15 minutes a day.. Can you master a new language through language learning apps?

“Language is not just words, it is culture and tradition, it is the unity of society, it is a whole history that defines what society is, all of this is embodied in language.”

(Noam Chomsky, American linguist and philosopher)

We begin to learn our mother tongue while we are in our mothers’ wombs, when our ears begin to function in the seventh month of pregnancy, and the mother’s voice is the first sound that penetrates to our minds and through it we form an idea of ​​the sounds of the outside world. Languages ​​differ in their tones, and this difference also determines the way we cry when we are children. The melody of crying corresponds to the melody of the mother tongue that the child heard in his mother’s womb, so even if our ears are similar to the crying sounds of all the children of the world, every child cries “in his mother tongue” (1) .

And just as crying in childhood was your way to express yourself and meet your basic needs, and then your mother tongue became your way to express your ideas fluently, and then open up to the world around you, the need was born to learn a new language that would be a window for you to this vast world, and what it offers you from Opportunities to integrate with charming cultures and different peoples, as well as help to advance in your working life.

Your second language in your pocket

A couple of decades ago, it was common to use cassette tapes to learn languages, followed by CDs that you can navigate and play on portable devices while a teacher speaks in your ears and teaches you the grammar of your second language. The internet wasn’t ubiquitous at the time, and free language learning resources like YouTube were a fantasy. The matter developed at an incredible speed until mobile phones dominated the scene and replaced cassettes, radios and even television, and educational applications developed with them in all fields, especially the field of language learning. Perhaps the secret to the popularity of these apps is that they bring the whole world at your fingertips without making any effort in the pursuit of learning.

Today, Duolingo is the world’s leading language-learning app (2), with 500 million downloads and over $160 million in profits in 2020. The word “bilingual” is Duolingo, which is an expressive word. Very about the purpose of the application. Although “Dolingo” was not the first application of its kind, as it was released in 2011, and was preceded by “Babbel” and “Busuu” applications, which were released in 2008, by a few months apart, its free first, then the way it works It made him a favorite in the world. Let’s consider how this app is more like a game than a boring app for learning.

The application presents the components of the language in the form of multiple-choice questions, flashcards, and connecting games, in which each word, sound and sentence is repeated several times until you master it completely. With every word you learn you earn points, and with every mistake you make, you lose a “heart” just like games. The app is filled with cute cartoon characters who will clap for you if you answer correctly. The application also contains the feature of continuous review of old lessons, in addition to learning new words, and sends you alerts to remember to use it daily. The application is not completely free, but there are some features that will be available to you only after paying the subscription, although the free part is very good.

The Duolingo app is full of cute cartoon characters who will clap for you if you answer correctly.

Language learning applications exploit the theory of imitation and repetition in learning. According to BFSkinner, a leading American psychologist in the field of behavioral psychology, a child learns language by imitating his parents and those around him, and accordingly Because of the reaction of those around him, his language is strengthened and grows. Either his imitation is met with approval, and this prompts him to repeat the word, or he is ignored, and thus he may not care about repeating this word a second time (3). Therefore, the applications are keen to re-test you in the same word repeatedly, and push you to repeat its pronunciation, writing, reading and correcting your mistakes, until the word becomes part of your brain’s convolutions, and speaking or writing it becomes an automatic matter that does not require thinking.

Apps such as Duolingo and Memrise also use Skinner’s operant conditioning theory, which uses “stimulus” to make the educational process more enjoyable and sustainable. What you strengthen and encourage will grow and persist, and what you neglect and ostracize will shrivel and die. So with each new level you learn, you earn a crown as in Duolingo, or plant a rose for each word and watch it grow as in Memrise. These simple gestures give motivation to keep learning, like a child who gets a star from the teacher when he masters a new letter. But while this method may work very well with children, it may not be enough for you as an adult to stick with the learning process to the end.

With every new word you learn on the Memrise app, a seed is planted and it continues to grow and bloom every time you review it for your long-term memory.

These applications also provide an interactive part, such as tests that measure your understanding of context by listening to a conversation, without knowing the actual meaning of each word in it. And there’s the “response” test, where the app puts you in a virtual situation and asks you to pronounce the most appropriate response based on what you’ve learned so far. This provides an active learning environment, in which the learner sits passively not only receiving and repetitive information, but also uses it within the context appropriate to it as in reality. There are differences between language learning apps of course, but in the end they revolve around the same goals: to learn a little bit each day, to learn the words and sentences you might need in real life, and to repeat the words and sentences until they stick in your long-term memory.

moment of truth

Now, more than 10 years after the launch of the first language-learning app, let’s take a look at the real success that these apps have achieved on the ground, based on the goals that those apps themselves have stated. In the study published in the “Foreign language annals” journal, 83 American university students were subjected to a Spanish language course on the “Babel” application, provided that their knowledge of the language was less than average, and that they committed to studying for 10 minutes on the application daily for a period of 3 Months. Of course, this sample is limited and may not be representative of all sections of American society, but it does shed light on how effective the app is at “getting you to speak Spanish with confidence in real life situations.”

