Learning From Language Apps.

Eric Ravenscraft writes for the NY Times about his experiences with the language-learning apps Duolingo (“offers a skill tree of lessons that use listening exercises, flashcards, and multiple choice questions to drill you” as well as community features), Memrise (similar, but “also offers a feature called Learn With Locals, which pairs words with videos of native speakers”), and Babbel (“uses conversational examples to demonstrate how to use new words or phrases when speaking with another person” and “offers a speech recognition feature”). Some excerpts:

For languages that have a different writing system, like Japanese, Russian, or Korean, language apps can be an excellent way to learn. Duolingo and Memrise both use a combination of flash card and simple matching exercises to train you to recognize symbols in a new writing system, while Babbel goes an extra step further with in-lesson explanations for how new symbols or sounds work. […]

These apps are also better at teaching basic conversational phrases that are useful when you’re traveling. When you visit a city in a foreign country, it’s helpful to learn a few phrases like “Where is the bathroom?” or “How much does it cost?” Using a phrase book to memorize these phrases in another language is a quick and dirty way to get the job done, but that’s not really “learning” the phrases, it’s just memorizing them.

For example, consider the Italian phrase “Dov’è il bagno?” This phrase means “Where is the bathroom?” However, without speaking Italian, can you tell which part of that sentence is “bathroom?” Could you adapt the sentence to say “Where is the door?” or “Where is the hotel?” Language apps don’t just teach you whole sentences. Instead, they break down component parts of a sentence and teach you a few different variations so you understand what you’re saying and can adjust what you’re saying based on your situation. […]

For as useful as learning a new writing system or understanding basic phrases can be, it’s only a small part of fluency in a language. What counts as “fluent” is a tough concept to describe, but the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (or CEFR) is a widely-accepted standard for approximating fluency. [A = Basic, B = Independent, C = Proficient; each has two levels.] If it’s not already obvious, language apps simply can’t get someone to level C2 — or anywhere close — on their own. There simply aren’t lessons to teach you, for example, how to have a complex conversation about banking regulations or astrophysics or whatever your field of expertise. It also means that if you stick solely to the lesson plans in each app, you won’t communicate with another person. By definition, these two limitations would rule out reaching even level B2. […]

Most importantly, though, language apps are not other humans. It sounds like an obvious observation, but the entire point of learning a language is to communicate with other people. You can learn as many words or sentences as you want, but until you’re able to have a conversation with another person, you’ll never be fluent. Or, according to the CEFR model, you won’t even be halfway there.

A useful rundown; thanks, Eric!


  1. For that reason alone, learning a language with an app [any tool] should be a starting point, not the end.

    Flashcard apps are excellent tools for learning almost anything. The best language class I ever attended (of many) was at the Goethe Institute in Dublin; I still arrived in Berlin unable to function at a serious level, in massive part because the Goethe Institute didn’t prepare me for the local accent and dialect, which it never claimed to. I could equally have got to the same level with flashcard apps.
    I passed several undergraduate and post-graduate medical exams in large part because of flashcard apps, in particular Anki. If you have a phone and are learning almost anything, use a flashcard app.

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    I’ve never actually tried using flashcards, either in Real Life or as apps.

    Mind you, that is hardly an indictment of flashcards as a learning strategy: it may account for why I don’t, like, know anything.

    My own experience with languages is that (not very surprisingly) once you get past the beginning it’s all about practice in actually using the language. It becomes much easier if you actually need to use the language to lead your everyday life.

    It’s more like getting good at a sport than memorising facts.
    Not that I am good at any sports … OK, it’s more like what I imagine getting good at a sport must be like …

  3. AJP Crown says

    I passed several medical exams in large part because of flashcard apps

    Memorising the eye charts, I suppose.

  4. Judging from the excerpt above, the NY Times report is similar to the whining of some Duolingo forum users who don’t like the way they are being taught. lordravenscraft and the Times editor that approved this article should know that there are reasons people learn languages other than to have spoken conversations.

    language apps are not other humans – well, neither are NY Times articles but both are created by humans. Duolingo and Memrise are teaching (I haven’t seen Babbel), lordravencraft is complaining. Duolingo and Memrise are free, the NY Times has a paywall.

  5. I don’t think he was complaining so much as explaining. Of course people learn languages for reasons other than to have spoken conversations, but many want that outcome, and they will benefit from reading the article. And complaining about the Times trying to keep from going out of business is silly.

  6. He’s right, and it is a small part that Duolingo gives you, but that small part is foundational and essential. I’ve been using it for a while with Portuguese. It doesn’t help me understand old people from Bahia (which is something I really, really want for cultural reasons) but it has drilled in lots of fundamental vocabulary and enough basic grammar to read a newspaper or an instruction booklet, and that’s not nothing. Lovely conversations with native speakers aren’t going to drill in that “mapa” is masculine or when to use the present subjunctive.

  7. Stu Clayton says

    I’m tickled pink by the subjunctive in Spanish. You might want to start off using the Portuguese version all the time, and gradually trim it back. It will sound weird, but not to you.

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