Stuck inside? Si? Language apps are a productive distraction, but just how effective are they? (Image source: Jordan White)
By Jordan White | @JordanBWhite1
Language learning platforms are surging in popularity amid the COVID-19 pandemic as people isolating seek to upskill and stay sane.
Apps and sites like Duolingo and Babbel have seen rapid increases in users as thousands of people stuck in isolation expand their language skills.
Forbes reported that Preply—an online language tutoring platform with over 10,000 tutors—announced a threefold increase in customers from Italy, Spain, and Germany.
These countries were among the first to be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, entering partial or full lockdowns as early as March. While some of the restrictions have been gradually lowered in each country, learning apps remain on the rise.
In the United States, prominent language learning app and platform Babbel made subscriptions free for all US students.
The offer includes full access to the Babbel platform, which teaches 14 languages including Spanish, French, Indonesian, English, and more.
“The move comes after the successful provision of free Babbel to people … in Italy, and is designed to help students use their time at home productively and maintain cognitive ability,” Babbel announced in a press release.
Back home in Australia, it seems thousands are downloading language apps to expand their vocabularies. But just how effective are these apps compared to formal education?
UniSA program director of languages Dr Enza Tudini said there are many benefits to learning a second language, but formal qualifications trump learning apps and sites.
“We need more research on the value of such apps for language learning. The best foundation for learning a new language is formal education, with as much real-time interaction with expert speakers and lecturers as possible. This is because language learning is social,” Dr Tudini said.
“If you don’t get put off by the persistent reminders, these apps are one suitable way to reinforce target language vocabulary and pronunciation.
“In many of our Italian and Japanese courses we’ve preferred to incorporate online chat so that students can develop a language learning partnership with age peers in Italy and Japan.
“After all, language is social. This reciprocal learning opportunity simply formalises what young people are doing with apps like HelloTalk … and WhatsApp. More confident language learners also love to use Skype and Zoom … to talk to their friends multilingually,” she said.
Dr Tudini says that all students should learn a second language. She says there are several benefits including engaging directly with target cultures, having fun, and increasing employability.
“When you become a confident user of one or more languages, your job horizons expand and you can dream of working in countries where those languages are spoken … in whatever profession you choose,” she said.
“We have numerous students of Law and Commerce who are planning careers for local [and] international clients given the global nature of work in these areas.
“Learning a language changes your mindset, the way you think and behave towards people of cultures other than your own … It also helps you to understand yourself and your own culture better”
Dr Tudini said that there are also cognitive benefits from learning a second language.
“If you learn one language well, it becomes easier to learn additional languages,” she said.
“It was easy for me to learn Italian and French together as these are what we call ‘cognate’ languages, which were derived from the same language — Latin.
“Young children derive huge benefits from language learning, including cognitive benefits and metalinguistic awareness.
“Research has found that language learning strengthens language and reasoning skills [and] creativity.”
Dr Tudini said people learning languages as a hobby is a great idea, but they should seek a qualification to become confident users of the language.
“When you travel to the countries where your target language is spoken, it’s wonderful when you don’t feel like an outsider because you know their language,” she said.
University of Adelaide student Erin Moore studies Spanish as a prerequisite for her Bachelor of International Relations and Bachelor of Media degrees.
She says learning a second language has been enjoyable and advantageous so far, and that Duolingo has helped her become a more conversational speaker.
“I used Duolingo and if I find myself with extra time, I’ll get into it occasionally. It didn’t help me so much in terms of my university studies, but I find it’s a lot better for conversational skills and more natural language,” she said.
“I think I definitely could learn a language without university as I’m part of Facebook groups where most people are self-taught.
“The biggest challenge when learning outside of a school setting is that it can be hard to motivate yourself … it’s important to have someone more fluent than yourself to ask questions and practice with.
“Knowing more than one language is a great advantage in life mainly for job opportunities … you can connect with people across the world and break down barriers.”
Ms Moore said there has been some evidence that indicates multilinguals enjoy benefits including arguably better cognitive function than monolinguals, and the potential delay of diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Ms Moore said more people, especially university students, should consider learning a second language.
“In this era of globalisation I think it’s incredibly important to speak another language. Although I think it should only be a requirement for two to three semesters, students can learn the basics to take away if they don’t continue with it.”