The Mezzofanti Guild Language Learning Made Simple

Why Language Learning App Innovation Has Peaked




Almost every week I get emailed by new startups asking me to review sites and mobile apps related to language learning.
They’re always the ‘latest and greatest’ thing.

The problem is that no matter how impressive a lot of new ‘innovative’ apps and websites look and sound, I find that most of the time the concepts show little to no innovation whatsoever.

They continually reinvent the wheel.

For example, a company recently sent me access to a high-priced mobile app that looks very nice in terms of its branding and design, but when you open it up, you find out that all it is is another fancy-looking flashcard and phrasebook app.

10/10 for aesthetics. 0/10 for originality.

So I send a follow-up question which is always the same:

Can you give me one reason why you believe your product is the next best thing?

Yet so many language startups are unable to provide a unique selling proposition (USP). When companies can’t give a USP, it means they’re probably solely motivated by making profit rather than responding to actual needs.

Of course, I don’t like to discourage startups from trying to break into the market but it always just seems like existing solutions are forever being recycled.

This whole thing has led me to ask two questions which I think are really important:

1) Has language learning app innovation reached its peak already?

and upon further reflection:

2) Has technology become (at least to a large extent) detrimental to the way we learn languages anyway?

I’ll give my thoughts on both.

 

Technology is making us stupid

Let me start out by saying that I believe (some) technology is contributing to an epidemic of skill retardation.

There have been numerous studies and loads of articles written on the topic already.

The fact is that we’re collectively getting worse at most things – math, literacy, being able to read maps, hands-on skills and even using our memory (see Google Effect).

Millenials in particular are already proving to be the least skilled generation ever and a lot of companies recognize this which is why they’re increasingly reluctant to hire young graduates.

Even my wife who’s a primary school teacher is often telling me about the growing number of kids she sees who lack basic, rudimentary skills and knowledge.

This extends to social skills too.

Young people are becoming more inept at basic, human communication, handling conflicts (give me a safe space!), and even dating/meeting people (hence the popularity of Tinder).

So, naturally if all these skills are being negatively affected (in part) by technology then shouldn’t we question the possibility that it may be having an effect on language learning as well?

It is a cognitive skill after all.

Getting out and learning a language by connecting with other people face-to-face is a tough slog – it’s hard work.

There’s no way to cheat this or speed it up (just as you can’t cheat becoming a maestro violinist or professional painter for instance) unless of course someone invents a way to upload a language to the human brain. 🙂

Languages are comparable to the challenge of learning any other skill.

But this skill challenge is a necessary part of the process of advancing (read my post on negotiation in language learning where I touched on this).

As far as app innovation goes, I believe that the way in which UI design is evolving speaks volumes: Interfaces are becoming more and more infantile in their simplicity.

Web standard now is to see flat design with simple color palettes, big buttons with minimal text and little distraction. I can’t help but notice that web and mobile interfaces are looking more and more like digital toddler’s toys.

It’s as if the average user is assumed to have the attention span of a young child and apps are catering to it.

This is becoming standard now for many websites – especially educational products aimed at adult learners.

At what point did adult attention spans become so poor?

There seems to be more of an emphasis on stimulation rather than genuine information and problem solving.

The reason why I’m highlighting this is not to be overly cynical but because I think the direction that interface design is heading in says a lot about the way in which adult learning is regressing.

Agree or disagree? Chime in below.

 

Has it all been done or have we run out of ideas?

There’s been a lot of great innovation on web and mobile apps for language learning over the last 5-10 years.

**Not to be confused with the huge advances in speech and image recognition (e.g. Google’s on-the-fly image and audio translation) which is intended to eliminate the need to learn foreign languages at all.

Here are some popular examples:

Assisted readers (LWT, LingQ, Readlang): Software that helps you read by allowing you to interact with written text to get instant translations of terms and phrases.

Video lesson and facilitation (italki): Services that act as a go-between, connecting students and teachers or conversation partners remotely.

Assisted video ‘viewers’ (FluentU, Yabla, 3ears.com): Sites where streaming videos with subtitles can be interacted with (the video equivalent of assisted readers).

Translation and pronunciation services (Forvo, Focloir.ie): Places where you can find word and phrase pronunciations coupled with translations.

Instant messengers (Hellotalk): Whatsapp-esque apps designed for language learning.

Gamified grammar study (Duolingo): Web apps that turn grammar study into a challenging and aesthetically pleasing game (also see my Babbel review).

Digital flashcards and phrasebooks (Anki, Memrise, MosaLingua): Visual frontends for flashcard and phrasebook material.

But here’s a question:

If you look at flashcard apps as an example, how much left is there to innovate at this point really?

We’ve gone from old-fashioned, written ‘words on cards’ to an app form with Anki-type software that reminds us what and when to study to now having gamified web apps like Memrise which turn the whole process into a visual game.

