In today’s society, we are exposed to multi-cultural and multi-lingual situations almost daily. We often interact with foreign language speakers even if they are engaging with is in our mother tongue. Not only that, but many of us love to travel to far out and exotic places. This all adds to the allure of learning a foreign language in order to communicate with those around us.
Historically, learning a foreign language meant enrolling in a foreign language class or finding yourself a private tutor. If you were really brave, you may have shipped off to your country of choice with a backpack and some savings for a couple of months in order to get fully immersed in some foreign culture.
But what do all of these methods have in common? They all require you an investment of time and money, both of which are a tightly guarded resource these days. Finding the time to attend language classes between work and other life responsibilities can be tough. Finding a job overseas that will support you and uprooting your life is infinitely tougher. So how have people found the time?
Pocket language schools
Today, almost everyone owns a smartphone that nearly never leaves their side. Our phones accompany us to work, to school, to the toilet and to the dinner table. We rely on them for the time, the weather, banking, Facebook and obviously, keeping in contact. But with the rise of smartphones has come the introduction of learning applications (or ‘apps’ as we so affectionately know them). It is these learning apps that have afforded us the time to teach ourselves new skills when can’t find the time to follow conventional routes.
Learning apps are exactly as they seem, designed to put the classroom in your pocket. When it comes to language learning apps, there are many different variations out there. Some are quite simple and aim to just teach you the basics of foreign vocabulary, whilst others can be more complex and involve in-depth learning. The real question is: can these apps teach you to speak a foreign language?
How pocket schools get you learning
Rote or parrot learning anything becomes as boring as counting leaves on a tree after a while. So how do the most effective language learning apps keep you engaged and actively learning? They use gamification!
The idea of gamification is to make boring tasks more fun by adding the gratifying elements from games. The new generation of language learning apps keep you interested by incorporating video-game staples such as points, lives, leaderboards, levels and cheery noises when you do something well, such as completing a test.
You can also save up rewards in the app to open up new challenges or make aesthetic changes, although unlike the typical ‘freemium’ model, there are no in-app purchases involving real money.
The most popular free apps are Duolingo (which has around 150 million registered users) and Memrise, a tool that helps you memorise vocabulary. MosaLingua is another very popular paying app. Starting from the principle that learning should also be fun, all these apps find ways to reward you for memorising vocabulary and understanding the grammar.
But there’s no substitute for the real deal
As great as this all sounds, pockets schools teaching us how to speak foreign languages, there is a lot to say about the old school, conventional methods. Well designed language courses will teach you vocabulary and grammar that is relevant to you and the context in which you will speak the language. Apps teach you a generalised vocabulary and grammar that are not contextual and often leave (even the most diligent) app students lost for words.
An immersive approach to learning a foreign language far surpasses the benefits of learning through the convenience of an app. The fact that you use (or try to use) the language you are learning every day in order to get by, will build a far greater understanding of the real life context in which the language is used. If you have learnt it purely through an app, trying to listen, think and then formulate sentences all at the same time will just make you look like R2D2 having a mild system malfunction.
So what does this mean for the budding linguist in you?
If you are going on summer vacation to the Barcelona and want to learn how to order a sandwich or how to ask for directions to Sagrada Familia, then a language learning app would be a great way to get started. It would most certainly take you from an absolute beginner to somewhat of a stumbling novice with a couple of helpful words under your belt. But if you are dead keen on learning a new language where you can actually converse with the average Joe on the street, then apps alone are not nearly enough.
Immersive learning is by far the best way to learn a language. This may not always be completely possible but there is no replacement for conversation between a learner and an advanced speaker. Attend conversation classes in your neighbourhood, find a friend that speaks the language and practice with them. Watch foreign films without the subtitles and listen to foreign songs when you’re in the car.
By rewiring your brain to think in a foreign language it will become a part of who you are and not just something you learnt and memorised from an app. This is not to say that apps are not helpful. They’re extremely useful to teach us basic vocabulary and grammar we may not have otherwise been exposed to. Even to revisit concepts if we haven’t spoken a foreign language for a while.
So the moral of the story is this: your phone is not going to teach you how to woo the Mademoiselle cycling along the Rhine, nor is it going to enable you to talk politics with a Peruvian local. However, coupled with a proper language course or a couple of months/years spent living amongst fluent speakers, it may just help you get the ball rolling towards a world of opportunity.