Do Language Learning Apps Work?

The app marketplace teems with clickables that promise shortcuts to learning. Among these apps, mobile programs to learn a second language have exploded in popularity, as busy adult learners search for methods to educate themselves through easy-to-use formats—in fact, the cloud-based language learning market is projected to reach values of $8 billion by 2024.

Many of the language learning apps on the market offer colorful graphics, engaging audio design, and instant access to usage data—often at a reasonable price. But can these apps deliver a truly effective experience to the time-crunched language learner? Research conducted by Xiaojun Chen at St. John’s University investigates the effectiveness of mobile learning apps for adult learners. Chen’s paper begins with a discussion of language acquisition theories; later, it analyzes language learning apps on a rubric which focuses on the key elements of language acquisition.

What does a language app need to work?

Chen’s paper introduces us to social interactionist theory, which takes a look at the role of early caregivers in first-language acquisition. Parents and other caregivers naturally make modifications to their language that help to guide young children in their early communications. An ideal language learning app for adults would follow these same introductory patterns of language acquisition. Such an app would offer significant interaction opportunities to mimic the early stages of language learning.

Language is a fundamental part of our social experience as humans. An ideal language learning app would offer interactions in an intensive, ongoing way—just like a real-life human being.

The issues of customization and feedback

Adult learners typically have specific business and/or personal goals for their second-language acquisition. Language-learning apps offer various levels of customization, but don’t offer the spontaneous interactions that make for a natural language learning experience. Apps are programmed to advance to certain units and concepts at certain intervals, which does not mimic the experience of being guided toward fluent communication by a fluent speaker.

Apps are typically unable to operate within these customized frameworks for social communication and conversation, as users can’t participate in real-time conversations.

Vocabulary in isolated units

A review paper by researchers at Columbia University and Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Germany analyzes the trends, challenges and opportunities of various language learning apps. This paper examines the ability of specific commercially-available apps to address areas of feedback, instruction, and assessment. A downfall of the majority of language apps examined in this paper was a rigid focus on teaching vocabulary units in “isolated chunks.” When we learned our first language as children, we gained new words in a variety of contexts. Most apps don’t offer similar opportunities to acquire new vocabulary in a variety of situations.

The “skill and drill” approach delivered by many language-learning apps is unrealistic, and it can contribute to a lack of motivation in learning a new language. Language learners can’t participate in real-time dialogue in apps, and they can’t access the human interactions that inspire them.

Humans are social creatures

Technology continually offers better and more sophisticated opportunities for language learning at lower costs. But while these apps can often enhance language training and support curriculum, many are limited as a sole means of language learning due to a lack of adaptability. The social nature of language and communication demands more than intense memorization of vocabulary units. If your goal is to hold a conversation with another person in the target language, nothing can replace the genuine interactions and cues you’ll receive from learning through the actual experience.

Interested in a more custom approach? ALTA offers language-specific training, including medical interpreter training.

Danielle Martin has taught multiple subjects to students in three different states. She previously spent time as a literary agent’s assistant and video editor. Danielle writes about education, health, and lifestyle topics, and she’s currently completing a work of fiction set in the 1960s.

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