People flocked to language apps during the pandemic – but how much can they actually teach you? | Shelley Hepworth
In March 2020, as the Covid pandemic took hold, the language learning app Duolingo reported double its usual number of sign-ups. Stuck inside under lockdown orders, people had time on their hands and were looking for ways to occupy it.
It wasn’t long before I joined its 500 million users in an attempt to recapture the feeling of learning Portuguese during three months spent in Brazil several years ago: that heady thrill of realising I had conveyed the meaning I meant to, the strange alchemy of suddenly understanding what people around me were saying. Could an app give me that?
Ninety days, hundreds of new words and plenty of lessons, “crowns” and “streaks” later, it didn’t feel like it. Was the app teaching me anything at all?
Entering 2022 with renewed enthusiasm to learn the language, I decided to see what the experts say. Ingrid Piller, a linguistics expert at Macquarie University, says the process of picking up a new language can feel mysterious because there are several elements going on at the same time.
These can be divided into the linguistic and the social. On the linguistic side, you must learn new words, grammatical structures and pronunciation. If you are taking up a language as an intellectual exercise, or so you know how to order a meal on a trip to Paris, apps are really useful.
But if you want to converse and impart meaning, then that’s where things get difficult. “Language is about interacting with other people, it’s not something we do alone,” Piller says.
“The really big challenge of language learning is actually for our minds to bring all these elements together creatively and make decisions [in the moment]: how do I pronounce this? What kind of words do I choose? And how do I put these together in a grammatically correct sentence, or in larger chunks that produce conversations?”
An app can help you with the linguistic, but not the social. And because apps such as Duolingo borrow elements from gaming, they are pretty good at teaching you those building blocks. During lockdown, I spent about 15 minutes a day doing lessons and quizzes, and perfecting my pronunciation of my favourite phrase in Portuguese, “a gente” (we) – it just sounds good!
But the more you want to learn, the more diverse your language learning should be, Piller says. You might take classes, watch videos and read Twitter in the other language, while keeping the app as a useful tool on the side.
“You get achievement points for logging in every day and unlocking the next level. Some apps do this better than others, but the gamification element is really important in keeping people glued to the screen,” Piller says. Using the app regularly will give you better results than doing a 20-hour language course over a semester, but then nothing for three months. It’s all about consistency.
But the dopamine hit I got from the gaming elements in the app wasn’t the same as the thrill I got from 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 sounding stupid. And that’s where true achievement lies – in taking a risk to connect and being understood.
An app has none of that social peril – it’s safe, and therefore slightly empty.
“We come to think about all kinds of achievement in this metricised way,” Piller says. “[Apps] give us a metric sense of achievement, but it’s a quantity without a quality.”
Just as social media apps provide a vehicle for connection, but not connection itself, the magic of language learning happens in the world, not on the screen. And it is a kind of magic. While I was in Brazil, I met a guy who told me he and his girlfriend would sometimes go on dates where they only conversed in English. He said it felt like they were different people discovering each other anew.
It’s a comforting thought at a time when travelling overseas is so difficult – the idea that our worlds are created through language, and with a new language we can recreate our familiar worlds afresh.