Most people who have used a language learning app quickly realize that the app fails to adequately teach the language. Research confirms this.
According to researchers Scott Young and Vat Jaiswal, learning a language to proficiency from apps or computer programs has about a 6% success rate.
David H. Freedman sums up what many language learners have experienced in The Atlantic:
“Language apps like Duolingo are addictive—but not particularly effective.”
Yet, the app stores are full of language learning apps using the same failing methods.
Many language students incorrectly blame themselves for not being able to learn another language. They feel:
- They’re not smart enough
- They aren’t “good” at languages
- They aren’t good students
There is a reason why most apps fail to deliver on the promise of language acquisition. And that reason is not the student’s fault.
Language learning: Input, output, and need
Input hypothesis of language learning
In the 1970s and ’80s, researchers proposed the Input Hypothesis for language learning. The input hypothesis claimed that students acquire a language only from listening and reading and that speaking and writing have no effect on the learners’ ability.
Today, we know this hypothesis is not true. We know that output (speaking and writing) are necessary to learn a language. In fact, we now know that they are the key components of language learning.
Apps are heavily dependent on input for learning. Such methods include:
- Memorizing lists of words and phrases
- Reading short sentences
- Listening to pronunciation and short sentences.
Apps provide little and sometimes zero time focused on speaking or writing.
Key point: Input is necessary for language learning but it is only half of the equation.
Output hypothesis of language learning
Output is the other half of the language learning equation.
Merrill Swain from the University of Toronto, a proponent of the output hypothesis, states that output is as necessary to language learning as input.
Key point: Language learners must speak and listen to when learning a second language.
Needs theory of language learning
The output theory is related to the needs theory, which states that learning a language occurs only when a student needs to make him or herself understood which occurs when he or she is speaking.
Stephen Krashen,a linguist at the University of California and developer of the input hypothesis contends individuals learning a language must be forced to speak.
The research indicates that individuals can develop high levels of language proficiency without any output at all.
However, if learners are conversing and stop to clarify things that they do not understand, they have more time to process the input. This may lead to a clearer understanding and new language acquisition.
Speaking and listening work hand-in-hand because the experience of speaking a new language (output) leads to more effective processing of input.
The main reason language apps fail
An additional problem with learning apps is the reliance on mechanical drills and rote memorization. Apps work so poorly at producing language speakers because they rely almost exclusively on mechanical drills.
Krashen explicitly states:
“The source of the input in a classroom setting [or apps], should not be dependent on a method based on mechanical drills.”
Yet this is exactly how apps work.
Fear of speaking a new language
When researchers asked language students what caused them the most anxiety when learning a new language, students overwhelming chose: Speaking the foreign language.
This may be why apps continue to be so popular with foreign language learners, the learner does not have to speak.
Unfortunately, if a student wants to improve and attain a proficient level of communication, he or she will have to speak.
Apps fail because they rely too heavily on language input. That means, to be successful at learning a language, students must participate in output activities.
Key point: The best way to learn a language is to start speaking it.
Language learning success = Input + ouput + need
A daring experiment by Young and Jaiswal consisted of traveling to four countries. The daring part was not to speak any English. The experiment showed that language proficiency can be achieved in as little as 12 weeks.
In the experiment, the researchers traveled to four countries for 12 weeks each:
They did not study the languages prior to arriving in the countries and upon arrival in each country, the did not speak any English.
This created an urgent need to learn the language and forced them to speak continuously while surrounded by the language constantly.
After the 12 weeks, they describe their language ability as proficient. The success of this experiment is a combination of equal parts speaking, listening, and memorizing. It was also combined with a self-imposed need to learn the language.
This level of output and urgent need created by Young and Jaiswal is impossible to replicate with an app.
Are language learning apps in it for profit or progress?
Apps have another significant problem.
They are, for the most part, designed through the lens of a business model.
Joey J. Lee, the director of the Games Research Lab at Columbia University, studied 50 language learning apps. The study shows the model used in language apps is geared more toward making a profit than teaching a language.
By making the lessons easier to master, students are more likely to return. More difficult lessons which result in better learning, decrease the number of times students return to the site and decrease profit.
Tom Roeper, a linguistics professor at the University of Massachusetts and an expert on language acquisition sees two additional disadvantages to language apps:
- The human interaction needed to focus a student’s attention
- The ability to adjust the lesson as necessary for the individual
“There are all kinds of contextual factors in language learning. It would be hard for an app to take them all into account.”
Speaking a new language is what language learning is all about
The core element that apps can’t provide is speaking. It’s no secret that language exists for communication.
A language learner speaking with perfect grammar but with incompressible pronunciation is not communicating. Likewise, a student so anxious about making grammar mistakes that they can’t participate in a conversation is not communicating.
However, a language learner with poor grammar can be understood, although maybe not perfectly.
When they are participating in such a conversation they are not only communicating but also hearing the correct way to express themselves in the language. Speaking incorrectly in a foreign language will often result in learning grammar naturally.
Unfortunately, apps are generally limited to input, usually through drills. According to the UK based magazine The Conversation:
“[With this type of drilling] there is no communication happening. Instead of basic communication, the users are drilled again and again in decontextualized, effectively meaningless sentences.”
Language apps fail because we don’t use them correctly
That’s not to say that apps aren’t useful – because they can be.
In fact, apps excel in two important aspects of language learning:
- To attain proficiency in a language, a large vocabulary is necessary
- To make progress in a language, daily practice and practice throughout the day are important
Apps do a good job of providing a long list of vocabulary words and they do an excellent job of both incentivizing learners to practice daily and for the longer-term.
Most apps are also delivered via a smartphone which most learners have with them at all times. Additionally, the lessons can be done in a short amount of time, such as waiting in line.
This allows the learner to be able to practice often without interrupting other aspects of his or her life. It also allows for practice throughout the day without the necessity to schedule a time for practice.
Apps are most valuable when learners use them as a tool to practice the language they are learning rather than as a way to learn the language.
Language learning apps can be a useful supplement for learning a new language.
However, most language learning apps fail when they are the sole source of learning. They are not a substitute for more traditional language learning methods. Relying on apps alone to learn a language is not practical.
Commonly asked language learning questions
How effective are language learning apps?
Apps like DuoLingo are fun and even a little addicting at first. However, the research states that only about 6% of the people that try to learn a language with an app are successful.
The best way to learn a language is by speaking it. Unfortunately, apps are heavily dependant on memorizing long lists of words and phrases, reading short sentences, and listening to the pronunciation. There just isn’t enough speaking in language learning apps to help a learner see success.
Why is learning a language so difficult?
A lot of what prevents someone from learning a new language is the mindset around language learning. For instance, we’re often told that it is hard to learn a new language as an adult. But that just isn’t true. If you believe learning a new language is hard, it will be hard.
Another reason why learning a language is so difficult is because there aren’t enough opportunities to speak the new language. The best way to learn a language is by speaking it. Easy Travel Speak will show you how easy it is to start speaking a new language right away.
What is the easiest language to learn?
Honestly, the easiest language to learn will vary from person to person. Your learning style, environment, and cultural experiences will all play a part in determining which language is easier to learn. With that said, many Americans think romance languages are the easiest to learn.
How long does it take to become fluent in a language?
The length of time it takes to become fluent is dependent on many factors, including:
- The language you’re learning
- Time spent studying the language
- Time spent speaking the language
- Access to native speakers
By some estimates, it can take about a year to become fluent if you study the language two hours a day. The best way to become fluent is to immerse yourself in the culture and use your new language every day. Any course that guarantees fluency in three months is not being completely honest.