Does the future of language learning belong to language apps?

Suddenly it looked like nobody was studying anymore languages the way old bores like me used to. No more books, no more writing, no more real classes, no more schools (I have to agree that language classes can be pretty useless sometimes, if your practice is limited to them). It was as if this new way of learning languages was about to bring on a revolution in language learning. Learning had become easy and fun just like playing a video game. With language learning apps you could learn with minimal effort and maximum result using your beloved smartphone.

Sure, I see some benefits in this approach. You could practically study anywhere, in the bus, at the coffee shop, in your bed, and the ”lessons” are organized into small units so that you can get started by investing as little as five minutes a day. So I decided to test Duolingo, which was enthusiastically recommended to me by a technology-freak friend of mine who used it to learn Swedish (his Swedish did not sound all too good to me, however).


Not long ago I had begun to learn two new languages but I was not really progressing using my old fashioned text books and CDs, maybe because of lack of time and self-discipline, so I decided to see if Duolingo could help me by providing some new fresh stimuli and some very needed organization in my learning plan. I also decided to test my skills in French, a language which I studied many years ago but which I have never used and I wanted to refresh, and German, which over the course of the years had become a very familiar language. I did not expect that Duolingo could help me with my German, because I was supposed to have reached already a relatively high degree of proficiency in it, but I was curious to see how the app would assess my command of the language and if it could possibly help me perfection it.

I gave it a serious try, it was well meant, but I soon realized that learning by app was not really that big of a game changer for me. Here is a list of the problems I saw:

  • the app is terrible at assessing your language level. Duolingo gave me some 15 questions, which approximately lasted less than 5 minutes to evaluate my language skills. I tested my Ukrainian, one of the languages I wanted to learn and of which I knew some basic phrases. I was acquainted with the Cyrillic alphabet too, but the test resulted in an utter disgrace, with me failing to show any knowledge in any single skill: Duolingo made me begin with the learning from the very basics, from the alphabet, even if I knew it already and some basic words at least. My Ukrainian was a poor thing, sure, but starting from the very beginning I spent at least the first two hours of learning, doing stuff I knew already, and while revising is always good, it was boring to go through these very elementary things again. I thought the whole point of using a language app was that it would be very time effective (score: 3/10)
  • I repeated the same testing for French and for German. In spite of replying correctly to 80% of the questions, Duolingo told me I had failed to show any knowledge of French whatsoever. I don’t want to say that my French is spectacular, because I have never spoken it, but if I can read Le Monde I guess I should know some. And the single mistake I made in the German evaluation test (a typo) meant that my level of fluency was determined to be at 28%. I was disappointed to say the least, because the questions in the test for me had been all very very easy (score: 3/10)
  • Duolingo is not intelligent. The app is not made to recognize equally good solutions. Sometimes it does, sometimes it does not. For example I had to translate the word “programist” from another language into English and I wrote “computer programmer”. The system did not recognize this solution as correct. I had to write only “programmer”. I have never met a programmer who is not a computer programmer but maybe it’s just me. Ok, this is not a terrible thing, because it means in the course of our 3-5 minute “lesson” Duolingo will ask you to repeat the same task again and you have the chance to give the correct answer, but it just annoying sometimes to see that you are making mistakes when in reality you are not (score: 4/10)
  • it gives you the illusion that you can learn a language (and become fluent!) by practicing just 5-20 minutes a day. Well, that’s just delusional. Right at the beginning Duolingo will ask you how much you want to practice every day. 10 minutes a day is “regular”, 15 minutes a day is supposedly “serious”, 20 minutes a day is “insane”. For me the only thing that’s insane here is to think that 20 minutes a day is any work at all. I went for the insane approach of course and doubled it down because for each language I did at least a 40 minutes a day session (score: 5/10) Neue Bitmap
  • it is too easy, way too easy. There are simply exercises and every lesson will require you to memorize a three or four new words (in most cases you don’t need to do any guess work, you just need to look at the picture to ”find” the right solution) and the most difficult lessons will have a new grammatical concept. Not much, really. A “lesson” lasts less than 5 minutes. Sometimes you will have to write extremely short sentences and phrases. Far too often, however, you will be asked not to write something in your target language, but to translate what you see into English (which I do not appreciate too much because I think that a language learning environment should be monolingual, using only the target language, but I guess this is just a personal quirk). I am not a super smart kid, but I don’t like dumbed down stuff (score: 5/10)
  • as above. You will be asked sometimes to read aloud some sentence or phrases (sometimes the mic does not recognize what you say and it is not because of your pronunciation, it just does not work properly) and this is a much oral practice you get. The fact that there is no human interaction whatsoever makes these kind of verbal exchange rather dull too (score: 4/10)
  • I learned the basics … so what? Language learning has just begun! It will not teach you to speak or to write in a language, which arguably is the most difficult part, but just some vocabulary and some grammar. Duolingo may be great for your school Spanish but it will teach you absolutely nothing after you are done with the basics. And for me, learning the basics is not the most interesting part of learning a new language. It is true that it does not matter how I learned the basics and that Duolingo or any other sort of language app might be just as good as any other method (score: 6/10)

On the other hand:

  • Duolingo is free! (score: 10/10)
  • it offers a lot of languages, from French to Polish, from Russian to Vietnamese (score: 9/10)

My conclusion: if you feel like like a thirteen year old who is quickly bored and refrains from any sort of mental effort, then the five-minute difficulty-free Duolingo lessons might be just for you. That’s fine. Better learning some Spanish with Duolingo than knowing no Spanish at all, I guess. But if you where expecting that using some language learning app you would be learning a language and become fluent in three months, you couldn’t possibly be more mistaken. This is hardly a language learning revolution. I don’t see any fundamental difference between using standard textbooks and a language ap or memory cards. Learning a language, like learning any new skill, is real hard work, which you have to do by yourself, otherwise you won’t be learning much. No app will do the hard work for you.

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