Language Apps are Making us Dumberer


That’s the new buzz word nowadays. And for good reason; There’s big money in it.

And over the years the edtech fever has come and gone. Schools want to look good so they’ll throw technology at the classrooms.

And then people will complain about all of the spending on junk that will be obsolete in a few years, rather than investing in evergreen things like desks and textbooks that were made to last. Also investments in teachers as a whole would be a better use of money rather than spending the budget on iPads for the kids.


Edtech is not limited to the classroom either.

They are making things for the people who spend 7 – 8 hours on the internet all day. And the big money just flows into these companies because the investors see those people sucking all these new apps up like chocolate pudding! If you can sell your idea to a VC and get funding for your app, you’ve got a tech startup.

But is all of this technology really helping?

 “To what problem is this technology a solution?” – Neil Postman

Now, this is not a rhetorical question. This is an honest question. Many people go on the defensive when this is asked. Mostly because they have a lot of time spent on a particular technology and haven’t asked themselves this question. What happens if we find there is no problem? Has that person wasted countless hours of their lives?

No, I think that every entrepreneur needs to ask this question to become a better problem solver, and technology creator.

So, back to the question. To what problem do educational apps solve?

How about the problem of learning a language? Did we solve that problem with technology? Did DuoLingo solve the problem of learning Spanish? Did Rosetta Stone solve the problem? How about Memrise, or Anki?

Wasn’t this problem already solved?

They were already solved by thousands of textbooks and millions of teachers and tutors across the globe. Those of which have been shown time and time again to be more effective than the latest fad in language learning technology.


The brain sucks up a foreign language much better when it’s learned from people in a compelling way. That’s why it’s hard for an app to solve the problem of learning a langauge by itself.

What are some other problems with learning languages?

Well, some people don’t have time or money for a language tutor or class. They want to self study. Or they need to brush up on their Spanish before they leave for Mexico next month. These are all problems that phrase books and phrase apps try to solve.

How about text books, and audio? These are things that have existed for a long time before. And they have been used by millions of people.  I would argue that they are much better for beginners and intermediates than most of the new edtech out there.

Many apps have a hard time either being only beginner focused, or thinking they are beginner focused and are actually intermediate level focused. That is not to say that textbooks can’t get this mixed up too. In my experience, that is the case with many of them. But, just look at Duo-lingo or Lingq for examples of getting levels confused.

As a complete beginner I felt that learning Chinese from Lingq was way too hard. All of the beginner material was just not sticking at all. At that time I had zero Chinese in my head. I did however get great use out of Lingq by putting in my own Japanese content. And doing that helped for a little while. I was a high-beginner to intermediate at the time. I didn’t need to learn much extra Kanji.  But months after, I grew tired of it and went back to the pen, paper and Anki.

Some developers and writers do get the target level right. Some get it very wrong. And you know, it’s not always the developer’s fault. It’s usually the method being used. The technology could work great, but the the overall teaching method could be way off. Many of these apps are made by technologist and not educators or linguists. And that’s a big problem. And Linguists that do come on to some projects aren’t necessarily good teachers. Teacher’s don’t always make good presentations with technology. You see where the disconnect can come from?

This disconnect shows in so many language learning apps. These edtech methods that are usually developed by techies who are scratching their own itch  go without much research, and if they are researched, the studies are poorly done and grossly misleading for marketing purposes. Actual results are usually dismissed during research. Research is mostly about how the user feels, not what the outcome of using the technology shows. At least not by any comprehensive metric.


But, hey! It’s the nature of business.

As an entrepreneur you need to make a decision. If your idea doesn’t work as well as you thought, you have to make an assessment. If you spent all of this time and money in this one product idea and it doesn’t work as thought, do you go back to the drawing board and ask for more money? Or do you retell the story of your technology and how it works? Do you focus on selling your brand instead of just dropping your product? Most people will double down and sell you junk and act like it’s gold.

