unable to answer.
Why? In David’s words, “The app had made me a master of multiple-choice Italian. But without a prompt, he was speechless.” I’ve also experienced this before with language apps – I could choose the correct answer from a set of choices, but without the choices I couldn’t make my own sentences.
Although apps can expose you to a lot of vocabulary, you need to leave the app to actually learn the language. It is relatively easy to memorise vocabulary and grammar rules, but it is much more difficult to use that knowledge – you need to learn to speak, write, and listen to a language. You cannot approach the highest levels of fluency and proficiency without intensive learning – courses, tuition, classes, or other types of practical study.
Thinking in English Final Thought
This episode of Thinking in English has discussed language learning apps. There are thousands of options out there, some with millions of users, and apps that appeal to different learning styles. Do they work? Well, if you’re a beginner, apps can improve your vocabulary, help build a study habit, and make learning a language fun. Most apps, however, cannot help you to become fluent in a language. Instead, you will need intensive learning – classes, courses, or exchanges – to become fluent.
Leave a comment with your favourite language learning app, and why you think its good!
If you are still interested in using some language apps to practice English – I’ll recommend a few here that I’ve heard good things about. Alone, they won’t make you fluent, but you can definitely use them in your study routine!
What are the Best Apps for Learning English?
Quiz Your English is an app developed by Cambridge Assessment English (the people who operate the IELTS exams). You answer questions over a range of different topics, from beginner levels all the way to IELTS difficulty, or practice specifically for Cambridge English exams. Some of my friends have told me it is useful when taking a break from really studying.
Beelingu is a clever app designed to help practice reading. It uses the parallel text method – allowing you to read in English and in your native language. You can read classic books like Sherlock Holmes, daily news articles, kids books, and cultural guides!
The Learn English British Council app is a popular option for studying grammar. They have lots of games and lessons rather than repetitive multiple choice questions. In the British Council’s words “Forget about repetitive multiple choice questions that only help you recognise correct grammar. Answer over 1000 practice questions across 10 unique activity types, including fill-in-the-blanks, reordering words and labelling, to achieve better grammar accuracy.”
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