Building Tomorrow explores how tech and innovation are transforming culture while creating a freer and more peaceful world.

May 17, 2019

Parlez-Vous Français? There’s an App for That

Learning a foreign language used to be long, expensive process requiring teachers. Today, there are apps that make language learning easier and cheaper.

Technology changes the way we communicate, functionally shrinking the world through interconnection. Social media apps allow users to communicate immediately and privately with people from around the globe. But the ongoing communication revolution is not merely a matter of new platforms. It is also a function of what languages people are choosing to learn. While English remains the dominant language for business and exchange around the world, there is a growing demand for language learning apps that teach a wide variety of foreign languages.

While language learning books and programs promise to make you fluent in your target language, apps such as Duolingo and Memrise help users learn new languages more quickly and with a greater degree of fluency. Furthermore, they lower the barrier to entry for language instruction; instead of paying over $100 for Rosetta Stone or even more for language learning classes, you can now learn languages from your phone for free. 

Language learning apps are certainly disrupting traditional models of foreign language instruction, but that does not necessarily mean that they are as effective. Are humans capable of learning fluency in a foreign language from an app on their smartphone? As a polyglot and a frequent user of language learning apps, I will discuss the positive and negative aspects of those apps and address how effective they are in helping you learn your target language. 

I stumbled upon language learning apps as a college student. I downloaded the language learning app Duolingo on my iPhone after hearing about it from a friend as I was frantically trying to brush up on my high school French before starting my first college French class.

Like many students taking foreign language classes at school, it felt like a chore; I was used to doing workbook homework assignments and memorizing vocabulary words for exams (and then promptly forgetting them following the test). I found language learning tedious and a waste of time. I was not a gifted language learner and I begrudgingly took beginner French in college since I did not test out of the requirement.

Despite my frustrations with having to take an extra college elective, I began my first French lesson on Duolingo. As I went through the lesson, I was intrigued by the way the language was taught as a game, which made language learning entertaining. It was highly motivational; I could see my studying streak and identify how fluent I had become through the exams. I enjoyed saw how the lessons gradually progressed in difficulty, showing just how much my language skills had improved. 

Feeling more motivated, I then went onto the next lesson, feeling much more confident in my French language skills than ever before. I especially enjoyed that the app was so accessible and easily transportable. Instead of having to lug around heavy French textbooks, I could pull up the app whenever I fancied on my iPhone and within minutes build a more solid understanding of French. The app was motivating, to say the least. For once, learning foreign languages did not feel like a chore and within a few months I completed the entire program feeling prepared for my university course.

Little did I know, Duolingo was even more effective then I first fathomed. Following my use of Duolingo, I earned high grades in my beginner-level French class, far surpassing my expectations. I was amazed that an app had been much more effective in teaching me a foreign language than any language class I had previously taken. I tested out of all the other beginner levels and went straight into an intermediate/advanced level French class. I then spent the rest of college working as a French instructor for beginner-level French students. I’m not sharing this story to brag but to demonstrate that the app made it possible for someone who had never seemed particularly skilled at learning foreign languages to develop that skill.

This is a personal anecdote, of course, but research backs up my proposition that Duolingo is effective at aiding language acquisition. In a 2012 study, researchers found that 34 hours on Duolingo are equivalent to one university class. While the number of hours might still seem high, it demonstrates that language-learning apps are more effective than traditional methods when taking in other considerations. Many college courses require additional hours studying and doing homework. The U.S. Department of Education states that there should be a minimum of two hours of independent study per week for each university class credit. That would mean that for a three-credit course, there should be six hours of independent study each week.

And many universities, including my alma mater The College of New Jersey, require even more of a time commitment. For example, French classes at my school were four credits and then we had an extra hour of language labs per week usually led by a college student only a few levels ahead of you in their language class. Duolingo helped me to learn more in less time than my college classes could. It combined all the facets of a foreign language class in a single app that I could carry with me wherever I went.

Of course, there are other factors to take into consideration when studying a foreign language. Language acquisition depends on the match between your native language and the foreign language you are trying to learn. For instance, The Foreign Service Institute ranks how many hours—ranked from category 1 to 4—it predicts that it would take a native English speaker to reach a professional working proficiency. French is in Category I, defined as languages more similar to English. Languages in this category take between 24 to 30 weeks or 600 to 750 class hours to reach a proficient level. French is still on the higher end of the first category, with an estimate of 30 weeks to reach proficiency. In comparison, Japanese is classified in Category V as a language which is “exceptionally difficult” for native English speakers. Learners studying languages in this category take approximately 88 weeks or 2200 class hours to reach a proficient level.

You might be skeptical that French and English are similar, considering that English is a Germanic language and French is a Romance language. However, the Norman Conquest in 1066 which gave English many French loan words. There are a few interesting tricks to determine if an English word has French origins. One trick to help decipher if an English word is a French loan word is through the use of the circumflex on the letters â,ê,ô, and û which tend to replace the letter “s” in English. For example, forêt is forest in English and hôtel is hostel or hotel in English. Another example is the declension ép in French is an s in English. Such as éponge which translates to sponge in English or épinards translates to spinach in English.

Linguist Joseph M. Williams’ research also highlights the linguistic similarities between French and English. In a 1975 book, Williams’ research found that English has more vocabulary overlap with French than with German. His research showed that out of 10,000 common corporate words in English, 29% of English vocabulary comes from French. Another 29% comes from Latin, the linguistic root of all Romance languages including both English and French. In comparison, approximately 26% of English’s words are Germanic.

