Hyped language-learning apps like Duolingo may truly be useful in the classroom

The British are infamous for struggling with languages. At every level above primary school, dwindling numbers of students are choosing to study foreign languages. Innovative new apps may be set to change all that.

Are textbooks really worth the money anymore? Photo: John Beauchamp / Flickr
Are textbooks really worth the money anymore? Photo: John Beauchamp / Flickr

If you’re one of the 70 per cent of Britons who owns a smartphone, chances are you’ve heard of Duolingo. The app – winner of Apple’s ‘iPhone App of the Year’ award – is one of dozens of free foreign-language-learning tools that have recently flooded the Android and iOS app stores. Like the other new releases, it is claims to be an easy and effective way to learn languages.

Despite superficial difference, these new apps are all grounded by a simple underlying principle: learning languages should be cheap and easy. Unlike most subjects in the curriculum, you don’t need a qualified teacher and an expensive textbook to learn a language.  With a vocabulary of just a thousand words, you should know enough to get the gist of about 70 per cent of any foreign text. Let's put this in perspective – you had already learnt double that by the time you started nursery.

However, this requires knowing the ‘correct’ one thousand words to learn. Knowing the name of every single dish on a menu might be useful in a restaurant, but not if you can't say ‘eat’. This is where the apps get clever. Lexical frequency lists identify which words to prioritise, based on how often they’re used in texts (which is a simple task, given the vast amount of data available online). The benefits of this are self-fulfilling – the most common words will pop up everywhere, so are more likely to be stumbled upon again and become entrenched in your memory.

This process is aided by meticulously-prepared visual and auditory stimulation. Vocabulary is often presented in flashcard form (see Memrise or its sister-project CatAcademy). These snippets of information – a word or short phrase – are accompanied by relevant visual descriptors and a sound-bite to aid pronunciation. Compare that to rote-learning vocabulary sheets as homework, and it's clear why these apps have been so successful.

Another key problem with classroom-based language learning is retention of information. Without constant repetition, new words tend to go in one ear and straight out the other. For babies, or those living in their target country, continual immersion solves this problem immediately. For the rest of us struggling to learn a language in the UK, smartphone apps provide the next best thing. These apps offer continual testing for every new word you learn – once you get the answer right a few of times, the app recognises that you’ve learnt it and will show it to you less frequently.

Memrise models this as a “garden of memory” –

Every word begins life as a seed, you nurture it till it sprouts in your greenhouse (short term memory), and then you transfer it to your garden (long term memory). Once in long term memory, you have to water it (review it) to keep it from wilting (fading).”

Despite the over-stretched plant analogy, the concept is brilliant – but also completely unrealistic for teachers to replicate in a classroom. Having an in-depth understanding of a student’s strengths and weaknesses is impossible when teaching 30+ kids, let alone providing them with instant feedback.  The apps provide a way to circumvent the limitations of an overburdened education system.

And the effects are already being seen. An eight-week study of American college students learning Spanish found that just 34 hours on Duolingo alone would be enough to cover an entire twelve-week semester to the same standard. If that doesn’t sound like a lot to you, remember this app was officially launched less than two years ago – the technology, and the methods, are still very much in their infancy.

Luis von Ahn, Duolingo’s founder, is optimistic about the future of the software. In an interview with Benny Lewis – polyglot and author of Fluent in 3 Months – he explains where they are heading:

We know it’s not perfect yet, but it’s getting better each day, really... Now we know that Duolingo is great to teach you to read and write. It’s not as good to teach you to speak. We know that. But it’s improving and it has improved in the last three months to achieve that. And we will keep on trying to keep up the progress.”

In a classroom setting, where an app could be used alongside formal lessons – perhaps by taking a short break every hour to complete a level – you can see the potential for rapidly building up vocabulary. Combining this with the competitive elements (“duels” with friends, links with social media profiles) means that school-kids in the near future won’t be put off by the difficulty of language learning, and the declining numbers of language students may finally reverse.

Of course, this is all speculation. A 2003 meta-analysis and literature review of the role of technological developments in language-learning highlighted the dearth of "systematic, well-designed, empirical evaluative studies".  A decade on, and not much has changed. The "independently conducted" study on Duolingo mentioned above was funded by – wait for it... Duolingo itself. From a scientist' point of view, the jury is still very much out.

However, a quick look at the history of foreign-language-teaching can show how well educators have kept up-to-date with changes in technology – from audio-cassette-recordings in the 80s to Skype exchanges and interactive online games today. In contrast, subjects like Maths and English have changed little over the last 50 years. The prospect of using advanced apps as part of a formal lesson plan is certainly imaginable. And even if not, they work much better than not learning a language at all.

So next time you’re stuck on a smartphone sling-shotting flightless birds into rickety structures, take ten minutes out to try learning a language – it's probably more effective, and definitely a lot more fun than it was in school.

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