Can You Really Learn a Language Using Mobile Apps?

Can you really learn a language using mobile apps?
 

There’s no denying it and there’s no stopping it. Mobile technology is revolutionizing the education industry and the world. Now, in 2015, there’s an app for everything and most of the major language learning software providers have begun offering mobile apps to complement – or in some cases even replace – their primary products.

But amid this mobile tech craze springs a great deal of controversy surrounding the real benefits of learning a language using mobile apps.

Can you really learn a language using nothing but smartphone or tablet applications? Well, it depends.

Mobile learning has been one of my favorite things since I became serious about languages and I can’t imagine my own learning projects being complete without it.

In late 2013 the number of Internet users accessing the Web and social media using their phones and tablets surpassed that of those using conventional desktops and laptops. Some experts are projecting that by 2017 a whopping 90% of Internet users will be surfing from mobile devices. What does this mean for language learning?

  

It means that the current boom in language apps is only going to increase, the quality and capabilities of these apps will increase and the potential user benefits could explode. It means that if you aren’t using mobile apps alongside your language projects, you very well may be in a couple years one way or another.

But enough of that.

Does it actually work?

In order to determine the answer to this question we need to identify which aspects make a language learning project successful.

Core components of language learning.

Does your project incorporate learning elements that cover the four major areas of language study?

  • Speaking
  • Listening
  • Reading
  • Writing

These requirements will vary somewhat depending on why you’re learning a language, which is a personal decision but one that is essential for you to know for the purposes of controlling the course of your project. If your only goal is to read classical French literature, great, this will be easier for you. However most language learners are looking for more of a general understanding, making all four of these points essential.

Most language learning apps don’t provide adequate coverage of all four, leading to my next point:

Diversification!

If you’re not mixing up your language strategy you’re doing something wrong.

It’s extremely difficult to find a single learning strategy that will offer you everything you need, so you need to use as many quality products and strategies that you can. Even the largest, most inclusive programs such as Rosetta Stone or Rocket Languages fall a little bit short when it comes to certain aspects. Always remember to never, ever believe any company that tells you its product is the only language tool you need! Or one that promises lightning fast results.

Luckily there are hundreds and hundreds of language apps out there, so you can pretty much cover most areas.

Human interaction

This is well above and beyond the most important thing for you to take away from this article. If there’s anything I say here that you remember let it be this.

You need to speak to, and receive feedback from, real human beings. Professional tutors or teachers are of course the preferred option, but there’s nothing saying you can (or should) have only one person and a well executed language exchange has perks all its own. Everyone is different and every person you learn from or engage in a language exchange with is going to speak slightly differently. If you’re going for speaking and listening comprehension you’re going to want to diversify your people as well.

Again, you can now do this very easily using your phone.

So, how do you make your phone work for you?

In order to optimize your mobile devices for language learning you need to realize the difference between primary and secondary resources. I go into much greater detail about this system of tool classification here, but suffice it to say for now that a primary tool is something like a language class, a tutor, or a very large, highly multifaceted program that offers at least 3 of the 4 core attributes; listening, speaking, reading and writing.

A secondary resource is one that only concentrates on a single facet, such as reading.

It’s important to know the difference between the two because a balance must be reached when assessing the best methods for you. Unfortunately most mobile apps are not primary resources meaning that you’ll have to diversify more by compensating with a larger number of apps.

Here’s how we do it, in order:

 

