Want to Learn a Language? Yeah, there’s an App for that – and it Sucks

There are dozens of language education apps available on the App Store and Google Play. The appeal of these apps is obvious: they leverage digital technology so that anyone with a smartphone can learn a new language in the spare minutes they have throughout the day.

Okay, “learn a language within minutes a day…” that sounds great, but is this an exaggeration? Do the language apps work?

Before I get into that, let’s first start with the pros:

Language Apps are Convenient: Because language apps have broken the lessons into small chunks of content, they’re attractive for those moments when you’re waiting at the bank or for your uber… in this way, learners can take advantage of the many moments throughout the day that they would have otherwise chalked up as lost time.

Language Apps are Entertaining: Most apps I’ve tried, such as the ever-popular Duolingo are well designed and engaging. The text and pictorials are often eye-catching, and with Duoingo’s bonus lessons (such as cultural insights,including how natives flirt) are fun, making the app feel more like entertainment than a vehicle to acquiring another language.

But let’s face it…

While language apps do a great job of getting people pumped up to learn a new language and often tout how easy it easy to master a language while on-the-go… you will never be able to truly learn a language from an app alone.

Why You Need More than a Language App to Gain Language Proficiency

It boils down to learning method and content.

Everyone learns differently. Some of us learn new concepts faster when the material is presented in a visual way, while others take to new informationaudibly, for example via a lecture.

Apps like Duolingo and Memrise use pictures and icons to help students learn vocabulary through repetition and association. Knowing words are great – this builds confidence, but it’s not quite practical on its own.Pimsleur follows the more audio-lingual approach, where a phrase is spoken over and over. Both methods require repetition and memorization before any material is truly committed to memory.

That’s where it ends.

A memory.

Can you use the stuff you learn from these apps? Well…

While language is composed of words – duh – the point of learning a language is the ability to communicate with others. If you know how to point at an object and say what it is, that’s a great confidence-booster and certainly a valid step in the language learning process, but that’s not communication. Unless you’re living in the caveman era…

Another drawback with many of these apps is that the course language material has been repurposed from older content and uploaded for the digital market. Take Pimsleur for example, which uses a phrase book method of learning a language. Some of the phrases Pimsleur has you recite over and over are downright archaic. Here’s one that cracks me up:

“Mrs. Pronin, I need to speak to your husband about work.”

If the phrase doesn’t sound relatable in English, then it likely will not be a phrase you’re going to find useful in your target language. Likewise, if your goal is to be able to order food in a French restaurant in Paris, repeating phrases such as: “My uncle picked up the pencil,” won’t enable you to reach your goals.

Language apps often prioritize memorizing vocabulary and verb conjugation over actual communication, relying on visual and audio learning methods. What language learners really need is a tactile method to learning language.

To Learn a Language, a Tactical Approach is Best

There are four main learning styles: visual, auditory, kinesthetic and tactile. Quite honestly, this is why so many language learners have failed in the past. They used a learning method that didn’t suit their style, or just simply didn’t encompass the full scope of what’s required when you learn a new language.

Because language serves us to communicate with one another, the process of learning a language requires an active participant. It requires a tactile approach to learning. It’s crucial to incorporate all our senses when taking in new information – particularly when learning a new language. We need to see word associations, hear pronunciation by native speakers, and physically involve ourselves in a tactile or kinesthetic way to truly internalize the information presented.

With OptiLingo, students must read (visual), write (tactile), listen, (aural), and speak aloud (tactile). The combination of all activities during language learning engages different parts of our brain simultaneously, which research shows is the fastest way to get new information stored into long-term memory.

OptiLingo Utilizes All Learning Styles for Well-Rounded Comprehension

With OptiLingo and the Guided Immersion method, students get the full scope and a variety of learning styles when picking up a new language. The course combines a vocabulary-based method, but the words are relevant to modern, everyday experiences. For example, founder Jonty Yamisha researched the most frequently used words spoken in the target language for the course and presents the students with what he calls the “essential universal phrases.” Together, the student then has the knowledge required to create hundreds of phrases for various situations.

Students read phrases aloud then refer to the English translation to internalize the meaning. They also recite the phrase aloud as they write it to further engage as many areas of the brain as possible.

Unlike language apps that focus on audio-lingual drilling and rote memorization for words in meaningless sentences that lack context, Jonty’s program emphasizes reading, writing, and listening to high frequency words and phrases, in distinctive contexts, so that the brain is engaged and retains the information for the long-term.

Language Apps Suck, But They’re Great When Combined with Other Tools

In college, I took a German class. The class followed the drill Sargent method of language learning, where students studied the material on their own and then attended drill sessions twice a week. Our teacher a.k.a. “drill instructor” would use a form of spaced repetition to help us cement in what we’d learned in class and practiced on our own.

The takeaway is this – while there are fantastic language apps out there, they are good at what they do: to reinforce previously learned information, whether that be vocab or grammar. However, they should not be relied on as the primary vehicle to help you achieve your language proficiency goals. Maybe they’ll get you 5% of the way, or even 20% of the way… what students need is to incorporate a variety of language learning tools and learning styles into their arsenal to achieve a language proficiency that will make them proud of their successes.