Another big problem with a lot of the edtech is, what happens when your battery dies? Do you have a book, or notes that you can use? Your hard drive dies. Or the cloud server is down. You can’t get wifi or 4G. Your data ran out. You lost your phone. Your phone’s screen got smashed.

Books have problems too, but they are less frequent. You spill coffee all over your book. Your book accidentally catches on fire. The pages fall out because you’ve been using it too much. You left your book at home. You can’t fit your book into your pocket. Yep, all of these things can go wrong too.

The dangers of breaking down the problem

Okay, now let’s ask a different question. What part of language learning do these edtech products solve?

If you ask this question, you will find that many of these apps are doing very similar things.

Vocabulary memorization?

Memrise, Anki, LiveMocha, Busuu, Rosetta Stone, and other flashcard apps

Character memorization?

Skritter, Anki, other kanji, and flash-card apps

Grammar Acquisition?

The Pimsleur Method… and maybe some online textbooks and classes?

Grammar is not sexy so it’s a tough sell as far as apps go. Honestly Pimsleur CD’s and others like it (not an app, I know) are really the only winner here for implicit grammar acquisition.

Survival phrases?

Many companies have websites and apps for teaching these. They are usually reinforced through flashcards and quizzes. You’ve seen this before with learn Mandarin in 30 days phrasebooks. Nothing new under the sun, right?

Learning funny phrases to look cool

There are all sorts of apps like this like “Hot Chinese” and “Dirty Russian” or “Korean in Dramas.”

Again it’s the same thing as the phrase other phrase apps and phrasebooks. The marketing angle is that these are not your boring textbook phrases. Or, if you want to get a hot Swedish girlfriend, you should say this phrase.

You see what happens when we ask these certain questions? We broke down the problem. And actually, we distorted the overall problem. I’ll tell you why it’s distorted later in this article. Let’s get back to these “problems.”

You asked questions about specific parts of the problem, and now you have a niche market.

Ah, now you’re thinking like a marketer! Not necessarily like an educator. You see, it’s easy to sell these ideas to people. Let’s look at just how easy it is! This will help us understand the problem of breaking down the problem into niches. So let’s do a little thought experiment.

Let’s make a commercial for a new Chinese app.

How will we do this?

Imagine, a young French woman in a business suit. She’s on the streets of Shanghai and she’s confused. She can’t figure out the subway map. Then she turns to her phone. She downloads the “Learn Chinese Now Now Now!” app and puts her headphones in her ears.

After that we see three shots of her. The first is her ordering lunch at a restaurant in Chinese.

The next shot is in a room in front of twenty Chinese executives. She’s speaking English for her presentation. But then she makes a joke in Chinese and everyone in the room roars with laughter.

And finally, our last scene is in a fancy sea-side restaurant. She’s having dinner with a Chinese man. You can only see their silhouettes, but you know the night is still young and her success in China has only yet begun.

In reality she’s just an actress who’s been fed lines by a Hollywood language trainer. Tom Cruise doesn’t know much Japanese. Jim Carey didn’t study Korean for 5 years. That Japanese girl on the English school commercial didn’t really study at the school for 6 months. She’s reciting lines that she practiced for weeks.

But marketers know that appealing to logic only works when you appeal to the emotions first. There’s a reason why they only show air brushed models on the juice commercial.

Sure, maybe they’ll talk about the juice as being 100% natural with no artificial additives. Okay, sure… That’s a logical argument right?

Well… it may seem like it at first, but really that’s appealing to the emotions more than logic. What does artificial additive mean? More importantly, what does it mean to not be 100% natural? If it was 60% would you give the drink an F instead of an A+?

If you want to be a good marketer, throw out the facts and the results of the product. Then build a story. And then make the story look really beautiful or funny.

After that, appeal to as many emotions as possible with imagery, sounds and soothing phrases that have been tested thoroughly. Or if you’re product is crap, don’t say much about it, just make pretty pictures. Maybe give it a nice color scheme and a unique font. Sometimes less is more in marketing.