These are great products that I use often.

But if you peel back the extra features and aesthetics of Anki and Memrise, at their very core they’re essentially the exact same memory exercise as the original cardboard flashcards were – a simple and repetitive, spaced memory exercise.

The main difference being that some of the more seemingly mundane tasks have become automated, including having to remember when and what to study since the software takes care of that for you.

You don’t need to remind yourself to study a word because the software will let you know.

In addition, other people can make cards for you too, eliminating the need for you to create anything yourself.

The gamification in Memrise (i.e. growing and watering plants) serves as an extrinsic motivator – there’s something oddly fulfilling about making cartoon plants grow. As you grow your plants, you gain titles (e.g. Membrain, Memocrat) and compete on a leaderboard against other users.

These are fun features that all serve a simple, core purpose – the same purpose as the old-fashioned, handwritten flashcards.

To get you to recall words and phrases through spaced repetition (repeated exposure over a period of time at various intervals).

So what’s left to innovate here?

While there may be room for improving visual design and adding new forms of gamification to apps (let’s say – stopping a zombie apocalypse instead of watering plants or something), what further, substantive improvements can you actually make to such a basic skill builder?

And are these aesthetic features, gamified motivators and automations actually advancing your skills at all?

I’m not sure where I stand on this anymore honestly.

There’s no doubt that when you automate something as simple as looking up a foreign word in a paper dictionary and physically writing that word down on paper by hand, you’re making things more convenient for yourself.

Less time prepping, more time on the target language.

Sounds like a positive thing. Decluttered learning.

But when a web or mobile app reminds you that you’re starting to forget a word, or in the case of Duolingo informs you how well you know certain topics or aspects of grammar, it removes (among other things) the need to self-assess.

It replaces a certain amount of responsibility with convenience. You might see this as a positive thing but I’m not sure if I do.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that these kind of conveniences may be detrimental (or at the very least an illusion of progress) rather than beneficial to skill-building.

 

What are your thoughts?

Comments

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  1. I think AI Teaching Assistants could start bridging the gap between passive flashcard and “wait for my reminder” approaches. I’m 65, and frankly, I need to repeat a small vocabulary set a lot to memorize it. The time needed goes down as I gain more vocabulary and “thinkability” in the language, but it’s much more than the 20-somethings I’ve been in class with (usually 3-4 times as much). Do you know any AI chat bots or other apps that would do both drill and some interesting ‘conversation’, with a small focus on repetition of word sets, etc?

  2. I probably agree more with you on this topic than I do on your other topics (though there I already average about 90%). This gives me hope for my own Beta system/product that I hope to trot out in mid-2016. I aim for it to be truly innovative, not just superficially so, and it will not include large child-toy buttons! Teaser: it involves more right-brain activity.

  3. Hi Donovan: We sort of agree with you that language learning app innovation has peaked. The big transition from learning with textbooks, tapes/Cd’s, DVD’s to learning with online, downloadable, or apps is behind us. For many of us who used to learn languages before the internet, these new tools continue to be extremely useful for practice, and you probably agree. Now, any innovations are quite incremental.
    Still, there continue to be interesting approaches. For example, we recently came across SuperCoco (currently only Spanish) which focuses on hearing and repeating (with translation). It’s all in the context of a conversation/story, it’s handsfree and you can listen/say it while doing other things. Or LanguageZen (only Spanish for now and not an app yet) that uses data mining for the most used words and expressions, applies spaced recall and transcribes your spoken translation, lets you correct it and gives alternate translations. It also lets you learn the lyrics of certain Spanish songs this way.
    We would love extend our own Gamesforlanguage approach of practicing a language with a story and games to become truly interactive with voice recognition, alternative answers to questions (similar to Duolingo Chatbots, but by speaking), with spoken corrections etc.. However, technology has to progress still a little more for that to be practical.
    It seems to us that the next big innovation will include programs and apps where most or all of the interaction is verbal rather than reading, clicking or writing. That will get closer to the way we learn in an immersive environment, though listening, speaking, being corrected when making mistakes – currently only possible with live or online conversation partners/teachers/tutors.

  4. Hey Donovan, I couldn’t agree more with this post! I was just reading reviews on Goodreads yesterday for a book called The Shallows. I haven’t read the book myself, but apparently it’s about how the internet has made us stupid. It’s a shame because there is SO much information accessible out there nowadays, and it seems like people usually don’t take advantage of it.

    Anyway, I don’t really use most of the language learning apps out there. I use Anki to study flashcards (this isn’t my only form of study, but I find it helps when combined with other things) and have an iTalki account (that I need to use), but other than that, I don’t really use any. I like reading in the target language and talking to native speakers. If an app doesn’t allow me to do that, especially the latter, I’m not interested. 😛

  5. I partially agree with you. Technology does make us worse at some skills but I believe it also makes us way better at others. I think it’s too soon to tell whether the general impact will be positive or negative. Sure, people do become worse at basic skills but it also gives us the opportunity to develop more advanced skills like coding and work on what we really care about.

