Why most language apps won’t help you learn a language

I am a huge advocate for using mobile technology in language learning. In fact, the centerpiece of OpenLanguage is our Tablet Textbook app. There are too many inefficiencies standing in the way of students and teachers that technology can step in to fix.

However, I also believe that technology is only the plumbing. It’s not the methodology. In order to learn a language, you need input, study, practice and review. But most language apps are not designed with this framework in mind (nor are many books or classroom studies). They tend to only target a very narrow aspect of language learning, e.g. vocabulary or grammar and imply that students will be able to learn a language this way. Granted that many learners might only use these apps as a small part of their learning or consuming them as rewarding gaming experiences. But if you are remotely serious about language learning, knowing 500 words or a bunch of grammar rules won’t get you there.

If you are learning a language to communicate in real life, you need what the extraordinary linguist Stephen Krashen calls ‘comprehensible input‘. It means that the language you are learning should be presented to you with lots of context, messages or clues. But having those visual and audio clues alone are not enough. The language also needs to be realistic, authentic and high frequency, i.e. language that people actually use. That’s why using dialogues is one of the most powerful ways to learn a language. They give students lots of context about the language and mirror the exchanges in real life. I am not saying that there’s no place for vocabulary and grammar. But those should come from a natural dialogue rather than being disembodied and presented to students as an end on their own. They are means to an end, the end being using them to communicate. Starting the other way around with words or grammar, you end up knowing a bunch of isolated words and rules but still unable to communicate using the language. I’ve repeatedly seen the power of this approach at my work. And that’s also why we insist that on OpenLanguage, all lessons start with a natural and level-appropriate dialogue and then broken down to words and grammar structures, NOT the other way around.

The purpose of this post is not to discredit language apps. If anything, we need more apps that seamlessly blend technology and pedagogy. If you are using a vocabulary or grammar app, by all means continue to benefit from it. But also look for other resources that help you put what you’ve learned in context so that you can really communicate in the language you are learning.

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