Learning languages with a smartphone app like Babbel, Duolingo, Rosetta Stone and others Picture 1

Learning languages with smartphone apps

Babbel, Duolingo – and then??

Maybe you’ve seen it on the Internet or in an advertisement, maybe it accompanies you in the form of pop-up notifications on your mobile phone: the little green owl, the mascot of the language learning app Duolingo. In the meantime, the owl has become so well-known that people like to joke about it: If I don’t learn my vocabulary with the app, the big owl’s eyes follow me into my sleep …

Learning languages with a smartphone app like Babbel, Duolingo, Rosetta Stone and others Picture 2

With Duolingo, Babbel, Rosetta Stone and the like, you can now learn not only English, Spanish, French and Italian, but also Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic or Finnish – and sometimes even for free or for a very low price. Not every app has all languages in its programme, but there is at least one provider on the market for every language. But do these apps really work or is it worth investing a little money in a language course?

Behind all language learning apps is – at least to a certain extent – the idea of gamification, i.e. making a process playful, in this case language learning. To this end, elements familiar from games are incorporated into the apps. These can be player or language learner rankings, podiums for which you collect points, or a progress bar that shows me how much I have already learned. I no longer sit at my desk and cram vocabulary like I used to at school, but learn as I go along, as it fits into my everyday life. It’s easier to make learning a ritual and stick to it. This is what Icelandic student Astrid does, for example (interview follows).

Learning foreign languages with apps: Yes or No?

What my research has shown: To get started with one of the Scandinavian languages and to motivate oneself to learn, these apps work well. However, learners report that they quickly „played through“ their language learning app. This is mainly because offers at a higher language level do not exist: At some point, the technology can no longer keep up with a live language course: „I’ve learned billions of words with Babbel, but now I’d like to have someone I can talk to!“ a woman told me the other day. And she’s not alone – we’ve been getting calls like that at OBS! remarkably often lately.

By the way: this observation („billions of words“) is quite correct, because teachers at OBS! report that language learners who have started with apps often have a large vocabulary and quite acceptable pronunciation. However, it happens that mistakes settle, especially in pronunciation, because the apps hardly control and improve pronunciation. Grammar and listening comprehension are also weak areas, but above all the ability to communicate and interact.

Learning languages with a smartphone app like Babbel, Duolingo, Rosetta Stone and others Picture 1

Language learning apps put to the test

So how can these shortcomings of the apps be explained? Often, language learning apps focus on pictures and sounds, which gives them an advantage over the unpleasant vocabulary cramming from school, but it makes them also more inaccurate. In order to understand the different nuances of meanings of words and structures it is of great help to have experienced teachers or native speakers at your side. Thus, I also get a first impression of the country and culture. Furthermore, there are always translation errors in the apps, something which is rare in tested textbooks. Well, you get what you pay for – and with most apps that’s little or nothing.

It’s actually quite simple: language means speaking, coming into contact with others. And no device can replace that. I need a personal counterpart, someone who answers my questions, exemplifies the culture, has real conversations with me, someone who corrects and encourages me and also laughs heartily with me sometimes!

Many learners also want the motivation of a learning group and the direct exchange that comes from attending a language course together. Only in this way and in contact with a personal teacher you can tell about yourself, share your experiences, adventures and opinions with others – that is: communicate just like in real life.

Well, if you have learned 100, 1000 or even a billion words via a language learning app and now really want to use the language, then take a look at our offers:

Text: Franziska Schnauffer

Image sources: (1) Duolingo Owl (OBS!), (2) Simon Paulin/imagebank.sweden.se

Learning languages with smartphone apps