Language learning apps – can you master a language with them?

In the morning it wakes you up with nasty and disturbing alarm noises, but you forgive it. You may not even have an hour of sleep after a night spent on social media. This is what we have all experienced.

Admit it: one of the closest relationships in your current life is the one with your cell phone.

So how about if it could also teach you a foreign language?

There is already a wide range of apps to help you learn a language. The offer is tempting – instead of wasting a lot of time playing games, you could use it for a productive activity.

The most popular free apps are duolingo (with about 20,000,000 active users) and memrise, a mnemonic aid. Also popular is the paid app Mosalingua.

All of the apps mentioned above are based on the principle that learning should be fun and reward you when you have memorized vocabulary and understood grammar.



When you're lining up blocks in Tetris or smashing digital candy on Candy Crush Saga, time goes by fast, faster than rearranging numbers on an Excel spreadsheet anyway. Even though Excel sheets and games have one thing in common: you have to do repetitive outputs on a screen…

In games, instant rewards are included. These can be flashes, dots or other types of acknowledgements. Slot machines have been working on this principle for years.

The goal of gamification (or gameification) is to make boring work processes more enjoyable by introducing rewarding elements.

The new generation of language learning apps piques your interest by incorporating elements of video games such as points, lives, leaderboards, levels and fun sounds. This rewards correct answers or a good test score.

You can also use the rewards to take on new challenges or make aesthetic changes. Unlike the typical "freemium" model, however, no real purchase transactions are made in these apps.

Duolingo in action

Duolingo is very easy to use. You choose the language you want to learn, take a placement test or start right away with the exercises.

You learn through a series of tasks such as translating a text from or into the language you want to learn, transcribing orally delivered texts (using a computer-generated voice), identifying all the correct translations of a sentence, and even speaking a sentence on your phone, which is then analyzed (albeit not optimally) by the speech recognition software.


Screenshot of the duolingo website

Exercises are divided into word areas (for example, animals, food) or verbs, adjectives, etc. You're not explicitly told about the logic and concept of the language, but you should be able to pick it up as you answer the questions. For example, you can type in part of the question and then the translation pops up.

An algorithm develops your lessons according to your performance and the content is constantly evolving. Then, when you have access to a learning area, you take a test, thanks to which you can then take on new challenges. The app keeps coming back to what you've already learned, so you always have it at hand, thus solidifying the learning process.

You have to meet a goal every day and are rewarded for completing the exercises, using the app regularly, and showing enthusiasm while learning.

Duolingo can be accessed and used for free, as input from experienced language learners is used to translate content from websites. The founder of Duolingo, Luis von Ahn, was also responsible for the reCAPTCHA tools that are commonly found on websites. They use human input to digitize books.

Memrise in actionapps_3

Many of the stylistic treatments inspired by games are also present on Memrise and many exercises are similar. However, the function of the app is a bit different. As the name suggests, Memrise helps you memorize things.

When you see a word for the first time, you simultaneously receive instructions on how to memorize it. Very often this is related to the native language of the person who has worked out the course. These "mnemonics" are a tried and tested method for learning a language, because they anchor a new word into something you've already memorized – for example, a mental image or a word you already know.

The content is obviously dependent on the person sharing their personal courses. So you can create your own course to cover your specific needs (for example, an exam preparation). The app allows you to download courses generated by users. With 300,000 courses currently available, you are spoiled for choice.

Overall, memrise is a less ambitious app than duolingo. It helps you memorize words, but does not promise to teach you a language.

MosaLingua in action

Fun, efficiency and motivation are at the forefront of the different versions of the MosaLingua apps. In addition to English, French, Italian, Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese, you can also improve your skills in more specialized areas such as Business English or Spanish or Medical English and prepare for the official TOEIC and TOEFL exams. All apps are available in a lite version and in a premium version for a fee.

The apps are based on the innovative MOSALearning (Motivation Optimized System for Adaptive Learning) method. Drawing on the concepts of distributed repetition (SRS), metacognition, learning psychology and active memory. SRS means that it calculates the best time for you to repeat what you have learned and thus store it in your long-term memory. This continuous coaching will enable you to quickly achieve a sense of achievement and progress in the foreign language.

In addition, the inventors of MosaLingua avoid useless concepts or complex grammar rules that can often hinder users' progress, especially in the beginning. Therefore, flashcards with important words and phrases at different levels of difficulty are used and a basic knowledge of grammar is taught. The respective pronunciation is done by native speakers so that you learn it correctly. In addition, you can secure up to 100 bonuses with tips, jokes, curiosities, trivia and proverbs that can be unlocked depending on your learning success.

What's also handy about MosaLingua is that you can expand and personalize your app by adding your own newly learned words and phrases on flashcards to take advantage of the memory system.


What's cool about the apps:

  • They are enjoyable and turn language learning into a game
  • Push notifications prompt you for activity if you leave the app unused for too long. This encourages you to practice every day – which is very important when learning a language
  • Leaderboards encourage you to compete against your friends
  • The app provides an introduction to vocabulary and grammar, which instills confidence

A well-designed language course teaches vocabulary and grammar in an environment that is relevant to you. That is why, for example, language courses for professionals have a completely different program than courses for teenagers. These apps provide words and grammar that are not tied into any context whatsoever.

In addition to the classroom environment, you also miss the practical application of the language, whether in the country where it is spoken or as a lingua franca with other non-native speakers.

Learning a language abroad with complete immersion in its culture results in lessons that are tailored to your needs. Far more important, however, is the fact that you use the language every day as a means of communication and thus master everyday life.

If you've only learned a language with an app you can quickly get into trouble when you want to use your skills in real life. Even with media consumption in the language you are learning, you are not prepared for conversations that require you to listen, think and formulate sentences at the same time.

So typing away on your phone is no substitute for traveling abroad and meeting new friends. And it's also fun to discover the sights, sounds and smells of another country.

Luis von Ahn, the founder of duolingo said on the occasion of an interview with The Guardian newspaper regarding the more technical areas of his programs that the app "can in no way be as adaptable as a language teacher who, looking at a student's facial expression, can immediately see if they are hesitant or uncertain. This human touch is missing and that's why I think we are not as good as I thought we would be. To be honest: it will be a long time before we are as good as a language teacher."

How to make the most of language learning apps

A language app can be useful in the first phase of language learning for absolute beginners, and can really help you learn words at any stage of the learning process.

But can you master a language with it? As good as it gets.

Apps are a nice addition, but not a substitute for the experience of learning a language in its cultural context. They also logically isolate the user because they are all alone tapping away on their cell phone and not using that time to connect with people and use the language for what it was intended for: communicating with other people.