5 Major Disadvantages of Using Language Learning Apps

I am one of the biggest fans of digitizing the classroom and the use of language learning apps and strategies. Mobile learning is my favorite and I’ve repeatedly touted its benefits here on LATG over the years. That’s not likely to stop any time soon.

But as with all things, nothing is perfect. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the negative aspects of language learning apps for a change.

Mobile versions often lack features of the full program

One thing that really irritates the most me when it comes to mobile learning is how the app versions of larger online platforms, including tools such as Memrise, Duolingo, Babbel, Rosetta and more, is that the mobile version is seriously dumbed-down.

I do get why – it can be a bit harder and more resource intensive for the developers to cram as much material into their apps as they can into their browser or software based versions. Apps need to be as light-weight as possible because phones have limited space, especially if you’re running an iPhone that can’t be upgraded or anything from those days in which 12 gigs was sufficient space.

I’m looking at you Apple. I’m looking at you!

Anyway, I don’t really fault these developers, but at the end of the day it is still the learners using these  language learning apps that suffer.

Using Memrise as an example (because it wouldn’t be true to LATG form if I didn’t promote their stuff at least once a month), anyone who has ever used the browser version of the program as well as the mobile app knows that there are some pretty shocking differences. For one, the entire premise of Memrise is that you utilize “mems” – images chosen by you or by another learner that help to reinforce a word or phrase in your mind.

Tragically, the mobile version mostly lacks this feature – which kind of defeats some of the point. Memrise is still one of my favorite apps, but the absence of this defining feature kinda takes the “mem” out of “Memrise,” don’t you think? This version does not allow you to upload new mems of your own, or seriously take advantage of existing mems you may have made or chosen in the past. It does offer you a “Help me learn this!” option whenever you mess up a word for which you can choose a pre-existing mem, but the system isn’t as prominent or effective as it is on the browser version.

 
  

I still love Memrise, but c’mon, can we expand this feature a bit? These aren’t the only features that are missing either. Memrise Pro users can access and modify their personal statistics and reports, which you can’t do on the mobile version. You can’t ignore words, and you can’t use “groups”. These are all great features offered by the program, that would be really great to see on mobile, especially for those of us who pay for this upgrade.

 

Language learning apps are easier than their web or software versions

Once again, language learning apps need to be lightweight, comprehensive, and designed to work with those tiny screens and keyboards with super close keys. Memrise (which will be my ongoing example) tends to offer a small selection of words for its “fill in the blank” questions. This reduction makes it vastly easier to guess it right, removing a considerable amount of the challenge.

Furthermore, the browser version is timed. You’re only given fixed amount of time to answer correctly, so you have to stay on your toes, make use of those mems, and get it right. It’s less forgiving when you fail, forcing you to go back and repeat words until you get it straight. While this can be frustrating sometimes, challenges should be at the forefront of your learning. The app is great for brushing up and adding some new vocab, and I do love it, but yeah… you get it.

Furthermore, the penalty for messing up a word is virtually non-existent. I’m not a huge proponent of negative reinforcement, but I should at least be made to want to get it right instead of just glossing over a word in search of the next point.

The same is true of Duolingo. The dumbed down mobile version provides you with very few options to choose when compared with the browser version when selecting your response to a given question.

 

It’s all a game

This is one of my biggest gripes, and it’s a trap that I fall into myself time and time again with mobile versions of language learning tools.

It becomes all about beating the game.

Now, gamification is a great way to learn, and language learning games can be fantastic. The problem, though, (and this can be true of web versions sometimes too, but I think to a lesser extent) is that after a while it becomes more about scoring points, using the process of elimination, and getting through the next level than it really is about learning and retaining the material.

Memrise has consistently improved their mobile version in some fun ways. They’ve given it this fun spaceship feel where you move from planet to planet as you pass each level. It’s really cool.
Except when you realize that all you’re really doing is trying to get through the course, rather than get anything out of it. Now, you DO get things out of it. It does still help, but this trophy oriented approach can quickly turn into you vs the machine rather than you vs the words.

Since we’re already established that the mobile apps tend to be dumbed down versions, we start to see patterns emerge that allow us to get through things quickly.

One of the most blatant examples of this is Duolingo’s “test out of a level” feature. Don’t get me wrong, I love that it lets you skip ahead to content that is more appropriate for your level. Nobody wants to have to go through the “Excuse me, I’d like to buy a beer please” or “Hi, my name is John” a thousand times with every new program. It’s exhausting and it doesn’t help much.

Duo allows you to take a quick multiple choice test that lets you skip over the things you know. The problem is that you can just keep trying several times (it does eventually stop letting you try if you keep failing, but it’s pretty lenient) until you skip material you really shouldn’t be skipping, all in a mad dash to the finish line.

