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From busuu to Babbel, language-learning apps are big business. DuoLingo has 300 million users, Babbelsigns up a million a year just in the US. 

I’ve been in the language industry for nearly 20 years and when language teaching apps began to catch on, I started to find myself on the receiving end of two types of gloomy predictions:

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“These apps will bring an end to businesses like yours”

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“If you want to survive you’ll need to start adopting the same marketing strategies as them.”

Well, I can categorically say that 11 years later, not only do I have a flourishing business, but I’ve never sought to pursue similar marketing models because we have different target markets!

I feel very strongly that this mindset – that each and every language provider out there is a natural competitor – distracting and unhealthy.  Rather than guardedly seeing every other platform as a competitor, we should be working together to better serve our customers.

Learning a foreign language is a journey with ups and downs, peaks and plateaus. To achieve your objectives you’ll need a degree of motivation and commitment.  

Let’s take a detailed look at the role language apps play in this journey for a moment.  

They’ve become popular because they’re convenient, quick and easy.

You can download them at a moment’s notice. You don’t have to go anywhere to use them. You don’t have to wrestle with your calendar to schedule in time to use them.

In addition to these convenience factors, apps have 4 huge advantages. They’re:

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Informal:

users play with them and don’t necessarily even realize they’re getting tonnes of invaluable language exposure

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Low pressure:

for those lacking confidence, apps are a non-threatening learning solution with no human interaction

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Repetitive:

apps tend to be repeat themselves, which is key when learning a foreign language

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Sticky:

People think nothing of spending an hour playing on their language app during their daily commute, where they might see an hour of one-to-one coaching to be too much of a commitment.

Those are compelling factors: so language apps really do have their place! But they also have their limitations.  

Babbel’s own website is careful to say, “No language apps, shortcuts or hacks in the world can replace years of careful, dedicated study and real-world immersion.”

And in answer to the question, “Can you really learn a foreign language through an app?” here are some interesting answers:

If you want to learn a language, you usually speak to a human being.  The app can bring you pretty far, but machines are not human and never will be.” 

Markus Witte

Co-founder of Babbel

It depends what you mean by language. [With DuoLingo] you can learn to the point where you can navigate and have relatively simple conversations but you probably won’t be writing any great works of literature.”

Luis von Ahn

DuoLingo founder

“I think it is possible to learn a language on your own via some tech-based platform, but I think it would take you a long, long time and you would need to be very disciplined.”

Donavan Whyte

EMEA vice president, Rosetta Stone

In reality, it isn’t a choice of one channel versus another: language education should be absorbed from as many different sources as possible.  

Even more critically, learning should be personalised for the student, so that they can learn in the most efficient way for them.

At VICI, we include language apps in our portfolio of blended learning tools for students where it is helpful and appropriate – this is particularly the case with our teens, and adults who spend a lot of time commuting. When teamed with other channels, the results is a truly bespoke, holistic approach to language learning – with the student at the heart.

That’s something we can all get behind. 

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