This means it is easier for most English speakers to learn French rather than German even though English and German do share some words. Even without any formal language training, a native English speaker who reads a text in French would probably be able to comprehend it better than the same text in German.

While Duolingo was a great stepping stone for me while learning French, it is possible part of my success hinged on the inherent overlap between French and English. Would Duolingo work as well if I used it to learn a language with relatively little in common with English? I decided to test out the efficiency of the app with Polish, a language I do not have any training or background. (Unless one counts knowing what pierogi means.)

Polish, from the Slavic language family, is one of the more challenging languages for a native English speaker to learn. Polish is a Group III language (along with Russian, Armenian, Hebrew, and Farsi) with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English.

Two years ago, I began studying Polish solely on Duolingo. After one year I tested into advanced beginner status; a year later I had tested into advanced intermediate. Today, as I pass the two-year mark, I can easily communicate with native Polish speakers about a variety of topics and can readily comprehend Polish texts.

The language was purely self-taught. Without a language app, I would likely have never been exposed to Polish nor any other high dissimilarity languages. The app gave me a strong interest in Slavic languages and I now have some basic comprehension skills with languages similar to Polish like Czech and Russian.

Duolingo constantly expands the variety of languages it offers, languages that people like me would never have been exposed to otherwise. For English speakers, Duolingo currently has 32 language programs available. The languages extend from favorites such as Spanish, French, and Italian to the more obscure such as Hebrew, Navajo, Hawaiian, and Hungarian. They even have two fictional languages, Klingon and High Valeriyan.

Duolingo is not the only language learning app. A similar app, Memrise, which was released in 2010, offers 16 official language courses available for free on their app. However, users can also make their own online language courses, with an archive that now totals over a thousand language courses.

One interesting feature of Memrise is that it uses videos of native speakers speaking certain words to improve your listening comprehension. The courses also include a wide variety of colloquial words to learn that can help you sound more like a native speaker in your target language.

Like Duolingo, Memrise is trying to expand into a wider variety of languages, including Mongolian and Icelandic, for which demand among native English speakers is likely small. (After all, how often would someone living in Tulsa, Oklahoma need to speak Icelandic?) However, it does show that there is a wide market for language learning apps. These language learning apps are a great way to increase your curiosity about other countries, cultures, and places, even if it is not strictly necessary to know the language of the country you are interested in.

While it is possible that you can become proficient in a language from a language-learning app, I do not think you can become fluent. To become truly fluent, one needs to be immersed among native speakers of that language. Naturally, becoming exposed to a language while living in a country with predominantly English speakers can be tricky. Also, when going abroad, many people in other countries jump at the chance to speak English with native English speakers, decreasing the number of opportunities to hone one’s own foreign language skills.

However, there are language learning apps trying to replicate that immersion as nearly as possible. One great app for language immersion is Tandem. Users can choose their native language and the language that you are seeking to learn. The app then matches you with speakers in your target language. You can use translations, chat, use voice messages, call, and even video chat through the app.

Tandem monumentally increased my foreign language proficiency. Instantly speaking with native speakers in their own language forces you to do more than just remember the words, like with Duolingo, but makes you use those words in everyday speech. In addition, having the chance to speak with native speakers will also expose you to how the language is spoken in day to day and colloquial settings, so you sound more like a native speaker than someone who learned the language through a textbook.

While learning grammar and vocabulary from Duolingo and Memrise were beneficial, the added language immersion from Tandem helped me achieve a much higher level of proficiency. Thanks to the apps, I can now speak four languages proficiently and another two at an upper beginner level. They truly opened my eyes to how fun and achievable language learning can be.

After all, I still find it baffling how I can open my Memrise app and my Latvian lessons are accessible at the tip of my fingers. Without the app I would never have the thought of studying such a language!

What I find most remarkable is that I can speak the languages that I learned solely through language learning apps better than those languages I learned at my university. While there are many factors to consider—such as time spent, native language compatibility, personal interest, and starting level—my own experience suggests that language learning apps have the potential for profoundly shaping foreign language instruction and acquisition.

I hope that language learning apps will encourage universities to revamp their foreign language learning programs. It would be great if cash-strapped students could avoid shelling out thousands of dollars for their beginner level university French classes when they can simply learn the languages from an app on their phone. That money could instead be applied toward advanced study abroad with native speakers.

Understanding different foreign languages, through language learning apps, can enhance your experiences in other countries both in good and bad ways. That knowledge can help you better appreciate the beauty of a foreign culture, but it can also give you a more heightened awareness of problems in other countries. Speaking the language weaves you into a society to a greater extent than is possible for a non-speaker.

My own recent trip to Poland showed me how understanding Polish made a big difference to my experience. I was traveling with a Jewish tour group, but I did not just learn about the history of Polish anti-Semitism (eg, the Holocaust) in the abstract; we also experienced visceral modern-day anti-Semitism, such as when I had fights with Polish merchants in Krakow over selling swastikas and anti-Semitic good luck charms, or when I was shooed away when I explained that I was Jewish. Knowing Polish made it impossible to miss the lingering ethnic hatred around me.

Despite my anger and frustration from that trip, I am thankful that my self-study of the language enhanced my experience. Understanding foreign languages is truly a vital tool to help us communicate and acquire cultural awareness. I am thankful for language learning apps because they have given me unique eye-opening experiences of other countries. I hope that more Americans in the future will have the agency to study foreign languages to gain a greater understanding of the world.