Is there a tried and true way to learn a language? Countless times you have heard friends who lived with host families while in Merida, Mexico, or Strasbourg, France, talk about their “awesome immersion experience” in a language and wondered if you too could learn that quickly — and you can with the wonders of modern technology.

The rise of applications (apps) like Mango Languages and Duolingo are quickly becoming a popular alternative for learning a language outside the classroom setting. Instead attending a class with a language instructor, one simply swipes through the program to memorize information. These apps walk the participant through all the fundamentals of learning a language. In a step-by-step process, starting with the bare basics, one learns vocabulary, repeats phrases in a microphone, and spells out sentences.

Once you download the app, the most popular languages being taught on Duolingo are Spanish, French, and German. There are also courses available in Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Irish, Danish, and Swedish.

I downloaded Duolingo to test how much Spanish I remembered from high school. I set my goal for ten minutes of Spanish a day and started with the bare basics of learning “Hola” (There is an option in the app to test out of the beginner levels). After a couple days of staying on track, I started to worry more about my homework than the app. However, it did not let me off that easy. Duolingo sends you daily notifications to reach your goal, along with emails. The persistence to practice every day is a key part of the app since constant exposure to the language is Duolingo’s method for success.

The popularity of these apps leads to an interesting question of whether they are effective methods in learning a language. Associate Professor of Spanish Dr. Genny Ballard believes that there is a time and a place for online apps like Duolingo and Mango.

“In my opinion, the best way to learn a language is to learn it in the culture where it is spoken,” Dr. Ballard said. “After that, my second choice would be in a classroom where you are learning the language and there is an incentive to use it.”

Assistant Professor of Spanish Dr. Jason Doroga agrees that an incentive to use a language is what makes it successful in retention.

“The bottom line is you can only learn a language if you have reason to speak it,” Dr. Doroga said. “Sometimes Duolingo, and all of those apps, do not give you a motivation to use a language. You can recognize it, you can do the activities, but without a reason to use the language it is very hard to learn it.”

However, both professors do not discredit the usefulness of these apps. They both downloaded the language technology to learn Portuguese. Doroga experience with Duolingo was a positive one and recommends it to his students.

“I think any of the apps are great. I think any exposure you have of the language is good. It’s important to know that the apps are limited. They are best for listening comprehension. I’ve used Duolingo as a test run for Portuguese and it is great. It is useful, fun, and helpful, but they don’t really go beyond speaking comprehension,” Dr. Doroga said.

Dr. Ballard took up Mango before her trip to Brazil to set up Centre Internships in Rio.

“I used Mango when I got a grant from Centre to go to Brazil to set up the Centre Internships there,” Dr. Ballard said. “The time between getting the grant and going to Rio was very short, and it was while I was still working. So I used Mango so I could have enough Portuguese to speak for the time I was going to be there.”

Dr. Ballard admits her two biggest problems with apps like Duolingo and Mango is what they lack in personal connection, a vital role in learning a language in her opinion.

“One of the problems with this technology is that there is no true communication,” Dr. Ballard said. “You are not asking and getting answers from a person. It does not have the same nuance as communication would with a person. Also, it is completely stripped from cultural context. For me, as a language professor, the cultural component is just as important in understanding who you are talking to and the place where you are.”

There is also the fact that the app does not make you redo the assignment when you get a part wrong. Doroga sees this as a problem for learning a language.

“On the apps, it is really difficult to get writing practice, to learn how to spell and to write the language. I am in favor of any student downloading the app and learning the language to get any exercise they can with it,” Dr. Doroga said.

Language, it seems, no matter whether you are in a classroom or on the app, is not necessarily for everyone. Some people just might have a better inclination with it than others. Dr. Ballard agrees with this, noting the growing influence of online language programs that she sees in her classroom.

“I have had students, and there have been more and more the last couple of years, learning in online programs and they speak fairly well. It depends on the person and their ability to learn languages, and maybe for some people, they are more comfortable in that setting than in a classroom,” Dr. Ballard said.

So before you board that plane to Strasbourg, consider downloading Duolingo or using the Mango languages portal through the Centre Library to provide yourself with some basic language skills before you begin your world travels!

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