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How To Learn Any Language With An App

Apps are all the rage nowadays, and for good reason. They can help you out in just about every area of your life, whether it's keeping fit, organizing your schedule, communicating with friends, or even learning a language. Just like any tool though, you need to know how to use it properly to really benefit. Here's a user guide for optimal app use, provided courtesy of an app-addicted superuser.

Technology is wonderful. Put it in the hands of someone like Elon Musk and it can send people into space, make a future of clean, renewable energy a reality, or build electric cars. Put in your hands it can help you achieve all sorts of things, from learning to code to learning a language.

Educational apps are becoming increasingly popular as a supplement, and sometimes as an alternative, to traditional education. Why? Well, for starters, it’s supremely convenient to learn on a pocket-sized device that you already carry around with you at all times. The best apps are also highly intuitive, interactive and adaptive, coaxing you in and getting you hooked on learning.

But apps, just like textbooks and language lessons, are a medium through which a language can be studied. The way you use them will affect how successful you are. If you flick nonchalantly through a textbook and don’t dare say a word in your language lessons, you’ll make slow progress. The avid reader who repeats each exercise in the textbook and engages the teacher in conversation will power ahead. So how do you ensure you get the most out of your app, and what should you consider before clicking install?

Before that, a very quick intro: I developed the following five points from my experience as both a language teacher and learner, and from working in startups in the field of language. I spent six years teaching in Germany and Spain as well as developing a video learning startup. I first came to language learning late, however. I started learning Spanish at twenty-two, and had reached working proficiency in Spanish and German by about twenty-eight. I’ve been using apps for the last few years, and participated in two grueling and ultimately successful one-week challenges to go from zero to hero in Italian and French. If you’re interested, you can see the French challenge here.

So, just before downloading an app, here’s what you should think about:

1. Beware the app which sells itself as the Holy Grail of language learning, the one-stop-shop, the answer to all your troubles. This is the commendable and very genuine aim of the educators and developers behind the best apps (and the globular marketing drool of the worst), but it’s also out of kilter with those same educators’ ideals. Confused? The people behind the apps are driven to build the best product available, but, and bear with me on this one, they’re also passionate language learners themselves. Any seasoned language learner will tell you that the beauty of striving and reaching proficiency in a language is the world which it opens up to you. This is a world of diverse sources of information, from newspapers and books to TV, radio, music and, yes, even real people. Would you limit yourself to one medium in your native language? Probably not, so why refrain from doing so in your new language? I encourage you to use apps extensively, but not exclusively.

2. Establish your purpose and plan your habits: do you want to be fluent in weeks or are you in it for the brain training? The good apps are structured to help you fit your studies around your timetable. The best apps adapt themselves based upon your behavior. These apps encourage habit building, because the successful formation of a habit ensures your safe and regular return. When would you like to return? Personally, I’m a reformed early-morning-email-checker. Instead of cycling through emails I won’t answer until I’m in the office anyway, I skip nimbly through a course or two and then talk to myself in the shower. Weird, but effective.


3. Remember that an app is a tool — a great tool — but it’s not the greater purpose. A good app will spur you on with implicit or explicit gamification. What does that mean? App developers have taken the elements of game design which make video gaming so addictive and applied them to educational apps. Sneaky? Maybe, but it’s all for a good cause: to keep you learning! Rarely will you have heard someone bent over a textbook remark, "I’m completely addicted to learning Spanish!" Among all the rewards and extrinsic motivation, don’t forget your purpose and own, intrinsic motivation: It wasn’t to complete level five and win some virtual gooseberries of virtue, it was to shoot the breeze with the locals, perched on a bar stall in Spain in front of a caña and an unhealthy portion of pimientos de padron.

4. We love your feedback! This isn’t a hollow call to arms trying to decrease the social distance between faceless developer and learner. Feedback is truly, madly, deeply golden. Why? For two main reasons: Firstly, all that mumbo-jumbo about revolutions and changing the world does rub off a bit. This means there’s a wave of motivation propelling the app towards excellence, and app developers will be receptive to your input. Secondly, everything you touch within the app can be adjusted and improved quickly and to the benefit of everyone. It’s almost Darwinian. If you’re not 100% delighted with everything, there’ll be frowns on those faceless developers’… um, faces. So say what you think, or even better, pop those thoughts in an email. Everything can and will be better.

5. Make it social. No, I don’t mean posting your progress on Facebook. I mean social for real. I attribute the speed of progress I made in Italian to the competition/support engendered by Jim, my partner in studytime. Find a friend to accompany you. Supplement your studies with an evening class. Borrow a book. Buy a book. Book a week away and attend a language school. Just don’t forget your phone!

If I may speak sincerely, the combination of app, language school, Jim, evenings out, and a choice book or two proved extremely potent. It’s hard for an Englishman to be so revoltingly saccharine, but I genuinely surprised myself with what was possible that week. I walked away with friendships I’d established in Italian. It was immensely fulfilling. I recommend it.

I wrote this article entirely on my clever phone in a trendy orange aircraft in the sky. Technology is wonderful.

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