Apps: Not the Lead, but a Fine Supporting Actor

I have a thing about wanting all of the content on my phone to appear on one screen. Obviously that means using folders. I have a folder for social media, another for weather, another for news, one for shopping. They’ve all got a decent amount of apps in them, but the one that is by far the most stuffed is my Language folder. There must be about forty or fifty apps in there.

Despite this library, I’ve always been skeptical about believing that a person can really learn a language by app alone. There’s no doubt that I’ve learned parts of various languages with apps, especially writing systems and vocabulary. And well-designed language apps are fun and a bit addictive. You want to use them every day, for the positive feedback, to keep up your days-in-a-row stats, to have some good natured competition with friends or people in a group you’ve joined. Anything that gets a person to interact with a language on a daily basis is a good thing.

I think I’m up to a current streak of about 60 days on an app I’m using for Chinese. This is impressive. There are few self-improvements things that I’ve done for sixty days in a row, without fail. And I’m learning, no doubt. I’ve been exposed to hundreds of characters, although I probably can only actively produce around fifty. I have a decent foundation of vocabulary, at least passively. And I’ve learned a bit of grammar.

But when I was talking to a friend about this a few weeks ago he asked me, “so how’s your Mandarin?” At that point I realized I actually had no clue. Apart from occasionally repeating a word, I hadn’t ever spoken. I certainly hadn’t engaged anyone in conversation, even the simple hello-my-name-is-Chris-what’s-your-name dialogue. My knowledge of Mandarin is almost entirely passive – I can recognize characters, I can arrange tiles to form sentences, I can translate basic sentences into English. So I can certainly do things in Mandarin, which means I’ve learned something, and that’s great. But what I’ve learned isn’t quite speaking.

I’m not guessing about that, by the way. I live in New York and have access to plenty of Mandarin speakers, including the one who’s writing the Mandarin course for the Language Garage. So after that conversation I put my Mandarin speaking skills to the test on a few occasions. They’re nothing to write home about. I can indeed get through the hello-my-name-is-Chris-what’s-your-name dialogue, and I can ask how someone is doing. I can point to a few things and say what they are, often enough even with the right tones. Again, there’s no question that this is more than what I could do 61 days ago, so I’ve definitely learned… something. But it’s a stretch to say that I can speak Mandarin, even at a beginner level.

This article sums up very nicely the strengths and weaknesses of apps, and the experience I’ve had with so many of them. It comes to the same conclusion. A language app:

… can be a useful supplement when you are learning a language – but not a substitute. It can help you learn some words, and some basic constructions, but it isn’t going to allow you to leap into a conversation in a new language. It’s better than nothing, but there are plenty of more effective options out there.

Real language learning has to be interactive. Not interactive in the touch-the-screen-and-something-will-happen way, but interactive in that you need to interact with a person. Ideally an instructor who knows how to interact with you as a learner – how to ask you questions using the vocabulary and grammar that you know so you can practice using it actively, how to introduce new vocabulary and grammar in a way that you’re able to understand and process, how to make sure you’re speaking, even if it’s just repeating things, and how to gently correct you when you need it.

Apps can fit into this type of learning, but as a supplement rather than a replacement. When they’re used with live instruction, they can make the live instruction better, because they can motivate you to stay in contact with your language in between lessons. That’s a huge thing. If you’re paying good money for lessons but doing next to nothing in between sessions with your instructor, you’re just not going to retain much, and you’re not going to get the results you could.

So apps definitely have a role to play. Not a leading role, but still an important one.

Photo by Neil Soni on Unsplash

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