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Why All Language Learning Apps Suck

All language learning apps suck.

Well not all of them, but the vast majority are simply not good. Although there are a few apps that I like to use and consider useful and fun, yet there is still a huge shortage of high-quality apps that provide a comprehensive solution to the whole process of language learning, and not just to a small aspect of it.

It always seems to me that everyone in the language learning community is desperately on the lookout for an app or a platform that will provide all the necessary resources and tools for one to acquire a new language effectively and enjoyably. A system that will transform language learning into fun and easy, an ideal app. And indeed, it seems that this product should have existed already. But no. The enormous gap between what we know today about language learning and the learning process in general and the way we implement that knowledge is yet standing still.

Three Types of Bad Apps

The Classic One:

Here I am talking about famous apps like Babbel, Duolingo, and their relatives. Normally this is the first learning resource that will pop up to our heads when someone declaring that they are currently learning a new language. There is just one problem with all those apps. They do not work. The way that these apps are built does not enable learners to reach a good conversation level in a language. Thus, what is happening most of the time is that people start learning with those apps, fumbling for about a month or two, and then one of the following will occur:

One, the learners understand that the way that they are learning this language is not working and they start to look for alternatives. Two, the learners accept the verdict that learning a new language from scratch is too hard and is only for elite individuals and language wizards. After accepting the verdict, the learning will raise their white flag and turn on the English subtitles. This second scenario that I just described is the reason why sometimes those "classics apps" can do more harm than good.

The Specific One:

The other type of apps is the one that targets a specific part of the whole language interaction. Some familiar examples are Anki and the mimic method. Anki, for those who are not familiar with it, is a flashcard spaced repetition based app, which means that you just load a bunch of things that you want to memorize and the system's algorithm will optimize the timing in which each flashcard is presented to you.

Mimic Method is an app and platform for learning languages through mimicking, pronunciation practice, and just constantly getting our ears and brains used to the sounds of the language.

For me there is no doubt that these types of apps can be very useful, but unfortunately they always carry with them two major problems:

First, "The Specific Apps" are not good enough because they only focus on a very specific part of what meaningful communication in a foreign language requires. They will just never be able to provide a comprehensive language process since they are isolated from the way we use and interact with language in the real world.

Second, "The Specific Apps" are usually extremely boring. And this is a much worse problem. The reason I do not like apps like Anki is that they have changed the language learning process into a systematic one that manages to take away any possible fun and laughter that one can find while learning a language. This is also the reason why every time I tried to use an app like this, I found myself very quickly losing my motivation for learning that language using that particular method.

For Advanced Learners Only:

The last type of "apps that suck" is some good apps. Some of them can be great. The problem with this type of apps is that they are not suitable for beginners or it will require beginners (beginners speakers, not learners) to invest a large amount of money to efficiently use the app. Under this category, you can find learning exchange apps like Hello Talk and Speaky as well as Italki, the awesome private lessons platform.

Half Time Recap:

Hoping you are still reading, I guess you already figured out that current language learning apps are not good enough. So, how do people manage to learn a foreign language these days?

What most learners end up doing is mainly jumping from one learning resource to another, learning a little bit through music, movies, using one app, and then the other, until eventually, they manage to break the language barrier and achieve a good conversation level, an intermediate level (B1-B2), that allows them to communicate about a fairly wide range of topics and fields. From around B1 we can start using things like language exchange platforms and private lessons more efficiently. Also, this is the phase where every content in our target language – podcasts, YouTube channels, books, etc., will turn into a high-quality learning resource. Hence, The great challenge in learning a foreign language will always be achieving that intermediate level and start living and thinking in the language.

In contrast to most people, there are a few polyglots that have devoted their lives to language learning. These polyglots have developed specific methods, tailor-made especially for them. Unfortunately, most of these methods are not applicable for most people due to time issues or just the way of learning (such as Benny Lewis who can learn to speak a language fluently in just 3 months while living in his target country and speaking only in his target language).

To conclude, we are missing an app, a website, a platform, that will succeed to provide a full learning process, all the way from complete beginner level and up until intermediate level, an app that will be fun, useful, and challenging.

The Ideal App:

The ideal app will be an app so good that people who use it will not even realize that they are learning a new language in the process. An app that is like a game, an adventure, challenging, addictive, that puts the user in full exposure and immersion to the language and culture around it. I see an app that surrounds the users with the language, that requires them to talk, understand and interact in the language. An app that creates an active learning process that makes the user ask for more and more...

It may sound far and impossible, but I am sure that soon we will witness a similar version of this imaginary app. If not, I'll guess I'll just have to invent it myself 😊

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