Do Language Learning Apps work?

Can the casual use of language learning apps in spare time really allow adults to achieve fluency in a foreign language, or is this another example of information being lost in translation?

A recent article published in the New Scientist examines the extent to which these apps really fulfil their “too good to be true” sounding promises. The article looks at research which, when considered in the context of digital technologies, challenges the idea that learning a new language as an adult is an arduous task. The difference in the child and adult brain has long been cited as one explanation for this. But, with the help of scientific knowledge, modern technology seems to be the ideal medium to reproduce the advantages of being a child learner for adults.

Why are language learning apps becoming more popular?

The first reason for this is because adults seem to be more inclined to learn vocabulary through study and self-testing. Research into the optimum timing of these tests has been carried out and is being utilised by several names in the industry.

But even putting yourself through a programme of tests doesn’t mean that you won’t make mistakes. Latest research from one researcher in the field seems to refute the long held idea that making errors hampers learning. She even asserts that it could help with the learning process. Modern technology also provides the ideal platform for getting things wrong in a ‘non-judgemental’ environment, which in turn helps combat the reluctance of many adults to simply ‘have a go’ whilst visiting a place where the target language is spoken.

Adults seem to be more inclined to learn through study and self-testing

An alternative explanation to the assertion that adult learners find languages harder than children, is because it is more difficult for them be immersed in the target language. However, research cited in the New Scientist article, counters this argument by suggesting that actually, immersion might not be the way forward for learners of more advanced years.

Are language learning apps effective?

One study split participants into two groups, one group was asked to concentrate exclusively on the words they were presented with, the other was given a distraction activity to do whilst being given the words. In the first grammar exercise that followed, the two groups performed equally well, whilst in the second it was in fact the latter group that found the task easier.

According to New Scientist, this suggests that a combination of learning methods, with varying degress of interactivity could be the key. Since apps and digital tools offer a range of techniques, this technology could be the ideal platform for adult language learners.

Games and challenges are often employed in this sort of app, as they seem, on the whole, to work well for language learners. However, they do sometimes have the effect of hindering the learner.

Some app companies are commissioning research to ascertain the most effective techniques

But what is considered as enjoyment for one individual isn’t classed as such by another. And one problem highlighted in the article, is that due to the quantity of factors influencing learning, it’s difficult to find the ideal set of learning tools. Once again, language learning apps seem to be able to help with this, as they hold such a wealth of information about which learning techniques are successful. Some app companies are commissioning research to ascertain the most effective or preferred techniques, to achieve a more personalised service.

Apps vs. real life

But does mastering a language on an app mean that it has been mastered in real life? This is important as they are not only being used for pleasure, but are also receiving attention from education institutions, and because those behind the technologies want users’ skills to be rewarded with recognised qualifications. It’s a difficult question to answer, and at present there is limited industry-wide research on the subject.

Prior to producing the article, the author embarked upon an intense course of a fictitious language, which made use of apps and techniques that they employ, and subsequently applied them to Swedish. The outcome was a positive one – both for her personally and for the modern tools for learning languages – she become proficient (and confident) in the language in three months and finishes on a positive note for such digital learning.

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