What we can learn from DuoLingo

My mother is, like me, a true language lover. She literally wakes up and falls asleep with language games. In the morning she often starts her day with language learning or a crossword and falls asleep while learning more words in all kinds of languages. It fascinates me how she has already installed Drops in 12 languages!
Yet, when I ask her about learning at high school, she often claims that high school actually discouraged her from learning out of interest and took away all the fun of learning a new language. I can relate to that in the sense that the amount of pressure which was put upon the students by focusing on exam grades made it difficult for me to enjoy the process of learning. On the other hand, when I try to keep up my Spanish vocabulary after finishing high school, I find it rather hard to stick to practicing on a regular basis without doing exams.

How can language learning become a habit without becoming too much of a stressful activity? This is where language learning apps such as Drops and Duo Lingo come in. I found it surprising at first that my mother could stick to the habit of learning so many languages. When we booked a trip to Krakow this summer, she installed the Polish Drops so she would be able to communicate a few words during our trip. When she recommended me to install the app two months before our flight, I was at first skeptical; how can you possibly learn a new language within two months by using a free language learning app? Nonetheless I decided to give it a try. And as soon as I started to learn my first words, I actually got quite enthusiastic about it!

So what especially intrigued me about the concept of the language learning app that is so different from the old-school method? I was in particularly fascinated by three aspects which I will explain below:

The element of play

Language learning apps of today cleverly combine learning and fun by adapting elements from video games.  Obtaining badges and bonusses, for example feels as a reward for your effort. Who would not like to be rewarded with a medal for just having learnt 20 words or reached a 10-day streak?  Having small goals to work towards shifts the focus to enjoying the process of learning instead of only looking at an end result.

Also, interactive elements using the different senses create an informal setting which lowers the threshold to start learning.  The variety in actions such as swiping (touch), listening to the pronunciation of words (hearing) and linking words to visual images (sight) make learning feel not merely a repetitive practice but more like playing a game for the fun of it.

Achievements overview in Drops

A positive approach

Language education at high schools is developing in terms of incorporating more interactive ways of learning in class. Whereas my mother had books only, I often had classes in which we played online quizzes and I used to study for a test using online rehearsal applications such as WRTS. What still bothers me from high school, however, is that every time I looked back at my graded test, I saw large red crosses indicating the mistakes I had made.
When I started using Drops, I noticed that not even one mistake was being crossed out or punished! On the contrary: the app shows every session the percentage of words you had correct, and ignores the percentage of mistakes you made. The app carefully tracks your process by giving rewards and bonusses, making you more confident in your ability to learn. More attention is being paid to the process rather than the result.

Accessible learning

What is perhaps the biggest reason for the rising popularity of language apps is the accessibility of the app. All you need is a smartphone and 5 spare minutes a day! Many apps have free collections of words to learn, covering a wide range of topics to choose from. Freedom of choice makes the app interesting for a much larger public.
Paradoxically, including limits also helps to make learning more accessible. As the free version of the app allows you to only spend a few minutes per day, you are more likely to integrate learning the language as a habit.
I recall that whenever a school test was approaching, I only started learning the words the day before. That still resulted in good grades most of the times, since I only needed my short-term memory. Yet, when looking at the bigger picture the final goal of getting acquainted with a language is not to obtain a good grade, but to be able to communicate with more people from different backgrounds.
In that regard, the language learning app seems to achieve its aim in a more effective way than the general Dutch education system.

Returning to my question about how to make language learning effective and fun, it would be easy to say that DuoLingo should replace the regular language class. Involving elements of play, a positive approach as well as an accessible way of learning all contribute to making studying more fun. Still, the app is mostly used at a beginners level only, making it unlikely for apps to take over regular language education.
Regardless whether classes will be replaced by language apps, I do believe that the three discussed elements of play, positivity and accessibility can be useful outside the digital realm as well. For example in encouraging others to achieve goals while keeping up their confidence; whether that means cheering on your friend or training your dog to sit down.
In essence, wouldn’t we all be happier if we are rewarded with a high five instead of a red cross?