You may have come across lots of ads like this online recently. I know have, though I think that might be targeted advertising based on my interests in language. Obviously, most of the ads like this are just clickbait, but there are some language-learning apps such as Duolingo and Babbel which are quite popular and seem to be well-regarded.
I admit to being a bit sceptical about such apps, probably because if they’re really as effective as they claim to be, I’ll be out of a job! But also, having seen how much work goes into both teaching and learning a language, I find it hard to imagine a simple app could be up to the job. Here are some of the aspects of learning a language that I assume an app would struggle to provide:
Production: getting to actually use the language might seem obvious to mention, but it’s crucial to learning a language. A teacher can introduce and explain vocabulary or grammar points, but to consolidate what you’ve learned and get it to stick in your mind, you need to actually use it, particularly in a context that mirrors real life. A simple way to get students to produce language is to have them have conversations using the lesson’s target language. In primary and secondary schools around the world, many language lessons are lacking this. It was certainly the case for me for many of my Irish and French lessons. And it’s something I see all the time at work: students who know the principles of English but have never had to apply that theory to actually using the language.
Figuring it out for yourself: of course these apps do this to some extent, but I wonder if they can compare to the real-life experience of figuring out what someone means by picking out key words as you listen carefully, noting the context, their facial expressions, and body language. Of course one can learn some of the basics with an app and then go out and listen to and use English in this way. But even in the classroom, a skilled teacher can guide students towards figuring out complex ideas for themselves in a way that makes them remember it.
Collaboration: one of the best things about being a language student is working with other students. In most good schools students will work together to learn. This increases confidence, helps students retain language better (you’ll remember something better if your classmate explained it or helped you figure it out, as it’s a departure from the expected norm of the teacher explaining it), and the mental work that goes into figuring things out with, or explaining things to a partner develops your ability to learn, and also helps you to remember more effectively. Teach a man to fish…
Fine tuning: This for me is perhaps the biggest advantage of having a good teacher. An app or a dictionary might tell you what a word or phrase means or when to use it, but a teacher can help you with all the little details of when and how to really use these words and phrases. Degrees of politeness and formality, which phrases with seemingly-identical meanings to use with which exact people in which exact situations: it’s this expert, real-world, native-speaker knowledge which I find it hard to imagine an app replicating.
But, you’ll notice I’ve been assuming a lot here. While I definitely think apps can help you in learning a language alongside lessons or regular everyday use, I can only assume that on their own they’re not as effective as the real thing. But without trying a language app, I really can’t say for sure. Which is why I’m going to choose a language on Duolingo and see if it’s effective. I don’t if I’ll have the time to use it often, but I’ll do my best and I’ll report my progress here. Wish me luck!