The Truth About Language Learning Apps

Okay, so there’s something that needs to be said about language learning apps, programs, and software…

…I’m talking about stuff like Duolingo, Babbel, Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, Assimil, Teach Yourself, and on and on and on.

Almost without exception, they will provide benefit. And I think some programs do a better job than others.

But if you think an app or program alone is going to get you where you want to be in a language, you will be disappointed.

By Joe Crawford [CC 2.0], Image Source

By Joe Crawford [CC 2.0], Image Source

The Library Questions

Here are three questions to illustrate what I’m talking about.

Imagine you’re learning a language, and you walk into a small town library full of books in your new language.

1. If you took a single book off the shelf and read it, would you now be great at your new language?

Nope. There’s no way that a single book can give you all the language you need.

2. What about if you read every book on the shelves?

Nope. You might develop great reading skills, but chances are you’d still have trouble understanding conversation and speech.

3. What about if you read every book and listened to every audio book and watched every DVD in the library?

You’d be doing great, but truthfully, you’d probably still lack in the speaking and writing department.

Language is too dynamic and multifaceted to be contained in a book, a bookcase, or even an entire library. The people I know who have really learned a language have spent some time in the library, yes, but they’ve also gone out using their language to…

  • Haggle with a taxi driver
  • Read street and shop signs
  • Argue with their significant other
  • Read a newspaper at the coffee shop
  • Watch sports or TV shows with friends
  • Talk to people down at the bar

…and on and on on.

So how could an app possibly give you everything you need to know a language?

Are Apps Worthless?

So does this mean that apps and self-study programs are a waste of time?

Absolutely not! They still serve a purpose. I like them and use them.

But you have to acknowledge their limitations.

First, the comprehensive systems like Rosetta Stone, Babbel, Duolingo, and Pimsleur will only get you up to a certain proficiency level. I’ve heard estimates of B2 (advanced intermediate), but I think that’s very optimistic. I think A2 (advanced beginner) is possible with using apps, but at that level you’re still a long way off from being able to do very much with the language.

Second, apps have their areas of focus. I love ReadLang since it builds up my reading and vocab so rapidly, but using it alone doesn’t do a lot for my speaking. Pimsleur is great for speaking and listening, but doesn’t delve into reading and writing as much.

Third, no current app or program can replicate the holistic demands of authentic communication situations. Rosetta Stone can drill the words “lettuce,” “tomato,” and “onion” in your head until you’re blue in the face. But does that mean you’re ready to order a sandwich at a take out shop, while the guy behind the counter is looking impatient and a line of people behind you are tapping their feet?

What to Do

After you’ve graduated from an app (or even while you’re still using one) you need to use other strategies:

  • Read and listen to authentic materials, such as books, websites, comic books, movies, and TV shows.
  • Have conversations.
  • Use textbooks and books with language drills in them.
  • Try different techniques for building vocab.
  • Write emails, journal entries, or even Tweets in your new language.
  • Experiment with transcription or gisting drills.

If you need more specifics for coming up with your own routine, you can try the strategies in my book Language Master Key, which provides a basic template, as well as dozens of different learning activities.

Wrapping Up

Ironically, when you acknowledge the limitations of apps and programs, you can actually appreciate them more.

Just as you wouldn’t expect a hammer to screw in nails, you wouldn’t expect an app to do something it can’t possibly do.

Use the app, get the benefit from it, and then keep pushing forward with other strategies.

  • Red/

    For the moment I added streaming tv.

    Here you can select the country and category of tv channels.
    If you click on the label ‘tv online’ and then on the label ‘list’ you can list faster the same list of channels.

  • Roman Shinkarenko

    Paraphrasing Eleanor Roosevelt, “No one can learn you a language without your consent”.


  • Natalie

    Definitely true. No one thing can make you fluent in a language. Not an app, not a class, not a certain book.

  • Jorge Sivit

    ¡Totalmente de acuerdo! I use less apps than books and other authentic materials, but see positive things in apps too: When you are really into an addictive enough app, you can make big progress (even if it’s just in one area of focus) in a short period of time. And some apps allow you to use small chunks of time between other activities, that you wouldn’t use otherwise.

    • Ron G.

      Bingo! That’s exactly right.

    • Nina

      For some reason, I started a while ago to only use Duolingo, but I already knew that it is not enough. So I began to use Memrise with adding words and phrases translated to my mother tongue (Serbian) because I wanted to remember some words with it, instead of translating them to English. I began also to watch a soap opera with “easy French” to make my learning more efficient and to add variety to it. I will certainly add something else to it or change my approach completely when I see the opportunity. What do you think about it?

      • Ron G.

        I know the question was directed at Jorge, but I’ll add my two cents and say I think you’re doing exactly the right thing. I *know* you’re going to make progress on a routine like that because it mixes several different strategies. You could add some light reading or conversation practice, or wait. Just make some minor adjustments as you go along.

      • Jorge Sivit

        Hi Nina! I agree with Ron: you are doing the right thing! I think that soap opera complements well what you are doing with Duolingo and Memrise. I would add some production practice, preferably speaking. You could look for a conversation partner. Salutations!

  • Jorge Sivit

    Ron, after reading your post, I visited another blog I follow and found a good post about the same topic. I hope you don’t mind if I leave a link to that post here. I’ve made the same over there.

    • Ron G.

      I love LATG, so feel free to link there anytime. In fact, that ad on the article you linked for the German Facebook page is mine. :)

      • Jorge Sivit

        That’s funny! I didn’t know.

  • Christine

    I think you need different types of material and as you said one app only wouldn’t be enough. So, read a bit, talk a bit, write a bit, listen to the language a bit, practise a lot, use your target language as much as possible in as many different situations as possible. It should be like “taking a bath in the language” – the language should become part of your daily life. If you don’t make the difference between “learning” and “living” anymore – then you will have success in learning!
    I’ve a blog (in German language, it’s for everybody who wants to learn a language, not only German) on that topic, you can find many useful pieces of information and advice there…
    Kind regards

    • Ron G.

      I like that–lose the distinction between “learning” and “living.” I definitely agree that language learning has to be a lifestyle.

      I like your blog too, Christine. Looking forward to reading more of it.

      • Christine

        Thanks Ron. I like your blog, too :-)

      • Christine

        Thanks Ron – I’m also keen on reading more from you!