The language-learning apps helping adults master new tongues

by Sally Blundell / 20 September, 2016
Millions of users now use these tools. But is there any evidence they work?

In 2014, City University of New York tested the game-based app Duolingo, which has gathered more than 105 million registered users since it launched in 2011, and revealed that, on average, Duolingo users took 34 hours to cover the material needed to pass one semester of a language test commonly used in the US for university placements. Researcher Roumen Vesselinov told New Scientist in 2015 that the secret of optimal learning is to keep testing your know­ledge. “What seems to matter most is not how much you do, but how regularly.”

One free app, Lingvist, promises to get people speaking languages such as French in 200 hours or fewer. Physicist Mait Muntel, one of the team who developed the program, was working at Cern in Switzerland when he realised he needed to interact more with his French colleagues. Using algorithms, he devised a system that starts simply but gets more challenging and adjusts in real time to make the user practise more frequently the things at which they’re worst. After a couple of months of learning this way, Muntel passed the national examination of French usually taken after learning the language for 10 years in school.

A number of apps are based on regular testing. Memrise shows users a word flash-card style, then immediately tests you on it. Based on research from Carnegie Mellon University, which shows the best method is to be tested soon after first learning a word and then at carefully timed intervals, the app then sends notifications to remind you when to practise.

New Scientist reports that language learners shouldn’t fear making errors – “in fact, it’s probably better for memory”. And memory learning, as opposed to immersive learning, can be very effective in learning languages. Unlike children, adults don’t have to build linguistic understanding from scratch.

Read more: How learning new languages boosts your brain & keeps it young

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