Do Language-Learning Apps ‘Work’?

Sunday, October 2nd, 2016

Whenever I tell people I’m a language teacher or of my general interest in languages, I often get lots of different variations of questions about Duolingo (or Rosetta Stone, Busuu, etc.), ranging from “do they work?” to “have I tried them?” to “why do I still have a job?” (This last question is usually gently implied…thankfully…) I’ve come to see these sorts of questions as something of an occupational hazard — comes with the job, I guess.

That said, I don’t try to deflect or ignore them, as I believe there are good answers which can be inferred from SLA research. The most common question tends to be “do language-learning apps work?” (Since Duolingo seems to be the most popular these days, I’ll use that as my example, but the same explanations apply to most others.) To begin, it really depends what is meant by “work.” If by “work” one means to ask whether an app by itself will lead to a high level of functional proficiency in a language (and, incidentally, I’ve found this is most often what is meant), then my answer is decisively “no.” But I usually like to phrase it something like this:

In all my years of traveling, teaching, and learning I’ve never had a conversation with anyone in a language they learned exclusively with Duolingo or any other language-learning app.

This has been true since I started learning and teaching languages and, for as for as I can see into the future, will remain true. A couple of important reasons come to mind. First and foremost, there’s attrition, a problem seen in all sorts of extended, highly-involved learning experiences, but particularly in online learning (lots of data on MOOC completion rates have shown this). In the case of language learning, a lot of people like the idea of being able to speak Spanish or Italian or Chinese, so they download an app, do a few lessons, but quit when life gets in the way — before registering anyreal language proficiency. (I’ve been guilty of this!)

But, you ask, doesn’t it work for that committed bunch who plug through Duolingo lessons religiously, consistently meeting their daily goals, and rising through the Duolingo proficiency ranks? Well, kinda. More on this “kinda” later, but if we stick to our strict definition of “work” defined above, then the answer is really more of a “no.” The problem is that these apps just don’t provide enough of the comprehensible input and meaningful interaction that foster high levels of functional language proficiency. Without going into too much detail here, gains in language proficiency result from the development of an abstract linguistic system in our head, and this system develops by way of meaningful comprehensible input — that is, input at or just above our current proficiency level. (For more on this, google “Stephen Krashen,” “comprehensible input,” or “Bill Van Patten.”) This input can come from reading or listening, but needs to be meaningful, varied, and supplied in copious amounts. Duolingo falls short in all three of these areas, which is another reason that its curriculum rarely, if ever, leads to significant gains in functional language proficiency, even in the case of the committed student mentioned above.

Back to that “kinda.” I did say fall short, not fail. Though the input Duolingo provides is limited in certain aspects, the app does still provide comprehensible input. While this input won’t lead to high levels of language proficiency for the reasons mentioned above, it does constitute comprehensible input and can lead to some, if minimal, gains in proficiency, for those committed Duolingoers.

Therefore, as unsatisfying as it may be, I believe the best answer to the question “do language-learning apps work?” is “kinda.” Language-learning is one of the most challenging and involved undertakings out there, and, as such, it’s just not reasonable to expect any one app, or class, etc. to “work.” Rather, a much more reasonable expectation would be that a combination of things like classes, foreign language tv, conversation clubs, newspaper articles, and, yes, language-learning apps “work.” Put another way, Duolingo and other language-learning apps are not total language-learning solutions. In fairness, most of these apps don’t market themselves as such, but could no doubt do a better job of situating themselves within the language-learning process.

Put yet another way, my job is safe for the foreseeable future 🙂

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