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Can you really learn a foreign language with an app?


Apps are all the rage with mobile users around the world. Apps dedicated to learning foreign languages are supposed to revolutionize language learning industry. They allow you to practice different grammar points and can be a very rewarding way to enrich your vocabulary quickly and easily. However, their effectiveness is debated, especially in terms of acquiring written or oral expression skills and in terms of the long-term acquisition.

Among the most popular language-learning applications are Duolingo and Busuu. However, most research on these applications considers students who are also enrolled in traditional language courses while using these applications, which creates a bias in the results.

A recent study of over 4,000 Busuu users provided a better understanding of who is using these applications, how they use them, and what they think about this mode of learning. I also wanted to determine to what extent one can learn a language using an app accompanied by traditional courses.

Do apps help?

Busuu offers programs for a dozen different languages and claims to have over 55 million subscribers. It has a « freemium » model, with part of its content available for free, the other part accessible through a paying portal.

Research reveals that more than half of the users are between 18 and 25 years old. More than half consider themselves beginners and their use of the application decreases as their level increases. Most use it for personal interest, to prepare for a trip, to advance for professional needs or to study or live abroad.

Responses regarding the frequency and duration of use of the app showed that most people use it several times a week, for an average of 15 minutes. It appeared that women tend to use them less often, but for longer periods than men. This is an aspect that had already been noted in previous studies.

This tendency to use applications is rather seen as an informal learning activity. Indeed, two thirds of people say they use them whenever they have free time, while the other third plan well planned sessions – which implies more formal learning.


Satisfied participants

An application does not provide feedback on one’s real progress, as it only indicates whether one has given a right or wrong answer. Even if this is useful information, it has nothing to do with the personalized follow-up that teachers and researchers recommend. Students will never really know why they made a mistake and do not have a real conversational situation.


Yet, even though Busuu is content with this superficial follow-up, without reference to any grammar lesson, the correction it provides was particularly well evaluated by the participants. More than 75% of them consider it to be effective or very effective. Users are also very satisfied with the learning environment provided by the app – over 92% of respondents say the app met or exceeded their expectations, and 86% rate it as good or very good. In fact, more than 82% of survey participants agree that using an app helped them improve their knowledge of the language being studied.


The right to make mistakes

The results of this study show that apps provide a service that is appreciated by their users. The fact that the time spent on these applications is perceived as useful shows how quickly these tools have established themselves in this vast learning market.

As language teaching becomes more and more communicative, students are turning to such applications where they can practice and make mistakes safely in a private setting.

This reassuring environment, where mistakes are known only to the user, can be an answer to the performance anxiety that many students feel when asked to speak in a foreign language. From this point of view, teachers should not feel threatened by these applications. On the contrary, they should encourage their students to use them to do repetitive grammar and complementary exercises, which would leave more time for classroom exchanges.

By the way, this is an interesting point in the research, the right to make mistakes in class, the notion of error in class…….. to be followed in a future article.

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