Using applications to learn a new language has become quite popular over the last ten years or so, and it's easy to see why. We spend a significant amount of time (let's face it, too much time!) every day on our phones, so using our electronic companions for something as useful as learning a language seems to be a great idea- and, in principle at least, it is. Yet, how effective are these apps in helping us to learn a new language? I'm going to try to answer this question from the perspective of a German tutor and a student of French and modern Greek. So here's what I found.
Let's start with my personal experience.
Duolingo is free, fun and easy to use, and what I enjoyed is that you're being thrown right in, as it, were. Rather than just learning individual words, you learn to form sentences within minutes of using the app. Since what you're being taught seems to fit together rather nicely and is organised by topic, there is a genuine feeling of progress after just a few hours. You're also being tested in both, the new language and English, which helps you remember the meaning of a word. Even though I found the app's reward system (points, streaks, achievements etc.) a bit too gimmicky, I think that it will keep many people motivated enough to continue. While the fact that grammar seems to just 'slip in' is great for those who might otherwise be intimidated by seemingly abstract grammatical terms, I found it very frustrating that no explanation of the grammar was provided at all. Here, Duolingo really lost me. There were numerous occasions when I couldn't see why a particular article or preposition was used in one sentence and not in another. Since the app doesn't offer any explanation, you have to start googling or draw on other resources. Shame!
Unlike Duolingo, Memrise concentrates on teaching you vocabulary in the new language rather than how to form sentences. Like Duolingo, it's easy to use and great for casual learners. New words are being taught through flashcards, which is a very effective way of learning vocabulary- one I also recommend to my students. The problem is that most courses are added by users of the app, so it's impossible to see how good and effective they are other than by trying them. Here, a more rigorous quality control system should be in place. When starting as a beginner in modern Greek, for example, I sometimes encountered words that would require quite some understanding of Greek grammar for me to use them correctly. My students encountered the same with German. The courses created by Memrise are more clearly structured, though, and I liked how they spaced out the repetition of the words. Obviously, words you find easy to remember you don't want to be tested on all the time, and Memrise gets that. I also liked the graphics and stats they used since they made it fun to use the app. But the heavy focus on vocabulary comes at a price. I felt I wasn't really able to use the words I learned without understanding the basics of the grammar. As with Duolingo, I also felt using Memrise on its own won't get me very far in the language.
While Duolingo and Memrise are free of charge, Babbel is a paid service. I was fortunate enough to receive a recurring subscription by a corporate client, so I gave it a try. On first impression, you can see that Babbel is more comprehensive and conventional than the other two apps. It seeks to combine conversational practice with cultural immersion. It is a lot less gimmicky than Duolingo and Memrise, which I appreciated but some may find boring. All courses are based on conversations and they cover all the usual topics that your typical language course may cover as well. Babbel also understands the importance of teaching grammar, so it explained whatever I needed to know in that particular real life situation I was currently working on. That's a good idea in general, but not for people like me who think in terms of logical patterns and want to understand whether what I have learned in one situation also applies to another. Can preposition X which I have just used to say that I am going somewhere by bus also be used to say I ride my bicycle? Babbel didn't offer me an answer. So I got the impression I might be able to reach A2 (elementary level) with the app, but I would definitely plateau there.
Busuu is another paid service that aims to go beyond the language learning experience that Duolingo and Memrise offer. Like Babbel, it aims to be more comprehensive and serious than the other two apps. What I liked about Busuu was that its feedback on pronunciation and writing doesn't just rely on speech recognition software or any other automated system but on other users. Languages are obviously spoken by people, so that made perfect sense to me. The problem is that not all users are native speakers, let alone teachers, so I would take some of their answers with a pinch of salt. There didn't seem to be any fact-checking by the app itself, at least I didn't notice any. However, Busuu's conversational lessons provided a lot more depth than the other apps, and there is quite a lot of variety, which made it experience fairly engaging to me. Yet, here again, grammar explanations and practice are lacking, which was a real drawback for me.
So much for my personal experience, let me now explain what I observed as a German tutor with students who sought my help after using one or two of the aforementioned apps. I should say that I often insist on arranging assessment sessions with new clients before they join any of my small-group German courses. The reason is quite simple: it is very difficult to gauge your level if you are not a language teacher.
Over the years, I had many new clients who reached out to me saying they want to join an A2, B1 or even higher level class. When I asked where they studied German before, I sometimes received the answer nowhere, but I have been using Duolingo, Memrise, Babbel etc. for months or even years. Initially at least, I approached my assessment sessions with those new students with an open mind and a bit of curiosity what they might have learned on the apps. Later I became a lot more cynical. At the end of my assessments, I had to recommend to 9 out of 10 clients that they should start from scratch, so join an absolute beginner course to learn the basics of German grammar properly. Only 1 of 10 clients had learned enough to join an A2.1 class, but they had used many other resources in addition to the app.
So what does that tell us? That the lack of proper grammar training is the real issue with all the apps. To be fair, some clients had learned quite a lot of words, which allowed them to complete A1.1 level more quickly. I also don't think it's a terrible idea when my students use one of the apps to accelerate their progress. But what I usually find is that the selection of words chosen by the apps differs quite significantly from the vocabulary they learn in my courses. That's why I normally advise students to use Quizlet courses that target the vocabulary in the book we're using or, better still, to write their own flash cards.
Don't expect the fun and user-friendly interfaces Duolingo offers, nor the spaced repetition of Memrise-organised courses. Quizlet just gives you flash cards in a pretty plain design and in more or less random order chosen by the users who uploaded them. Again, quality-control is missing here, so best choose courses structured around books you're using in your classes. The real disadvantage, though, is that Quizlet doesn't allow you to add sample sentences to the cards. Without samples sentences that show you how to use the word in context, there is a greater chance you will forget the word rather quickly because the context works as your association with the word and you are less likely to remember how to use the word in a grammatically correct way.
Nonetheless, building your vocabulary range by using flash or index cards. is a highly effective strategy and caters to visual, cognitive, haptic learners alike. While popular apps like Memrise use the flash card principle as well, writing the cards by hand is more effective. This haptic contact with the word you establish by writing down the word, in combination with phrasing sample sentences that use the word in context seems to be the winning formula for remembering words long-term rather than just short-term. I also found that most clients who used the apps had a decent passive but a very poor active vocabulary, whereas handwritten flash cards bridge the gap between the two. I explain how flash cards should be used to learn new words more effectively in a separate post.
In summary, try to combine one of the apps with proper lessons. Otherwise, you might not go very far. What is your experience with using the apps? Let me know in the comments section. Thanks for reading!
Would you like to read other posts on the topic of language learning? Then check out our posts on the difference between language levels A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2, a review of Linguee, dict.cc, dict.leo and Collins online dictionaries, my answer to the question how long does it take to learn German, and common words and phrases in German