Where Language-Learning Apps Come Into Serious Play

by | Aug 30, 2021 | Culture, Education

So many apps, yet only a few right ways to use them.

Language-learning apps, from Duolingo to Babbel, have taken on a slightly ambiguous role for any individual seeking to learn a language. While in many ways they’ve broken down barriers of time, money, and accessibility for the everyday learner, in other ways they’ve promised fluency or comprehension far beyond what an app can offer. Using a language-learning app can promote everyday practice in small bites of five to fifteen minutes at a time, allowing learners to engage with their target language through everyday practice. Elizabeth Zackheim, owner of ABC Languages, encourages all students to use apps like Duolingo to build on their understanding outside of the classroom.

But it all comes to a point. Rather than using an app as a means to achieve fluency, apps can best be used to build familiarity with vocabulary and grammar. Where you might see on a Babbel commercial a student speaking conversationally through a phone, in reality authentic conversation practice can only come from exactly that — a conversation. Working with a teacher or other students in a classroom setting or a community conversation group can provide the setting needed to become comfortable with speaking a new language. That’s whether you’re trying new words, experimenting with the tenses, and exploring topics outside your understanding. 

Using an app to promote everyday practice

Feeling shy? Apps enable you to practice speaking short phrases for pronunciation accuracy; this can also help with associating the written language with the oral. And in my own experience, I once used the CD found in the back of an AP French textbook to practice speaking using the recorded conversation bits and 20 seconds of silence. Remember those? They helped tremendously with thinking of things to say on the spot while in the context of a conversation.

What our options show us is that achieving fluency can’t take any one avenue. Using a language-learning app can promote everyday practice in ways that are free in both time and money. We can’t cart a tutor around with us on the subway or while in line at the cafe the way we can with a smartphone. Yet apps only go so far when it comes to learning how to have a conversation in a foreign language. Many of the more intangible skills, from speaking to thinking to joking around, are best found in the classroom, in the conversation group, or on the street when in conversation with friends and acquaintances. To explore safe spaces like these in Lower Manhattan, check out tutoring options and conversation groups available at ABC Languages.

Downtown Magazine