Two years ago during the winter break, utterly bored with life on the empty campus, I decided to do something productive. In search of something unrelated to my studies, I opened my phone and downloaded Duolingo. After a quick sign-up process, the app asked me to pick a language to learn. I spent so much time choosing between French and German, but in the end, I decided to go for a third option. This is how I started learning Turkish. Completing a few basic lessons was fun, and within fifteen minutes, I knew how to say “the boy drinks milk” in one more language. After two months of spending an hour a day, I had completed the entire language tree. Feeling satisfied, I uninstalled the app and didn’t download it again until this winter, when I got bored again in the isolation caused by COVID-19.
I was thinking of the effect the pandemic had on language-learning apps, and a quick Google search revealed that they are doing better than ever. With millions of people practicing social distancing, apps like Duolingo are experiencing an all-time high in the rate of growth in their user base. Unlike academic courses that force you to do exercises in workbooks, these apps turn the language learning process into a game. They grab attention by offering achievements, word-based mini-games, and leagues where users compete against each other. There is no doubt that educational apps like Duolingo and Babbel make learning another language fun, but do they make it effective?
The first thing that I noticed about learning a language through an app is that it gets too repetitive. It forced me to develop a Pavlovian response, where instead of producing a sentence, I was just tapping on correct words, knowing that the app would accept it. Duolingo solved this problem by introducing levels for each lesson, where eventually you have to type in the answers. Memrise, another app for learning a language, has a more elegant solution — sometimes you get a time-limited quiz, which clearly shows what you know and what you don’t.
While such apps improve your reading comprehension, they cannot properly improve speaking and listening skills. Language-learning apps usually have audio tracks based on standard dialects, voiced by voice actors with slow and clear pronunciation. But in real life, any language sounds very different from this, with slang and accents. I learned this lesson the hard way when I visited Turkey, where I engaged in halfway-comprehensible conversations, and occasionally completely failed to understand what I was asked. Apps like Memrise try to fix this problem by playing short videos of native speakers pronouncing some phrases. But still, in order for the apps to be simple and engaging enough, they cannot cover the different accents and dialects that might be encountered in real life.
However, language-learning with apps follows the modern language acquisition process, which focuses on producing meaningful sentences and tolerates minor mistakes in grammar. It is better than hesitating to speak because of being afraid to use a wrong conjugation. Apps like Duolingo start with audio-drilling — you begin by repeating how to pronounce and write basic sentences, though they are sometimes completely meaningless, like “a dog plays the guitar”. While the effectiveness of memorizing such sentences is debatable, these apps get one thing right — they constantly make you learn more words. Duolingo’s infamous reminders to practice the language usually work — it is reinforcement learning in action. Their daily exercises can be done without sacrificing much of your time. They also provide a private environment to practice language without being judged for mistakes, which significantly helps those with performance anxiety.
Still, most of the learning experience depends on the language you intend to learn. Considering that apps like Duolingo tend to target Americans, they have high-quality courses on popular languages like Spanish, supplementing it with podcasts and stories to improve language understanding. But when it comes to less popular languages, the quality of the materials gets worse. Even if some, like Norwegian, turn out to be surprisingly well-made, Swahili or Korean courses are incomplete, with meager explanations and poor translations.
Although they cannot fully replace university courses, applications like Duolingo may teach the fundamentals of a language. And even if Duolingo is not able to take into account all the peculiarities and nuances of the Turkish language, in the end, I still spoke comprehensible Turkish. When it comes to language learning apps, the question is not about the quality of teaching but about accessibility. After all, I don't have to look for a teacher when I have an app on my phone.