November 2022 Newsletter
Are language learning
In these times of advanced technology and multitude of phone apps readily available for use, many
think that learning a new language independently and without human interaction is a good idea.
Let’s see if this is actually achievable. First, let’s see how Duolingo, Busuu or similar apps work
and what their users say about them:
Apps start with vocabulary, with reminders to practice every day, reinforcing the words you have
learned, showing the words you get wrong with more frequency to master them, providing virtual
rewards and moving up through levels . All this practice is designed to spend just a few minutes
each time, so users find them highly convenient for their busy schedules.
According to a survey done by Fernando Rosell-Aguilar (The Open University) , most people used apps
for vocabulary (82.26%), translation (66.13%), and grammar practice (58.06%). Many used them
once a day or several times a week for short periods of time and they felt that they helped to
improve their learning.
Now that we know how they work, let’s see if they are a substitute for language instructors.
According to the linguistic expert Ingrid Piller, there are two elements in the process of learning
a new language: the linguistic element (vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation) and the social element
(interacting with other people, transmitting meaning).
The first can definitely be learned alone, independently with repetition, exercises, moving through levels and achieving virtual rewards as in a game or a step counting app, with Duolingo, Busuu or any other popular app available. They provide a safe environment for people who feel overwhelmed when asked to speak a new language and can make mistakes in privacy.
These apps show metrics, tangible results, visually measurable, rewarding as a virtual game. The second element, the social interaction, with feedback provided by a language teacher and peers, is invaluable in terms of conversational skills. As Piller explains, “Language is about interacting with other people, it’s not something we do alone”. It is making decisions at the very moment to select words, pronounce them, putting them together in the right order and in context and delivering an understandable message. In this process, we may not get the grammar right or we may mispronounce words, but we convey a meaning and the feedback received completes the process. That is communication, the conversational approach that a language instructor, in a private or group setting, will provide.
This is the natural way we learn a language: by using it in context, in a conversational setting and focusing on meaning and message, beyond grammar perfection. This necessarily involves communication, interaction, questions, answers, context.
Is this important aspect of the learning process available when we use an app? No. We may certainly see questions and can probably type in or even record an answer and get feedback about it (a right/ or wrong answer) but you will not have the interaction that produces a conversation. Therefore, language apps are definitely helpful, but effective only when used in combination with conversational practice. The ideal learning setting for students would be a conversational class guided by a professional instructor (with instructional time mostly dedicated to oral expression) accompanied by a special selection of apps (for repetition, vocabulary, translation, grammar practice and listening resources: videos, podcasts, etc.) to use autonomously beyond the classroom.
All of it is actually needed, but its efficacy depends on the right selection, relevant to the student and appropriate to his/her proficiency level. There is no app that can offer you an all in one solution. On the other hand, there are instructors that will assess your oral skills and will guide you to use those apps in addition to the irreplaceable practice they provide : real time conversation.