Do language apps work?

Posted by:
March 29, 2021
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Do language apps work?

If you have decided to learn French (or any other language) but are still unsure whether you want to invest in French tuition, you may be wondering about downloading a language learning app instead. 

Apps like Duolingo and Babbel have become increasingly more popular and we got used to seeing friends, colleagues, and fellow commuters learn languages on their phone during their free time.

But do language apps actually work? In this article, we look at how apps can be of great support during your language learning journey and help you reach your goals faster — but they cannot replace a holistic learning environment.

Are language apps effective?

In a way, yes. Regularly practising languages on your phone is definitely going to have a positive impact on your learning journey. You can expand your vocabulary, put your grammar knowledge to the test with fun exercises, and take advantage of downtime for a quick language session on the go.

However, research shows that language apps are not to be considered a replacement for language classes and a more comprehensive approach to learning.

A 2020 study by Professor Shawn Loewen and his team at Michigan State University’s College of Arts and Letters looked at the learning results achieved by Duolingo and Babbel users studying Turkish and Spanish. Although improvements were noticed in the areas of grammar and vocabulary, Loewen found that very few participants could stick to using the app for at least 10 minutes every day or 1 hour a week. Professor Loewen concluded that apps can be useful but cannot replace the classroom experience and results.

Meanwhile, a 2016 study of 50 language apps carried out by the Polytechnic University of Valencia came to the following conclusions:

  1. Apps tend to teach vocabulary in isolated units rather than in relevant contexts
  2. Apps minimally adapt to suit the skill sets of individual users
  3. Apps rarely offer explanatory corrective feedback to learners

Can you really learn a language with an app?

As with most things in life, there is no shortcut or crash course that will allow you to learn a language in days or weeks with no effort.

Learning a new language is a process that requires time and commitment but is also fun and stimulating. And no, you do not have to study for years to be able to learn Spanish well enough to spend a gap year in the Canaries. You just have to practice all your skills — listening, reading, speaking, and writing — enough to be able to communicate effectively. 

You also need customized feedback and tweaks for your learning method as you progress. Downloading a language app just won’t cut it.

The best way to learn a language (apps are part of it!)

Unfortunately, apps are not interactive enough and do not allow you to boost all your language skills to become fluent (even if just partially). However, as we have seen above, they can represent a very useful learning resource and supplement.

Here at My Language Lab, we encourage students to embrace a more holistic method for the best results. Our language learning hybrid model is made of several elements working in synergy:

  • Tuition (online and in-person)
  • Videos (YouTube, Netflix, TV shows and programmes, and more)
  • Music
  • Podcasts
  • Social media
  • Books and newspapers
  • Apps

Every student is different — what works for your friends and colleagues may not work for you. So after discussing goals and priorities and establishing a core learning path, our tutors like to work together with the student to create the learning ecosystem that is most effective for them. 

How to make the best out of a language learning app

First, assess your needs and goals. Each app is different and you can ask your tutor to suggest the best one for you.

Consistency is key — unless you practice regularly for several weeks/months, you will not see improvements.

Variety is also important. If you feel like an app is no longer helping you, try another instead of giving up. See what works best for you: it may be practising at a certain time or in a specific situation, or using an app that allows you to interact with other users to boost your motivation.

Test your knowledge: you may become a pro at multiple-choice Chinese but not be able to recall basic vocabulary during a conversation. If that is the case, you may need a different approach.


What is the best language learning app?

When deciding on the best app for you, you must first consider factors such as:

  • Your learning goals
  • The types of language exercises you enjoy
  • Your budget
  • The amount of time you can dedicate to the app

There’s a whole world out there for you to explore. If Memrise and Duoling are the go-to tools for vocabulary, HelloTalk allows users to connect with native speakers, while Beelinguapp focuses on reading skills by offering favourite books and tales in several languages and dialects (both in text and audiobook form.)

It is not unusual to download more than one language app. Since not all apps work the same, it is possible that users with multiple apps feel that trusting just one provider would not cover all their learning needs.

Who should use language apps?

Anyone, really! Once you find the right app for you, you may stop considering it study time and start looking at it as a fun and welcome activity instead.

Apps can be particularly useful for:

  • People struggling to memorise words
  • Students who enjoy games and a little competition
  • Busy individuals who do not have much time to sit down and study.
Our hybrid learning model