Mait Müntel is an Estonian physicist working at CERN who was having difficulty learning the local language, French. He had no time to take lessons, and textbooks were not providing him with the vocabulary he needed.
Like any good scientist, he looked for a mathematical solution to the problem of learning a language. The result was his invention of Lingvist, an app that claims you can learn a new language in 200 hours.
With this app, the user can learn words and phrases in a statistically relevant way. The app also uses an algorithm that tracks progress and learns from each user’s own learning style, and then adapts to it. In an interview with E-Estonia, Muntel says that Lingvist, “was born out of theoretical interest in how long learning a new language should minimally take considering the amount of information that you need to absorb for it.”
There are a lot of apps out there that make it easier to learn English. Also, like Lingvist, many of the apps use the latest research on how adults think and learn a language. Some are also collaborating with universities and research organisations to further explore the mystery of how adults can best learn a language.
Some early findings include:
• insights into when testing should be scheduled so users do not forget what they have learned. Too soon does not help, and too late means relearning.
• how making mistakes actually helps rather than hinders language learning. Researchers have show that having feedback after making a mistake in a language creates stronger memories for the learner, as long as the feedback is non-judgemental.
• for adults, thinking too much about a language can make learning new grammar harder. No one is sure why, but one idea is that the harder a language learner thinks about a language structure, the more the mother-tongue ‘interferes’ in learning.
Research is in its early days on the effectiveness of apps for language learning. The few that have been published do show that there is a discernable improvement in language competence between people using language apps compared to traditional methods.
Of course, for some of these studies, the findings can be taken with a grain of salt. There are too few studies to infer any real benefits. Most of the studies agree that those who were highly motivated to learn a language (i.e. for work reasons) did the best. Others who started a language out of curiosity or because they were about to take a vacation did less well. Motivation, as always, is the key.
From a subjective point of view, the apps provide a fun, relaxing and engaging means to efficiently improve language skills. The best results are coupled with a good teacher, real life interaction with a language, and motivation. As Roumen Vesselinov says, one of the academic researchers who conducted a study of the effectiveness of the apps, “What seems to matter most is not how much you do, but how regularly.”
Here is a list of 12 popular apps to help you learn English:
1. Lingvist uses technology and computational science to significantly decrease learning time and help users learn effectively. Its unique approach involves teaching words in their order of relevance, i.e. based on how often they’re actually used in a given language.
2. Fleex is a free program that allows users to learn English watching movies and TV shows they love. Fleex Player alternates subtitles between languages based on the user’s level. The easy subtitles are showed up in English, while the trickier ones are displayed in one’s native language.
3. Similarly, Duolir is good for reading practice. It provides stories in many languages with translations.
4. CNA Speaking Exchange works because students want to practice English, and elderly people need someone to talk to. CNA creates a way for them to meet each other and practice a language.
5. Coffeestrap allows users to meet new people and chat with them, with searches based on the language they want to practice.
6. Lang-8 allows users to post in the language they are learning. That post is then corrected by native users of that language.
7. BUSUU is a social network for learning languages, which enables users to access audio-visual language courses and practice with native speakers.
8. HiNative is a global Q&A platform where anyone can ask native speakers language and culture questions.
9. Duolingo approaches language learning as a game, with lots of extras to keep learners motivated and engaged.
10. Memrise provides online tests, and retests learners before they forget the new vocabulary.
11. Voxy offers lessons that adapt to specific needs. Native speaking tutors are available for one-on-one tutoring.
12. Rosetta Stone is a free language course, but upgrades can be bought to provide real-time tutoring sessions.
Live and Learn, New Scientist, 31 October 2015.