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Fluency: Is There an App for That?

The digital age has made it much easier to learn a language, even at the most basic of levels. Even a beginner who has no opportunity to travel abroad can access resources to learning a language, provided they have an internet connection. Some are free, others cost a little bit of money, and some are quite expensive. How easy is it to learn a language with apps?

My first piece of advice is that an app by itself is no substitute for formal education, or education from a native speaker even if it’s not a formal setting.

Apps are all well and good in the sense of supplemental resources, but very few can really promise you fluency on their own.

You should always be wary of anything or anyone that says that makes grand promises of fluency, because that’s usually the way to hook someone. With free apps you can be a bit more lenient and try it out to see how it is and if you like it.

If an app is charging you money to buy it, always do your homework first and see what the app offers and if others find it any good. You should be wary of grand promises that come with a price tag, because that could easily be a scam.

That isn’t to say that free apps are necessarily better. Google Translate is a free resource, but it’s quite famous for giving translations that are too literal or not adequate in some way.

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One of the better apps on the free market is Duolingo, which works to give you lessons by stringing words into sentences rather than simple vocabulary lists. The major downfall – as explained in an earlier review article – is that Duolingo doesn’t exactly teach you the grammar, but shows it to you in action. By taking an intuitive approach, Duolingo can help you see language being formed but doesn’t teach you the rules behind it.

Rosetta Stone has the distinction of being one of the more well-known programs that teaches language in a way similar to Duolingo. Rosetta Stone offers different apps or programs that can be done on the computer, instructing you how to recognize words and tenses and conjugate verbs. Its major downfalls are that it’s notoriously expensive, and like Duolingo, doesn’t instruct you on grammar rules.

With Duolingo and Rosetta Stone, these programs work best if you have some prior knowledge of the language or are using it in addition to formal education or some kind of grammar guide. They show you how the language looks but now why it works that way, and though there are ways to ask questions, you don’t always have the tools to know what to ask or how to recognize concepts.

Other apps are more provisional or what I would consider small-time. These are the apps that are like a database of basic words and phrases. Dictionaries like WordReference have apps that allow you to look things up or check with the forums, and the app known as Tourist Language Learn & Speak is a free app that allows you to look up common phrases for situations like ordering food or staying at a hotel. These are useful for the sake of building vocabulary and seeing what’s commonly said in polite terms. And Memrise, which consists of user-created content, is helpful for finding various vocabulary lists with flashcards; Memrise doesn’t only have Spanish flashcards, but many languages or to serve as a site for people to make their own flashcards and practice online. The key problem with Memrise is that everything is user-created and not overseen by anyone, so the information can be good or bad depending on the quality of the list and the knowledge of the user.

The true drawbacks of this are that they aren’t intended to teach you the language, but aid you in building your lexicon. They are very helpful especially for someone who knows the language and isn’t sure how things are phrased, or for tourists who need a cursory understanding of a few words and sentences to get their point across. They aren’t as helpful for someone who is devoted to learning the language because at a certain point, they stop giving you information you need to grow. They can quickly end up feeling like shallower knowledge.

The real problem with apps is that if you don’t know better, you have no point of reference.

For example, you might see an expression done with ser and an expression done with estar and see that they’re both translated as “to be”. Without formal knowledge, you might not know the difference in practice and make a mistake.

Another common example is that if a casual observer happens upon an irregular verb, they might not know how to conjugate it… or if they’re seeing a conjugation of an irregular verb, they might not be able to identify the verb.

Other key disadvantages are that many dictionary-like apps don’t have the ability to let you hear the pronunciation of the words. And the vast majority of apps, especially among the free ones, don’t have a conversational function.

Most of the time, apps are good for self-study but they lack physical interaction with another person by themselves, and many have their own individual drawbacks and limitations.

This is all assuming that the information they provide is accurate, because not all of it is, or some of it requires a proper context. Misinformation or not enough information can be destructive and lead to embarrassment further down the line.

As I said, apps function best as supplemental information to be used along with grammatical study and physical practice. It’s always best to have a teacher or qualified tutor to help and guide you, though, as you shouldn’t believe everything you read.

Apps are great for some situations, but not all. And for your own good, you should absolutely take them with a grain of salt.

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