Can you really learn a language from an app? This is what experts found out

Not so long ago if you wanted to learn a new language you would have had to enroll in a formal class or teach yourself using only books and dictionaries. Learning and accessing information is infinitely easier these days thanks to the proliferation of smartphones and portable devices. Of course, whether most of us actually take advantage of all those opportunities is another topic entirely.

Nonetheless, it’s never been easier or more convenient to learn a new language, or maybe just a few phrases for an upcoming trip. There are seemingly endless language learning apps just waiting to be downloaded to your phone or tablet, both of the free and subscription-based variety, but are these apps truly effective?

Researchers from Michigan State University set out to answer that question by studying the educational benefits of Babbel, a popular subscription-based language learning app. 

“Despite the fact that millions globally are already using language learning apps, there is a lack of published research on their impact on speaking skills,” comments Shawn Loewen, a professor in the Department of Linguistics and Germanic, Slavic, Asian and African Languages at Michigan State University, in a university release. “There are virtually no other studies that have investigated mobile language learning apps in a quasi-experimental way. Therefore, this robust and methodologically rigorous study makes an important contribution to the field.”

In all, 85 undergraduate students at MSU were asked to study Spanish using Babbel for 12 weeks. Before getting started each participant took a “pre-test” gauging their pre-existing vocabulary, grammar, and speaking skills in Spanish. By the end of week 12, only 54 students had stuck with the program. That group was then given the same test again to see how much they had improved.

Indeed, nearly all of the participants who finished all 12 weeks of the Spanish course showed significant improvements in their understanding of the language and ability to use it conversationally.

“On the whole, learners in this study increased their oral proficiency, as measured by an improvement on a well-established and valid speaking test, the Oral Proficiency Interview,” Loewen explains. “These results establish that using Babbel can facilitate the development of oral communication skills and not just grammar and vocabulary acquisition, as a previous study had demonstrated.”

Over half of the study’s participants (59%) improved their Spanish speaking skills by at least one sublevel according to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages proficiency scale. 

Just like any other endeavor, though, participants got what they put into the task. The more time a student reported spending on the app, the more their Spanish skill improved. For instance, 69% of participants who studied for at least six hours improved by at least one sublevel and 75% of students who studied for at least 15 hours did the same. 

So, the jury is in. Language apps are effective and definitely make learning more convenient, but at the end of the day, one still has to put in the work to reap the lingual rewards.

The full study can be found here, published in Foreign Language Annals.