I’ve fallen into this myself on my quest for more lingots, more levels, and the coveted prize of finishing the game. It’s ok to take the tests if you know you’re beyond the content – if you get it all right, maybe you really are ready to move on. If you make a bunch of mistakes, you just learn the few words you didn’t know. Remember them (because again, there are only a limited number of options to choose from), go back a second time and beat it no problem.

You can do this over and over until you’re halfway through the course but only have a limited knowledge of the content you “defeated”.

Not helpful.

As I said, this can actually happen with the browser versions as well – so you could make an argument for more “traditional” means such as books, language exchanges or classes being a better option if this is a trap you find yourself falling into.

 

Mobile apps can become a crutch

The biggest issue, I think, with mobile apps is that they very rarely provide any real speaking or practical listening experience.

My girlfriend uses Memrise with her Spanish students (high school level), and they absolutely love it. It helps a bit, it keeps them interested, they can use it to compete with one another (and receive prizes for progression and stuff). If you’re a teacher I actually highly recommend you look into it, but I digress.

The problem is that when you over-use language learning apps, after a while you’ll start to become confident in your abilities to guess a word, spell it, and work out the basic grammar. The issue comes when you stop using other methods because mobile is just so easy to access and get through. This is something that is visible even among some of my girlfriend’s stronger students. That’s not to say it’s not helping at ll, but if you’re planning to use mobile learning as a teacher yourself, it’s good to keep in mind that students are lazy and are almost always going to take the easiest way out.

Mobile language learning apps are (mostly) secondary resources, and should really be used in tandem with other things such as language exchanges, classes, or more comprehensive programs. It’s easy to forget about this other stuff, focusing instead on, you guessed it, beating the game.

   

I’ve finished numerous Memrise German, Russian and Spanish courses, which is always a very satisfying accomplishment, but then forgotten pretty much everything the moment I go to speak. According to the progression of the app, the number of points I’ve collected, and the sheer mountain of vocabulary I’ve successfully built in German, you’d think I’d be practically fluent by now.

I’m not.

 

It’s insanely easy to become distracted

The problem with using mobile resources is that it’s incredible easy for you to switch over to Facebook, check your email, start chatting with your friends or your mom, and totally forget what you were doing. I’d be the biggest hypocrite if I said I was any better, or if I started touting productivity tools and “social media” blockers like some of those hardcore polyglot learners. I’m really not into that, and I’m guessing you aren’t either.

That’s not to say that distractions are always bad. Taking breaks is fine, but if you’re anything like me you’re probably glued to your phone for the majority of the day. Flipping through non-language apps, taking your mind elsewhere, and just totally losing focus, are really easy to do.

I find that apps are best used as filler content. You use them while you’re commuting to work, or waiting for the bus. On your lunch break, or sitting outside the changing room while your significant other takes 20 minutes to try on 15 different outfits.

You can even use them while lying in bed before going to sleep. I know we’ve all been told it’s bad to lie there on our phones before sleeping, but that hasn’t actually stopped most of us, has it?
Didn’t think so. If you’re going to be doing it anyway, that’s the perfect opportunity.

Conclusion

I am in absolutely no way saying that you should cut out the mobile language learning apps thing. On the contrary, more is better!
It’s just that I think these are some important things to bear in mind for learners who want to stay on top of their progress, and maybe something for the app developers among you to think about as well.

Mobile learning is fantastic, both for personal use for adults, as well as increasingly as a classroom tool for students of most ages.
Make the most of it.

What are your thoughts? Do you use mobile apps for your language learning projects? Leave a comment!

Brian is the creator, owner and Apex Editor of Languages Around the Globe. When he’s not hanging around with linguistics nerds and learning languages, Brian works full time at Kolibri Online, a Hamburg based international content marketing and translation agency as a copywriter, human dictionary and general doer of great things.

   

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Brian Powers

Brian is the creator, owner and Apex Editor of Languages Around the Globe. When he's not hanging around with linguistics nerds and learning languages, Brian works full time at Kolibri Online, a Hamburg based international content marketing and translation agency as a copywriter, human dictionary and general doer of great things.

  • As a developer, I can definitely relate. Nearly all language learning platforms start with a website and very few go mobile-first. Mobile development and web development are so different that many web features don’t lend itself to an easy mobile equivalent (streaming and uploading audio, for example on the backend, and tons of web UI features). That may be one of the reasons why it is difficult to create a web platform focused on speaking and listening.

    New features tend to get pushed onto a web version first because it is the least expensive. Depending on whether developers write two separate versions for iOS/Android or use a system like React Native, it can be a lot of work to constantly sync mobile and web platforms. For a large organization, deciding whether to go deeper into the web platform or to maintain mobile feature parity is an important executive decision.

    Also, mobile platforms are often used as a place for extensive A/B testing. Duolingo, for example, can use iOS and Android versions to test it’s various monetization strategies. Gating mobile content can be an important source of revenue for certain platforms as well.