Why Language Learning Apps Suck

By OptiLingo • 7 minute read

…And Why You Should Use Them Anyway

About ten years ago, I decided it was time to learn my ethnic language, Circassian. Then I started to study Russian using various resources. My language learning journey taught me more than just Circassian or Russian: I also discovered an effective technique that language learning apps don’t use.

I’m a guy who dedicated a decade of his life to learning a semi-documented language with few resources, almost no television, radio or newspaper media, all while living in a country with only a handful of native speakers of the language in question.

But I struggle to find the time. I have my full-time work schedule, I’m the father of three children, with a fourth on the way, and I’m always trying to find quality time with my wife, kids, family, and friends. Language learning takes a lot of time and effort. So as a busy guy and a father, I’ve been looking for the best, most efficient way to learn a language. And I found it in the gaps left by language learning apps.


The Truth: Language Learning Apps Suck

Language learning apps are extremely useful tools, but not for the reasons you think. In fact, these apps suck at teaching you a language. They don’t help you to speak, read or write a new language. But you should use them anyway.

I took it upon myself to learn Russian before going on a trip to visit relatives in Abkhazia. I gave myself about six weeks to do it. I’m not a talented polyglot, and I didn’t force myself to study all day every day for those six weeks. When I started out, I had these tools at my disposal:

  • Pimsleur
  • Duolingo
  • Memrise
  • My own materials from my Circassian studies

Using these three language learning apps has taught me a lot. Not Russian though. They taught me their true value: reinforcing already existing knowledge. That’s why they’re extremely useful tools. My personal journey with these apps may shed some light on this.


Making the Best of Language Learning Apps

Pimsleur

I liked how Pimsleur was portable, and it forced me to speak, but it was a bit dull and slow. I also found the dialogues and words a bit dated. “Are you traveling with your wife and children, Mr. Pronin? Mrs. Pronin, I need to speak to your husband about work.” As convenient as Pimsleur was, it proved to be inefficient and difficult to stick with.

Memrise

I figured adding a lot of vocabulary would boost my speaking skills. After a hundred words or so, I had a hard time making sense of what I was learning. While I think it’s a very well-thought-out app, the vocabulary without context made the material difficult to understand.

Take, for example, the Russian words: пить and выпивать. They both mean “to drink”, but пить means to drink something that’s not defined, while выпивать means to drink something specific. That’s a difficult distinction to make without some explanation or dialogue or sentence to put it into context.

Now, granted, this is somewhat unique to Russian, since there are two versions of almost every Russian verb, but think about the English language. Imagine trying to explain the nuance of “however” vs. “but” without context. The lesson I learned was that flashcards (and by extension flashcard apps) are great for reinforcing bits of knowledge, but not very effective at picking up that knowledge in the first place.

Duolingo

Again, it is a very well-designed app, but it has one major problem: it doesn’t really teach you to speak a language. There are many things that Duolingo does well, but it doesn’t force the user to speak aloud on a regular basis the way Pimsleur does. It definitely put the things I was learning into context. And I think it helped me pick up more vocabulary.

But ultimately it helped more with reading than anything else. Thinking ahead to landing in Abkhazia, I thought it was more important to be able to speak to a border guard than reading the brochure. At this point, I’d burned through a week of my six-week deadline, and I wasn’t sure what to do.


Beyond Apps: How I Taught Myself Russian

When I learned Circassian, there wasn’t a lot of material for me to study from. So I made some myself. I collected high-frequency words and phrases. In the course of my decade-long efforts, I identified a list of approximately 900 core phrases and a vocabulary of  1,500 words. To teach other ethnic Circassians with different native languages, I had all of those materials cross-translated into Russian, Turkish, and Arabic.

I dusted off those materials and ran them through a website that adds stress marks to Russian words. This was very helpful since the stress on Russian syllables doesn’t follow any set rules. I also used Anki to download audio files.

My Method of Learning Languages:

  1. One by one, I would read 25 phrases in Russian, out loud, slowly.
  2. I then looked at the English translation and internalized the meaning.
  3. I’d then read each Russian phrase again, out loud, but more quickly.
  4. When I had trouble with pronunciation, I would use back-chaining*.
  5. Next, I would write out each phrase 2 – 3 times, depending on how much room I had.
  6. Each time I wrote out a phrase, I would slowly speak aloud what I wrote.
  7. When I finished writing out the phrase, I’d read it quickly aloud one last time.
  8. I’d look back at the English translation and internalize the meaning again.
  9. I did this for all 25 phrases, then I went back to the top of the list.
  10. With another slip of paper, I’d cover the Russian, look at the English, and try to recall the Russian.
  11. I typically was able to recall 20+ out of 25 phrases without any difficulty.
  12. Each following day, I would review (but not write out) what I learned during the previous three days.

(*Back-chaining is when you pronounce syllables from back to front. Pimsleur makes extensive use of back-chaining, though the method predates Pimsleur.)

I did all of the above every day, for 45 minutes in the morning or the evening. This way spaced repetition was built into the DNA of the content I was learning.

The Result of Using Language Learning Apps:

Well, in five weeks my Russian wasn’t pretty. My accent was lousy, and I made a ton of mistakes. But guess what? I was able to travel through all of Abkhazia on my own, without the aid of a translator and make myself understood. As ugly and miserable as my Russian was, the fact that I was able to navigate myself, understand what others said to me, and make myself understood for a full two weeks, after only about five weeks of study is a pretty positive outcome.


You Should Keep Using Language Learning Apps

By finding more success on my own than I did with the three most popular language-learning apps, the lesson is simple:

Language learning apps won’t help you if you’re trying to acquire a completely new language. But they can be very effective tools to help reinforce what you’ve learned through other methods.

My method is a combination of other effective tools: high-frequency phrases, comprehensible input, and spaced repetition. These language learning theories have been proven to work for everyone. But there’s no language learning app out there that uses the combination of all.

Why I Decided to Bridge the Gap in Language Apps

I created OptiLingo for people who want to learn languages effectively but don’t have enough time. Using my approach, everyone can commit a new language to memory faster. You don’t need to have talents or sacrifice extra time to achieve your goals.

Language learning apps should complement your language studies. They should be used in addition to the classroom, reading books, or immersion. But they should never replace other forms of study. If you want to learn a new language using only language learning apps, your chances of success are very low. OptiLingo is built on the studies of proven methods and already existing language learning apps. This makes it the most reliable option for those who can’t commit a lot of time to language learning.