These days, it’s easy to take care of just about any task with a few taps on your smartphone: order dinner, hire a car, rent accommodations or find a date, and with apps like Duolingo and Memrise, learning a language is no different. Duolingo, Memrise and the like offer a low-commitment and free way for learners to tackle a new language—any time, any place. But do language learning apps actually work?
A 2018 study out of the UK looked at the effectiveness of busuu, an application that boasts tens of millions of registered users. The study’s author noted that existing studies have focused on those that primarily used the app in conjunction with professional courses and who self-reported positive results, while his study sought to determine who really uses language apps and how.
He found that over half of users identified as beginners, and the vast majority—over 80%—of his nearly 5000 respondents reported being satisfied with busuu and their learning progress on the app.
Many language buffs would agree that the best path to fluency is frequent practice with other speakers (in an intensive classroom setting, for example), but everybody has to start somewhere and testing out your knowledge and pronunciation in front of others—especially when you’re new to a language—can be a daunting task.
Language apps take the fear out of learning for beginners; while verbal testing is a big part of apps like Duolingo, the lack of human contact means there’s no one to feel embarrassed around (not that embarrassment should come into play when studying a language anyway, but hey—it’s an often unavoidable human instinct!).
Many apps also utilize the gamification of language learning to incentivize users. Duolingo, for example, encourages users to maintain a practice streak—using the app to complete a certain number of lessons per day lest you lose your streak and go back down to zero. On days when the pure desire to learn a language isn’t enough to get you practicing, the potential disappointment of breaking your 30-day streak can be the push you need to turn on your phone and start learning.
Duolingo also assigns a level to users and allows you to add friends so that you can follow (and/or compete with) their progress as well. A simple reward, but there’s an undeniable thrill that comes with knowing you’ve made it to a higher level in Spanish than the friend you’ll be travelling to Mexico with next month.
Apps can give you the confidence boost you need to take the plunge and enrol in a communication-based class and eventually put your skills to use in the real world with face-to-face communication. And when you have a few minutes to spare, the apps can continue to give your vocabulary a boost in between classes!
So no, you’re probably not going to be quoting Proust en français or composing Japanese haikus after a few weeks, but you might be surprised at how much you can pick up on your morning commute!