Language learning is an exciting and difficult process. Every day, more and more people try digging deeper toward the heart of foreign languages by memorizing unknown words and mastering accents. Sometimes, however, this process is so tiresome that users simply give up on the idea of becoming polyglots.
Within the past few years, the world has seen several attempts to fix this problem with the help of mobile apps. Some of the most popular are Duolingo (which aims to make education personal and enjoyable), Memrise (which strives to use brain science to help learners study faster), busuu (whose goal is to provide learners with high-quality language courses), and Babbel (which combines effective education methods with state-of-the-art technology).
How can you develop an effective language learning app that encourages users to master a language?
We’ve carefully analyzed several of the most famous apps in the field of language learning (including those listed above) to define a formula for a really effective and engaging language app that people can’t tear themselves away from.
1. Create an app that provides really effective language learning
It’s generally recognized that there are four skills needed to fully master a language: reading, writing, listening, and speaking.
There are numerous activities that can help you successfully acquire these skills – you can take language courses, you can read books and make use of dictionaries, you can listen to audiobooks and watch foreign films, you can attend special speaking clubs to polish your speech or chat with foreigners, and so on.
Language learning apps are thought to be a great alternative to this traditional approach to learning languages. In reality, however, these apps can’t fully replace a quality language course or a professional tutor. But they can take part of their duties.
In other words, a language learning app can be a great help when it comes to studying a foreign language. Let’s explore where exactly such an app may help.
Language learning apps may be excellent tools for memorizing new words and phrases. How can we build new vocabulary using a mobile app? Here are some scenarios for different levels:
People who begin experimenting with a foreign language shouldn’t be overloaded at the first stages of learning. Thus, they should be provided with simple exercises with a focus on reading and writing skills. Such a workload is enough for beginners for whom speaking and listening tasks aren’t so easy yet.
For example, in busuu and Duolingo people can find a diversity of useful exercises to learn a small number of words in a captivating way. Language learners widen their vocabulary by doing only a few exercises per day. They’re able to select translations of words and fill them in the blanks, drag words into the correct order, and take short quizzes. In busuu, users can also check out what words need to be worked on.
[Duolingo (left) and Busuu (right) vocabulary exercises. Image source: Up to Down]
Moreover, some apps include exercises that check spelling.
Babbel, for example, stresses exercises where users have to complete dialogues. Learners need to fill in the missing words using scattered letters provided below the dialogue.
2) Advanced learners
Some apps take a more serious approach to vocabulary training. Such apps give workloads that only advanced learners can cope with. This workload usually takes the form of complex (but intriguing) quizzes with emphasis on reading and memorizing foreign words and phrases.
For instance, Vocabulary.com, with roots in Visual Thesaurus, lets users think over exercises longer. Looking at a word’s description, antonyms, or synonyms, users have to choose the right variant from four provided. At the same time, the absence of pictures in front of words makes these tasks more complicated for learners.
Some apps let learners create custom lists of words that they’d like to memorize, repeat, or focus on. For example, if your tutor gave you a task to memorize certain words, you could insert them in your personal app list and do various in-app exercises with these words. The value of such apps is their ability to consider a user’s own needs.
For instance, the familiar resource Vocabulary.com lets learners create custom lists of words. Users can work with these words until they learn them by heart.
[Image source: Vocabulary.com]
Many people are just not able to devote enough time to language learning because of their daily duties. In order to make vocabulary memorization more effective, the number of words should be limited, as there’s no need to overload busy learners. Using an app for 10 to 15 minutes and learning only 5 to 10 words a day, language learners can get relevant knowledge quickly and with little effort.
It’s an interesting fact that when people communicate, they spend about 40 to 50% of their time listening. That’s why language learners should pay serious attention to the listening part of learning.
Many language learners don’t understand foreign speech at an adequate level. For them, it can be a torture to listen to audio and video recordings of foreigners. Why? Because it’s difficult to take in their fluent and confident speech. This makes learners not even want to imagine themselves talking to foreigners.
Your app can provide listening exercises for speech comprehension to train users effectively.
Let’s look at Memrise, a winner of the 2017 Google Play Awards. This app has a huge number of short videos and audio tracks that allow users to listen to native speakers’ speech and do some exercises afterwards. For instance, learners can take short quizzes and choose the correct word or phrase said in a clip.
