Do Gamified Language Learning Apps Work?

Note: The following guest post comes to us courtesy of Santiago Montero, founder and director of Spanish Tutor DC. Santiago has spent more than fifteen years integrating the fields of education and mass media in Europe and Latin America.

Gamified language learning applications are enjoying millions of downloads, and a certain degree of popular prestige, with Duolingo being named Apple’s app of the year for 2013. These apps use points systems, power ups and other game mechanics to make the memorization of foreign vocabulary and grammar rules more engaging and exciting, but are they able to make students proficient in their target language? Thier effectiveness is the subject of debate, but their enjoyability, as demonstrated by their popularity, is undeniable.

Applying game mechanics to learning is an old educational tool, but a natural fit with smartphone and tablet technology has allowed the idea to flourish. Socialization further drives engagement; earning a higher place on the scoreboard than their Facebook friends is an effective motivator for people with a competitive streak. The more cooperative among us might instead appreciate the fact that after each exercise is a chance to read tips and suggestions from other users. Digital badges and golden tracksuits, in addition to linguistic progress, are the rewards in store for those who persevere with the course, though it should be admitted that a significant chunk of Duolingo’s impressive user base doesn’t last longer than the first two hours of use.

These not so little apps have big dreams. They are already aiming to shake up the current language learning landscape and secure a larger portion of the market for themselves. Duolingo has announced plans for an English language learning certification programme, with French and other languages to follow shortly. Such intentions are sure to make the incumbent industry leaders sit up and take notice, as a cheap, but widely recognized certificate that can be earned from your bedroom would be an attractive prospect for those struggling to pay for classes or transportation. Duolingo claims that proficiency with their app is an excellent predictor of IELTS success. Critics point out that potential issues with cheating need to be addressed before Duolingo certificates are to be taken seriously. In many ways, which colleges and workplaces, if any, decide to accept Duolingo certificates will end up being more important than how accurate the test is itself, at least for potential students and employees.

So far the early skirmishes look promising for the apps. Carnegie Mellon University’s decision to partner with Duolingo gives it some much needed academic clout, and lends some believability to claims that a student can reach the same degree of proficiency by completing a Duolingo course as they can by completing the first semester of a typical language course at college. Dissenters say that gamified language learning apps only teach you vocabulary and grammar rules rather than how to actually speak a language, but then again, these same criticisms can be justifiably leveled at many traditional teaching methods. In either case, the development of these apps should be seen as part of a wider trend that is seeing education become more accessible by going online.

Gamified language learning apps are not without their drawbacks. Listening to a polished prerecorded sentence is not the same as trying to understand what that Nicaraguan taxi driver is trying to say, and it isn’t great practice for the natural back and forth of real conversation either. Formality and regional differences are specifics not best taught by ‘one size fits all’ teaching software. It’s also interesting to note that these apps have become so popular at a time when language learning is on the decline in the mainstream education system. Whether these apps will drive a renewed enthusiasm in language learning, or simply confirm that it is the classroom, not the subject, that is causing unpopularity remains to be seen. It doesn’t look like these apps are helping our current academic year of high school Spanish students, but perhaps we’ll see this change as the app gains deeper permeation into this demographic.

For all the shortcomings of language learning apps, the reality is that they don’t need to be perfect, they just need to be better than their competitors. No, Duolingo won’t teach you how to speak Spanish fluently, but then again, nothing does short of moving country or surrounding yourself with native speakers and teachers of your target language. However, these apps do level the playing field a little for those without access to the very best resources. For now, gamified language learning apps should be best thought of as a useful supplement to traditional face-to-face teaching models, and its creators are quick to acknowledge as much. Although, if these language learning apps continue to grow at the same rate that they have been doing, it might just get the IELTs and TOEFLs of the world glancing over their shoulder.

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