    As for language learning apps. I think the main problem is that they often put immediate gratification before actual learning. Duolingo is fun but is it really the best way to learn a language? All I can say is that I hear very few people tell me they reached an intermediate or advanced level with it.

    There are two aspects in which apps could be truly useful IMO:

    -Pronunciation: they could identify pronunciation mistakes and indicate the best way to correct them, offer feedback
    -They could also create a personalised study plan

    But these are two things a human can already do, and learning with someone is always more enjoyable than learning with a computer so you definitely have a point.

  6. Hi Donovan,
    I completely agree with you that there has not been a lot of innovation in the digital language learning products. However, there are always some fresh companies who are completely different from the rest. We at Linguician want to change the medium by which people learn. We use music and lyrics instead of conventional material.

    1. Is this flashcards set to pop music?

  7. Sorry to be late to the party, but since SuperCoco was mentioned (thanks, Ulrike!), I thought I’d share my perspective. I’m definitely one of those developers who thinks they’ve created the “latest and greatest”.

    I couldn’t disagree more with the premise that innovation has peaked. Perhaps what you’re seeing is that–at any point in time–the vast majority of commercial products are derivative. To make matters worse, the most innovative products don’t necessarily have the best marketing, so you’re less likely to hear about them! As a prominent blogger, your fatigue is totally understandable, but on the other hand, you do the community a great service by finding and writing about the gems.

    As someone who loves language learning, I built SuperCoco because I wanted a way to learn that was both story-based and oral.

    Story-based both because it’s more fun AND it’s a far better learning strategy than learning out-of-context. I’ve written in detail.

    Oral because the way to learn to speak is by speaking–not typing, tapping, reading or watching.

    Oh, and also I wanted to be able to practice while I’m doing other things. Hands-free, eyes-free.

    I totally get that those premises may not sound revolutionary. It’s not AI, a chatbot, or a brain implant. But I do believe we’re well on our way to creating the most efficient, effortless way to learn a second language. Not bad that you can carry it around in your pocket, eh?

  8. Good observations with regard to most courses. But am I just imagining things or are you pointedly ignoring Rosetta Stone? I have language courses other than RS in about 10 languages and many of the courses claim to be revolutionary. NONE of them are. Except Rosetta Stone. But if you will allow me, I would like to tell you what is wrong with Rosetta Stone (and it is NOT all bad, not at all). What RS needs very badly is a grammar and vocab supplement and also many additional levels. You can learn a language the same way a child does, without grammar lessons (theoretically), as RS postulates, but there are 2 problems: 1-We are not children, and 2-No language course can expose you to a a spoken language long enough to provide all the clues you need to deduce the rules. As for innovation, I don’t think there has been much innovation in the last 15 years. A LOT more can be done.

    1. Thanks.

      I 100% agree with you re: Rosetta Stone. For all the bad press it gets and issues people have with it, it still stands as one of the only uniquely innovative products with its own method on the market even after all these years.

  9. Language learning is really very complex, it’s one of the reasons I love it so much. We deal with four separate, yet linked skills, reading, writing, listening and speaking which are in turn linked to thousands of separate, yet linked facts, grammar rules, vocabulary words, pronunciation rules, etc.

  10. Hello,
    We are one of those new application at Loqacious, but we believe in our originality, we are not just an app to learn english or french, we want to create a link between people, to share moment and discover a new culture around a drink, a meal or an art exposition in Paris.

    1. What I mean is our app, Loqacious, uses app technology to encourage actual conversations… Loqacious doesn’t aim to provide learning as such, but geolocates Parisian English and French speakers so they can meet face-to-face and practice together – a bit like a dating app, but for languages !

    2. So it’s not a language learning app at all? It’s a niche social networking app?

  11. I don’t think that we can rely fully on such online software, tools and apps for any translation, as they are also machines but when we don’t have any other option beside them after the “Human Translators” to believe so its becomes our need to trust on these machines.

  12. I think the most important thing, as you mention, is product differentiation. Having yet another “match the picture with the word but with a better interface” does not “disrupt” any language learning feature. However, if you come up with a whole new category of product, or create something that the market has not seen, then I think that is something of value.

    With the advent of AI-based technology, speech recognition, and bots, I disagree that language learning has “peaked”. Perhaps you can argue that we’re at a local maximum, but to say that in 10 or 20 years time the best we’ll have are the language learning apps on the market today is almost certainly untrue. Thoughts?

  13. Yep, totally agree with you. I have done the circuit of apps and paper based and basically i think a self made leitner box is much better than anki or memrise. I like pimsleur as an intro to a language, but after that its best to head to italki for the future. There are no shortcuts.

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