People flocked to language apps during the pandemic – but what can they actually teach you? | Shelley hepworth


In March 2020, as the Covid pandemic was taking hold, the language learning app Duolingo reported double their usual number of registrations. Stuck inside under lockdown orders, people had free time and were looking for ways to occupy it.

It wasn’t long before I joined its 500 million users to try to rediscover the feeling of learning Portuguese during three months spent in Brazil several years ago: this exhilarating thrill of realizing that I had transmitted the meaning that I meant, the strange chemistry of suddenly understanding what people around me were saying. Could an app give me that?

Ninety days, hundreds of new words and lots of lessons, “crowns” and “streaks” later, it didn’t sound like it. Did the app teach me anything?

Entering 2022 with renewed enthusiasm to learn the language, I decided to see what the experts are saying. Ingrid Piller, linguistics expert at Macquarie University, explains that the process of learning a new language can seem mysterious because several elements are happening at the same time.

These can be divided into linguistic and social. On the linguistic side, you have to learn new words, grammatical structures and pronunciation. If you take a language as an intellectual exercise, or know how to order a meal while traveling in Paris, the apps are really useful.

But if you want to converse and make sense of it, then this is where things get tricky. “Language is about interacting with other people, it’s not something we do alone,” says Piller.

“The really big challenge of language learning is actually for our minds to creatively bring all of these together and make decisions. [in the moment]: how do I pronounce that? What kind of words do I choose? And how do I put them together into a grammatically correct sentence, or into bigger chunks that produce conversations? “

An app can help you linguistically, but not socially. And because apps like Duolingo borrow stuff from the game, they’re good enough to teach you those basics. During the lockdown, I spent about 15 minutes a day doing lessons and quizzes, and perfecting my pronunciation of my favorite Portuguese phrase, “a gente” (we) – that’s right it looks good!

But the more you want to learn, the more diverse your language learning needs to be, says Piller. You can take lessons, watch videos, and read Twitter in the other language, while keeping the app as a useful tool aside.

“You get achievement points for logging in every day and unlocking the next level. Some apps do it better than others, but the gamification element is really important in keeping people glued to the screen, ”says Piller. Regular use of the app will give you better results than taking a 20 hour language course over a semester, but nothing for three months. It’s all about consistency.

But the dopamine shot I received from in-app game items was not the same as the thrill I felt booking a table in a restaurant over the phone in Portuguese. There is something vulnerable about learning a language; you have to overcome your fear of appearing stupid. And that’s where the real success lies: taking the risk of connecting and being understood.

An app has none of this social danger – it’s secure, and therefore slightly empty.

“We come to think of all kinds of accomplishments in this metric way,” says Piller. “[Apps] gives us a metric sense of accomplishment, but it is quantity without quality. “

Just as social media apps provide a vehicle for connection, but not the connection itself, the magic of language learning happens in the world, not on the screen. And it’s kind of magic. While in Brazil I met a guy who told me that he and his girlfriend sometimes go on dates where they only chat in English. He said he felt like they were different people discovering each other again.

It’s a heartwarming thought at a time when traveling abroad is so difficult – the idea that our worlds are created by language, and with a new language we can recreate our familiar worlds.


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