If you’re trying to learn a language yourself–or maybe helping your child learn one–you’ve probably asked, “What are the best language apps?”
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Language learning apps hold a special place in my heart. In 2015, I started learning German on Duolingo. The gamification concept of the app sucked me in and kept me coming back for more. Duolingo was my gateway to other language learning resources like Pimsleur, iTalki, and German-focused YouTube channels.
If someone is starting a new language from scratch, I do recommend Duolingo. My recommendation for the app always comes with a caveat, though:
You’ll learn a lot of vocabulary with Duolingo, but it won’t make you fluent. Or anywhere close to fluent.
What I’ve learned from a couple of years of personal language study is that even the best language apps have their limitations. The Local, a German news site agrees. In its article “Using language apps won’t get your German skills where you need them,” some of what may be considered the “best language apps” are compared to “speaking to a wall” and “reading a book that one finishes only because one has started it despite being bored to death already on page 20.”
Learning a language, the author argues, requires a bi-directional (two-way) approach and should entail living the language. That’s not an experience that a Duolingo-type app can provide.
In his post “Can the Duolingos Harm Your German?” Michael Schmitz of smarterGerman criticizes Duolingo’s content for lacking context. He also goes so far as to say that apps like Duolingo can harm one’s language skills.
On the other hand, you have journalist Matt Crossman with his Thrillist article, “I Put Duolingo to the Ultimate Test in Europe to See if It Actually Works.” Spoiler alert: Duolingo actually did work for him, he said. It wasn’t a perfect solution for achieving fluency, but it was enough to get him around–and even to help him do his job while abroad for work.
My personal experience is that Duolingo (and related apps) can give you a solid foundation in basic vocabulary but that eventually you need to graduate onto other language learning materials.
The best language apps still require you (or your child) to engage in more screen time.
When I was learning German intensively, I wanted to minimize my use of digital resources. It was a personal preference. I work full-time in marketing where I sit in front of a computer screen all day. I also spend a lot of my leisure time on my phone.
Learning German, I decided, would be my respite from the blue light, and I took steps to find and use non-digital language resources as much as possible. At least the ones that required I stare at a screen (audio was permissible in my personal plan).
Now and as my son gets older, I would like him, too, to rely less on screen-required language learning technology and more on other, more physical language resource formats. I only hope I can continue to equip him with alternatives throughout his young, most formative years.
Although language apps are perhaps among the most benign types of content on the web, even the best ones have their limitations. But, as we said before, we still recommend them, especially for beginner language learners!
Do you agree? Disagree? We’d love to hear your thoughts and perspective. Please leave us a comment to let us know where you stand.