Language apps can be fun and they are certainly addictive but they have a dark secret they don’t want you to know.
Language learning apps are addictive – this is good
Most language apps are deliberately designed to get you hooked on the program and signing in every day, even several times a day. You need this kind of consistency to learn a language. So any compulsiveness you develop using these apps will help you learn the language.
Language apps keep you coming back by having you setting personal goals and getting rewards when you reach them. Apps also have preset goals in the program such as practicing consistently or getting many correct answers in a row and other things.
Language apps are like a game with rewards for ‘leveling up’ and conquering vocabulary. Many apps give you the option to ‘play’ solo or with other ‘players’.
As you go through the lessons you accumulate points that can be redeemed for various rewards in the app’s shop.
Very few people ever learn to speak a language from a language learning app
Despite the amount of time people spend on language apps very few learn to speak the language. According to researchers Scott Young and Vat Jaiswal, the success rate for app users who get to proficiency is a dismal 6%.
David H. Freedman from The Atlantic states what many language app users know all too well,
“Language apps like Duolingo are addictive—but not particularly effective.”
Apps are flashy and easy to use but they are just well-dressed drill and kill machines.
Apps have such a low success rate because they use mechanical drills. And this is not how to learn a language. The drill and kill approach is classic, old-school classroom folly repackaged for the computer and phone.
Those drills didn’t work in the classroom and they don’t work with an app.
Apps miss the point of speaking a language – speaking
Speaking in a new language is one of the most uncomfortable parts of language learning but if you want to speak a new language you must practice speaking. Researchers found that speaking was the most stressful part for language students.
This may be why apps are popular, people who use them don’t have to speak to other people. But speaking to other people is what language is all about.
The secret language apps don’t want you to know
Language apps are designed for profit, not for language learning. Language apps are a business. They are designed through the lens of a business model. This means profit is the purpose, not leaning a language.
After studying 50 language learning apps Joey J. Lee, the director of the Games Research Lab at Columbia University, found that language apps are made for making money first and learning second.
One reason language apps are addictive is that the lessons are easy to master so users feel good and want to come back. Harder lessons in which students learn more reduce the number of times students come back to the site and decrease profit.
University of Massachusetts linguistics professor and language learning expert Tom Roeper, reports two additional problems with language apps
- The human interaction needed to focus a student’s attention
- The ability to adjust the lesson as necessary for the individual
“There are all kinds of contextual factors in language learning. It would be hard for an app to take them all into account.”
Language learning apps are attractive and can be addictive. But with their drill and kill methods, you won’t be learning to speak a language any time soon. Language apps are great for making money but the best way to learn a language is to start speaking it. So put down the phone and have a real conversation.