The results of this study are supported by the results of several other studies on the “Bosu” and “Dolingo” applications, where the end result was the same. The applications have had great success in teaching students the sounds, vocabulary and grammatical rules of the language, and helping them to understand the written and audio language, meaning that the greatest success was related to the reception of the language, while the results of actual speaking the language were limited (8). It seems that in terms of actual speaking, in-class instruction still has the upper hand in achieving real results, as even the students who could speak Spanish after 3 months had very memorized and limited responses.

Another problem the study identified is the low rate of students’ commitment to learning via the app, and this has two sources. The first is the internal motivation of the student himself, his motivation to learn this language and how much he really wants to continue, while the other source is the design of the application itself, which does not give enough incentive for students to continue using it. It’s easy to start using the app, and easy to stop, which is why the apps start trying to attract learners by making it look like a game where you earn points and compete with your peers.

Students find it difficult to commit to learning through applications.

In another study conducted on 19 students from Borneo University in Indonesia who study English, the most important advantages and disadvantages of Duolingo were observed from the learners’ point of view. The students’ linguistic scores were tested before and after the 30-day study period, and a survey was conducted among the students to assess their experience with the application. In confirmation of the results of the previous study, the results were positive with regard to increasing the students’ linguistic score, which the applications proved their ability to do efficiently (9).

As for the defects detected by the survey, 3% of the students agreed that the application was boring or difficult to use, and less useful and expressive than studying in the classroom. Of course, the research sample was very small, and the study period is short, so let’s look at a different study that was conducted on the same application but on a sample of children in the primary stage, over a period of 12 weeks. To measure Duolingo’s proficiency in teaching Spanish to English-speaking children, students were tested before and after using the app, then compared to a sample of students who continued to learn in class. The results did not show a difference between the two groups in the level of achievement and language learning proficiency, which indicates the success of the Duolingo application in teaching Spanish to English-speaking children at the primary level (10).


Several factors must be taken into consideration that prevent us from generalizing the results of these studies to everyone. While children learn second languages ​​faster, thanks to their neuroplasticity, adults have great difficulties mastering a second language if they start learning at an advanced age. There are also difficulties related to the language itself, as Spanish is one of the easiest languages ​​for English speakers, while Arabic is not, while Chinese (Mandarin) is almost the most difficult language on earth.

Spanish is easy for English speakers to learn while Arabic is not.

According to Stephen Krashen, the American linguist, a person absorbs the second language in an “acquisition-learning hypothesis” way, in which he “unconsciously” acquires words from his environment as children, and this requires interactions Spontaneous in a language-speaking environment where the student is the center of attention. Later, the student “learns” the rules of this language in a systematic way in the classroom in the presence of the teacher, and here the learning is conscious, intentional, and centered on the teacher, not the student. So conscious learning of grammar and words alone is not sufficient without immersing the student in a whole L2 environment, and while language applications provide the condition for conscious “learning,” they lack the unconscious part that requires speaking with the natives (11).

Ultimately, whether you choose to learn a new language through mobile apps alone, through class alone, or even a combination of the two, you must put in enough time and mental effort to learn this language and strive to master it and mingle with its native speakers. This last step may be the most important, to be able to turn the theoretical rules that you have studied and mastered into a practical application that allows you to have a smooth conversation in the second language, nothing good comes for free.



  1. The Brain and Language: How Our Brains Communicate · Frontiers for Young Minds
  2. 2- Language learning apps – Statistics & Facts | Statista
  3. Language Acquisition Theory | Simply Psychology
  4. (PDF) Distinct cortical areas associated with native and second languages [Abstract–Electronic version]
  5. How the brain learns a second language.
  6. Frontiers | Second Language Word Learning through Repetition and Imitation
  7. Components of Language
  8. The effectiveness of app‐based language instruction for developing receptive linguistic knowledge and oral communicative ability
  9. (PDF) The Use of Duolingo Apps to Improve English Vocabulary Learning
  10. The effects of a mobile gamification app on elementary students’ Spanish achievement and self-efficacy: Computer Assisted Language Learning: Vol 31, No 1-2
  11. Stephen Krashen’s Theory of Second Language Acquisition

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