[Memrise videos from real native speakers. Image source: iTunes]
Now imagine that two language learners from the US (let’s call them Tom and Sarah) have been learning Hindi for a long time. They already know Hindi grammar and vocabulary well. In addition, they can understand spoken Hindi without any difficulties. In half a year they would like to visit India, enjoy the traditions of this country, and talk to locals.
However, Tom and Sarah face one problem: in order to talk Hindi on par with native speakers, they should have good pronunciation. But they don’t know any native Hindi speakers who could help them improve their pronunciation.
Fortunately, some apps provide special speech recognition technology and pronunciation checking that can fix this.
For instance, the Babbel app contains audio clips and dialogues for language learners to improve their pronunciation. Furthermore, the Babbel team assures that all provided audio material is recorded with real native speakers. Babbel lets users listen to speech samples, repeat after a speaker with confidence, and memorize in what context words are used.
[Babbel audio exercise. Image source: Babbel]
TerraTalk positions itself as an app that can correct both pronunciation and grammar. A built-in AI component not only examines how users pronounce words but also checks how fluently and correctly they build sentences.
Now let’s find out what app features can help users practice their speaking skills.
Messaging has already become a significant part of our lives. These days, almost everyone uses messengers such as WhatsApp, Telegram, Facebook Messenger, Allo, and Skype. In 2016, 1.6 billion people used mobile messaging apps. However, very few people know that messaging functionality can also be part of a language learning app.
Some apps allow users to create app-based communities where language learners can chat and exchange knowledge.
Tandem is a bright example of a platform that unites native speakers from all over the world. With the help of Tandem, users can find people with similar interests and see what they want to discuss and what languages they speak or study.
[Tandem. Image source: KeywordSuggest]
Tandem allows users to communicate with both native speakers and other language learners. For instance, beginners can ask advanced learners questions that can help them practice language skills. Every month, 15 million chats are traced by the Tandem team.
However, many people may feel awkward or embarrassed speaking a foreign language with another person because of their fear of improper spelling or grammar mistakes, for example. Here’s where chatbots may help.
With chatbots, nobody should be afraid of making a mistake. The only harmful thing a bot can do is politely point out what mistakes users should avoid in the future.
What’s more, users don’t need to wait for the moment when they have a chance to chat again. People can always talk to virtual interlocutors that are online all the time – whether they want to talk early in the morning or late at night.
Duolingo was the first language learning service to use this approach in its mobile application. About a year ago, the company introduced a chatbot feature, enabling users to have dialogues with three virtual language tutors. These chatbots are Chef Roberto, Renée the Driver, and Officer Ada, who can each chat in French, Spanish, and German depending on what language a user wants to master.
Unfortunately, Duolingo chatbots are currently only available for iOS users. An Android version and other languages will appear soon. But Duolingo is planning to stop. The company wants to improve its chatbot feature to allow learners to take part in verbal conversations with bots.
Speaking of verbal conversations, Mondly is another language learning app that provides similar chatbot functionality. It’s claimed that Mondly’s voice chatbot recognizes 33 languages and can reply with a human voice, spicing up its speech with cute audio-visual effects. The app is planning to add new languages soon.
When studying a language, everyone should remember one important thing: the brain can’t retain all information for the long term. Language learners should repeat studied material several times a day to get results.
Some language learning apps remind users with notifications that they should train their skills every day by. This approach allows learners not to deviate from their course and helps them gain new knowledge day by day. Moreover, such an approach may help app owners get a sufficient number of daily users.
For example, Duolingo reminds its users that “learning a language requires practice every day.” Setting their own daily goals, learners have to complete tasks every day to meet these goals.
2. Create an app that motivates language learners
Starting a new language course, learners hope that everything will be captivating. Unfortunately, after a while they meet some barriers such as boring and outdated methodologies or misunderstandings with tutors.
For this reason, successful language learning apps use special motivational and entertainment techniques that keep users motivated. Let’s examine them.
Language learners get tired of boring explanations, long lists of difficult rules, and unremarkable exercises. Gamification is one of the best ways to overcome this challenge. Games can ease the studying process, making users visit language learning apps more often. A playful app helps language learners do needed tasks, stay motivated and engaged.
For instance, MindSnacks is an app for iPhone and iPad that specializes in games for learning languages. The app provides nine entertaining games that captivate at once.
[MindSnacks. Image source: Stack Sidebar]
Memrise lets users feel like spies carrying out special missions in another universe. Using Memrise, users can become undercover agents and put into practice their language knowledge to stay unnoticed among enemies.
