Why these popular language learning apps need to change

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Technology has impacted every aspect of our lives, and language learning is no exception. The use of mobile applications or ‘apps’ has become increasingly popular in second language education. Language-learning apps such as Duolingo and Rosetta Stone are among the most downloaded apps in digital stores worldwide. Around 300 million people have signed up for Duolingo, including billionaire Bill Gates. But many people have also given up in the endeavour of learning a new language with this mobile app. The debate on the effectiveness of language-learning apps is still ongoing. Research investigating the usefulness of some apps have mainly shown positive results. However, these studies focus on learners using language learning apps as additional resources to formal language courses.

The question remains: Can people learn a foreign language by using mobile apps?

Duolingo is designed to be addictive. This app claims to offer a full language learning experience which can help you achieve fluency in your target language, which is the language you are trying to learn. When you sign up for Duolingo, you need to set up a daily goal, which you will need to complete to earn points and maintain a daily ‘streak’. Learning for 5 minutes each day will maintain your daily streak. Missing one lesson will make you lose your streak, and you will need to start from zero. The more points you earn, the prouder you will feel about your progress and the more you will want to boost your streak, which is also visible to other users. Some people argue that this system has pushed them to learn a language every single day. Others have stated that this scheme is addictive, and it will keep you using the app for many years without any real progress. This daily-streak system is the only reason that makes Duolingo so popular since users try to stay active only to maintain their long streaks.

Another online language learning program that has been around for quite a while is Rosetta Stone. I remember using their CD version back in 2009 when I was learning Korean. I must admit the lessons did help me start with my Korean language learning journey. The program was simple to use, the content was easy to understand, and the high-quality audios and images were appealing. All of these elements contributed to keeping me interested in using this software. However, once I enrolled in a Korean language course, the lessons and content of Rosetta Stone became meaningless and irrelevant to me. I could not learn anything about the culture using the program. Language learners become disengage with the content when the language is presented without context. The de-contextualisation of language happens when words and sentences are presented without any real-life reference to cultural and social experiences that learners can relate to. Recently, I downloaded the new Rosetta Stone app version to see what has changed over the years, and I was surprised to see that the design and content are the same as they were back in 2009 in the CD version.

Linguists have long rejected the language learning theories and models underlying the design of Duolingo and Rosetta Stone. In a recent analysis, researchers found that the most downloaded apps rely on problematic past models of how language should be learned and taught. Among these models, language learning apps rely exclusively on grammar-translation, a popular method used back in the 18th and 19th centuries when learning prestigious languages such as French and Russian, with the sole purpose of sharpening the mind. There was no real communicative need for learning these languages back then. Investing time and energy in languages was more about acquiring discipline than being able to communicate in these languages. Apps such as Duolingo and Rosetta Stone, offer the same learning methods, including grammar drills, translation exercises and repetition of words and sentences.

It is important to note that some language-learning apps are free, and therefore accessible to people in poor communities who would otherwise not receive any form of language instruction. Also, these apps are an ideal place to start when you want to learn a language and do not know where to begin. Some apps also offer acommunity-based program that allows people to interact with other learners interested in learning languages. The problem with the design of these apps starts when learners need to develop skills beyond grammar and vocabulary. For example, knowing what to say, how to say it and to whom to say it are aspects of sociolinguistic skills that fall beyond the scope of grammatical and vocabulary knowledge. Learners may lack the ability to use language appropriately in real-social contexts when they have only been exposed to decontextualised words and grammar rules.
Considering people are willing to invest a lot of time and effort trying to learn languages using mobile apps, the lessons and content they offer must be meaningful and engaging. Languages should be presented in context, with longer texts which make references to the culture and social practices of the target language community. Multimodal resources, such as videos and authentic audio conversations, can also be integrated to help learners engage with the content and acquire more than grammar and vocabulary knowledge.

Gabriela Bernal
Gabriela Bernal

I am a Master of Applied Linguistics student currently studying at the University of Melbourne. I am passionate about education, foreign language learning, productivity and motivation

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