  1. Find a flashcard app. I’d recommend Anki, but there are numerous apps out there that will allow you to create custom decks of cards sorted any way you might prefer. These are great because they focus primarily on what interests you rather than what some language company somewhere decided you need to learn.
  2. Leverage the social media sites you’re already using. Lindsay Dow of Lindsay Does Languages outlines in this article the different ways that you can bend Facebook to your will and take advantage of something that, lets face it, you’ll be doing anyway.
  3. Snag the secondaries! It’s time to start downloading the “essentials”. Ultimately this list will change depending on what you find yourself using the most, but the apps I would always include on my list include Memrise, Lingua.ly, Duolingo and a dictionary app of your choosing. (A quick search will probably turn up dozens of dictionaries in the world’s largest languages, and many still exist in the world’s less prominent tongues as well. A quick look at the reviews and ratings should give you a decent indication of one that will work for you.)
  4. Get an eReader! I don’t care which one. I like Kindle as it’s the biggest, it’s free and it works on all devices and can sync across them, even between platforms such as iOS and Android. There are thousands of free books, many of them probably available in the language you’re learning.
  5. Make sure you have the apps for YouTube, your favorite media player (iTunes, Pandora, Spotify etc), an Audio Book reader and the app for any Internet TV subscriptions you may use. (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime etc). Some of your media playing apps will also include the ability to subscribe to foreign language podcasts directly from your devices.
  6. Check out social media sites for language learners. I’d recommend checking out Colango and GoSpeaky – both currently only available on Android OS devices, though hopefully with iOS functionality in the near future. There’re many others out there for you to peruse though. These sites help facilitate connections between speakers and learners and are a great way to segue into:
  7. Skype! Or any other audio or video chat system. Skype is the favorite. It’s free, you can download it for any device, and it allows you to carry on real conversations with real people anywhere in the world. Another resource you can check out is iTalki, a site that allows you to find tutors or partners for language exchange.
  8. Change the language on your device. I list this last because it requires a bit more explanation. While it’s impossible to create a totally authentic “immersion environment” without traveling to and living in a region that speaks your target language almost exclusively, a place in which you can become embroiled in the local culture and be forced to learn, you can still take many steps towards creating a simulated immersion environment. One way to do this is to challenge yourself to deal with every day devices in your new language. While this is a very solid strategy for familiarizing yourself with your new language, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that a beginning learner change their phone’s language prior to having a reasonable understanding. The reason for this is that a lot of things can go wrong. You can accidentally delete files, apps, change settings you really don’t want changed, or even accidentally make app purchases. Still, a good idea if you’re ready for it.

And that’s more or less that.

You’ve got your Skype for human interaction, listening and real-world speaking practice. Use it as often as you possibly can as it is the absolute foremost tool on this list, and it alone is the difference between being able to pull off a complete mobile learning experience.

Lingual.y and your eReader will see to your reading comprehension and can even function as impromptu flashcard programs. Memrise continues this as a spectacular vocabulary building tool and a nice, simple time filler for when you only have a few minutes here and there to study.

When you’ve got the time, look to your entertainment! Your movies and music and podcasts and audio books can round out your language project.

Conclusion

Should you necessarily turn solely to mobile solutions for your language learning? Maybe not. There’s something unique about carrying on conversations in person – a human element that can’t even really be simulated entirely via Skype. Skype is fantastic, but it doesn’t give you the ability to explore a city with a friend acting as a guide, to ask questions about real things in real time as they jump out you and really give you the complete reactive conversation experience that you really need to reach a higher level of fluency.

So as a bare minimum, sure, you can learn a new language using almost exclusively mobile tools as long as you’re properly diversifying and balancing your strategy with an array of programs. Sitting down to Memrise, even every day, is never going to make you fluent in Thai or German.

So what do you think? Can you really learn a language just by using your phone or tablet?

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  • That’s pretty much what I always tell people – apps are great but you need human interaction as well. The nervousness that comes with trying to speak a foreign language in real life/to a real person has a huge impact on learning outcomes, in my opinion – it gives you a rush of adrenaline which means you’re more ‘present’ in your learning. No app can replace that!

  • Anthony659225

    I really enjoy lingua.ly, but one big problem is that you can’t alphabetize your vocabulary list. Once you get beyond 50 words or so, not having them in a,b,c order impedes learning. I have around 600 Spanish words now and several hundred in Italian, and it’s very difficult to find specific words that you want to work on. You have to scroll and scroll and scroll …. well, you get the picture.

    Another good article, Brian.

  • Anthony659225

    Lingua.ly is pretty good for flash cards, and it’s fun. The big drawback, though, is you can’t alphabetize your words. Once you get past a certain number, trying to find an individual word to work on is a chore. You have to scroll and scroll and scroll….

    Another good article, Brian. One of many.

  • Well said! I can’t agree more with what you say about human interaction. And I really like the differentiation you make between primary and secondary resources.

    Brain, I hope you don’t mind if I leave a link to a good post about the same topic, that I just read today on another blog I follow. I’ll do the same over there.
    http://www.languagesurfer.com/2015/05/13/the-truth-about-language-learning-apps/

    • I don’t mind at all! I’m a big fan of Language Surfer myself.

  • I definitely agree with you there. I’m a bit tired of having my cards all jumbled. it’s not even just the alphabetizing. I wish I could divide them by language as well.

    Thanks!