TerraTalk, offers over 60 courses on various topics. Every time learners take a course, they’re able to try on the role of interesting personages such as an FBI agent, sales team star, flight attendant, Hollywood star, or other character.
In our competitive world, everyone is looking for self-expression, recognition, and triumph. There’s nothing more motivating than the achievements of others. When you look at someone else’s success, you also want to show everyone what you’re capable of.
Why not use competition to encourage language learners?
Memrise and Duolingo please learners who enjoy competitions: both apps let users access a leaderboard showing points of competitors, which encourages them to do more studying and, thus, keep using the app.
Last year, Duolingo introduced Language Clubs, which are special chat rooms inside the application where users can chat and practice a language. Duolingo users can now create theme-specific clubs with up to 15 members who also want to get hands-on experience with a foreign language. Moreover, Duolingo Club members can improve their learning (by checking and correcting spelling and grammar, for example), compete, and encourage each other to get even better results.
[Duolingo Language Clubs. Image source: Engadget]
Humans tend to make mistakes. It’s normal for language learners to err while trying to see into a language’s peculiarities. In order to perfect their skills, they should go through the thorny path of attempts and, yes, failures. But what can you do when a learner is simply afraid to make a mistake?
In this situation, encouragement and a good sense of humor are the best ways to cheer up learners. Motivational phrases and various jokes can amuse language learners, encouraging them to move on and not to get upset.
Vocabulary.com is a useful resource for those who wish to learn new words in an unusual way. If learners make mistakes on short quizzes, a personal tutor may chide them lightly, but also give them the chance to correct the mistakes.
[Image source: Vocabulary.com]
3. Create an app that assists users
When we buy a device, we get a user manual with explanations on how it works. It’s obvious that such instructions exist to ease our lives by giving necessary information about specific devices.
If you’re going to create an app with a lot of useful features, you should also think about how to guide your users through the app and how to give them useful information during the whole language course. Let’s examine this section in detail.
Imagine you download a mobile application that doesn’t include any tips on how to use it. You’re trying to explore its functionality on your own, but eventually you’re at a loss for what to do. What are your next actions? Most likely, you’ll remove it and start looking for a more comprehensive app that provides some directions and clues on how to use it.
For example, in busuu, which unites more than 60 million learners globally, you can always take a tour through the app and get relevant tips if something is unclear. You can find out information including what a training course includes, what language level you’re at, and how you can review your vocabulary, check your progress, and join the busuu community.
[Image source: Busuu]
Animated characters can also meet your users and guide them in an enjoyable way. Let’s take Duolingo, a language learning service that’s considered one of the most colorful and cheerful apps. A cute green owl that represents the Duolingo team provides users with all necessary information throughout the whole language course.
Sometimes, language learners aren’t only confused by how an app functions, but also by language rules. In this situation, a virtual personal tutor can help like no one else.
It’s always pleasant to apply to someone who can help, share useful information, and give intelligible answers to difficult questions. This is the portrait of an ideal mentor who’s always ready to fill your knowledge chest.
How about adding a virtual personal tutor to your app?
For instance, on Vocabulary.com, after users complete app tasks successfully they get encouragement in the form of intelligible and entertaining explanations. Vocabulary.com also gives detailed information on where and in what context learners should use words.
Mango languages is another example of an app that includes useful tips. A personal tutor in Mango languages can give extra facts to users during the training course. The app has a special “Culture notes” option that is available from time to time during language courses. It lets people explore more about native speakers, their culture, and the peculiarities of the target language.
[Culture note from Mango languages. Image source: Google Play]
Unfortunately, we haven’t met an implemented bot that can advise on how to apply grammar rules (except for word usage). But this could be a very useful feature for your future app.
Let’s conclude what you should do to develop an engaging language learning app
Provide an app that helps users learn a foreign language. Let your users apply the knowledge they’ve gained in reading, writing, listening, and speaking.
Provide an app that motivates and entertains language learners. When developing your app, introduce tasks in the form of games that are both fun and productive. In addition, let your users compete with each other and see how successful they are. Use the power of humor to encourage your users to move forward.
Provide an app that guides your users. Welcome your users properly and help them find out how your app works. Also, provide learners with captivating information during the whole training course.
Our team believes that the language learning field needs more fresh and unusual methods. If you want to improve language learning, don’t be afraid to bring your ideas to reality!