Are Language Learning Apps Really Effective?
An interview with Susanna Mineve from Wordculture about language apps compared to traditional learning methods.
Language Apps are flourishing and many young children and adults turn to them on a regular basis while learning a new language or need translating. However, can we only rely on language apps to learn a new language? And how does the traditional or hybrid classroom help to deepen our language skills?
We met with Susanna Mineve, co-founder of Wordculture in order to get an expert opinion about the pros and cons of language learning apps compared to traditional and hybrid classrooms.
Susanna has a degree in foreign Literatures and Languages including English, German, Spanish and French while she also holds a PhD from the University of Milan in English studies. She studied and worked in the UK, Italy, France, Spain, Germany and Switzerland and speaks English, German, French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese fluently.
She has been teaching children, teenagers, and adults, in schools and at university level for the last 20 years. After she founded Wordculture in 2013, she also became a Telc examiner for German on all levels since 2016. She is living in Switzerland the last twelve years with her husband has a daughter who is 7 years old. We were interested in her expert advice on this important topic about language learning and education so we were happy that she made the time to meet over coffee at Wordculture language school in Zurich for this interview.
Q: Can language learning apps replace traditional teaching?
A: In my opinion, apps can't replace the traditional teaching but they can help in practicing a new language. With an app you can revise vocabulary and grammar at different times during the day. On the tram, while walking, before sleeping etc. It's a good way to support the learning process. For children up to the age of 12 the usage of apps for language learning is limited as children need social interaction and motivation to communicate in order to begin using a new language.
Q: Can someone really learn a language just through apps or a smartphone?
A: That's a good question that many students ask me. The answer is no, it's impossible to properly learn a new language only from the smartphone, both as a child and as an adult. A language is a very complex combination of
- Psychological and
- Social factors
in a continuous process.
An app alone can't provide children or adult students with this kind of complexity.
Q: Can smartphones replace classrooms?
A: No, it is not possible, for the reasons mentioned above. The classroom works like a microcosm, a simulation of the real world where children and adults will continue to practice the foreign language. Within the classroom students have the opportunity to experiment with what they are learning, make mistakes and receive immediate feedback. Only a traditional classroom can offer this experience.
Social communication among children and adults is based on language which is missing in most language applications for smartphones.
Additionally, part of learning a foreign language is immersing into the respective culture and being surrounded by the people of this new culture. This helps the students absorb and integrate the reasoning behind the unique language characteristics.
Q: What's the best way to learn a language?
A: Learning a foreign language is a very individual process for children and adults.
I have been teaching for almost twenty years and have different types of students, some learn best by
- Writing or
- Repeating the same concepts many times
- And sometimes a combination of all of the above.
However, there are some basic rules common to all.
The first one is interest, open-mindedness and determination to learn.
Being aware that (as in sport, for example) perseverance and commitment are necessary to learn something new and continue improving.
Repetition of vocabulary and grammar is also necessary, a lot of conversation and maximum exposure to the language through radio, television, tandem with other students, and some apps.
Q: Why not use them both?
A: Yes certainly, apps can complement the learning process.
Q: What are the main advantages & disadvantages of language learning apps?
A: The main advantage is certainly the cost (they are free in most cases) and the freedom to use them at any time of day.
The disadvantage is at the same time that they do not allow the language to be used in a social context and can therefore become boring and unmotivating over time. Furthermore, they are not helpful to students who do not have much self-discipline and need peer-pressure in order to persevere.
Q: What are the main advantages & disadvantages of traditional teaching?
A: A traditional language course naturally costs more than most apps while it also requires a dedication in time on a weekly basis. However, the advantages are many more than the disadvantages and in the long term it is the most effective method of learning a language.
Interaction with other students and the teacher are crucial and if the experience is positive, it sticks in the memory and in the language skills. The teacher can correct, explain and support the students by recognizing their strengths and weaknesses. In addition, new friends that share the interest to learn a common language, especially after the pandemic, are a fun way to practice while having fun.
Q: Language learning apps vs traditional teaching. Which one is cheaper?
A: Apps are of course cheaper, often free. However, sooner or later if you really want to master a language, you will need to take traditional courses. If you choose a good, long-term course, the expense is worth it.
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