I’m not saying marketing is a bad thing. Infact if you have a product that helps people and does what it really says, you should use all the tactics to get as much of that product out the door as possible. But as a consumer, I’m saying be weary.

Look at the facts, the evidence. Try to break down your initial thought. Your mind is under the pressure of a strong flowing current of marketing messages. Sometimes that current will lead you down a path of disappointment.

And that brings me to why this breaking down the problem into niche solutions is dangerous.

It leads people to believe that real language learning as a whole cannot be done. Only these niche things can be achieved.

I’ve had a few friends who’ve said they’ve used Memrise or Busuu for learning Korean. And when they went out into the real world, they realized that they couldn’t put sentences together or understand what people were saying even after learning the first 1000 words in the app.

That’s the reality. Niche products and tunnel visioned technology will only get you so far.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Vocabulary is good. Studying from vocab books can be useful for further language acquisition if done intensively. The problem comes when these products are marketed saying “Do you want to learn a language? Sign up today! You’ll be able to get an Italian model even if you’re just some farmer from Nebraska.”

Rosetta Stone Ad

Okay, so that just makes the person think that that’s all there is to it. Pay money, get Italian models. Win at life!

You might say that that kind of marketing doesn’t work. But wait a second. These ads aren’t appealing to logic here. They’re appealing to another part of the brain. The part that blinds us. It’s also the part that helps us survive. It’s the part that tells us to stay with the tribe. The part that makes us miss home. The part that craves mom’s homemade cheesecake. The part that makes us drink Coke Zero instead of water. The part that filled up the shopping cart on Amazon.

Many people have dreams of adventure in foreign lands. Marketing departments know this and make ads that appeal to those people. It appeals to me too. I’m not immune. I want to travel the world and experience all of it’s natural beauty. I want to ride my bike across the world taking pictures of all of the beautiful faces across the globe.

The reality is, that people that actually learn a language don’t usually learn from these tech products. If they do, it’s very seldom.

We don’t need another Memrise. We don’t need another Duolingo. We don’t need another SRS such as Anki. Do people make worthy improvements on these apps? Yes. Do these improvements solve problems for some people and create problems for others? Yes.

But we have to be honest. Real innovation in most of these apps is marketing. And, once that snowball of money starts rolling in, the marketing budget blows up. And when that happens you get a horde of users on the app. And after that comes more funding. And again more marketing after that. It’s an unstoppable yes train.

And that’s why you won’t find many dissenting opinions. Too much money is involved. Not enough information about alternatives and how people actually learn languages is being touted by the media.


That doesn’t sell. Moving products is the number 1 importance. Number 2 is making people think that they are learning something. It’s Edutainment!

What else sells?

Well, don’t forget about the biggest marketing message of all. It’s a free language learning tool! Why pay for tutors and classes? Because usually you pay for what you get. These freemium apps aren’t always created with the best care.

More importantly, be weary of people who say, “You shouldn’t criticize a free product.”

Guess what? That marketing message is flawed. A program such as DuoLingo is not free. It has a cost. Can you guess what it is?

I’ll give you a minute…

It costs time and energy! Free apps are not free!

Also what about the opportunity cost? That is, what about the opportunity of using that time on something more effective? Yes, that’s a cost. Also, some of the content in apps are just plain wrong or slow. Again wasting your time is a cost.

People complain about public schools all the time. Do parents at the PTA meetings sit there around a big table and say, “Well, this education is free, so we can’t really complain about anything?”

Hey, your education was FREE, right? You can’t complain about it, right?


Okay, so what are some free or paid apps that don’t waste your time?

Useful tech for language learning:

  1. Skype. Skype is awesome. Other technologies that are similar and do video chatting are great too such as Google Hangouts. This is how you can talk to tutors and teachers online. Or you can talk to a language exchange partner for free.
  2. Twitter. Depending on the language you are learning, some language cultures don’t use twitter too much. The Japanese use Twitter quite a bit. Some people are touting that it’s a dying technology, but in Japan, Twitter is still very much thriving. You can find people on twitter to talk to. And maybe even Skype with them. It’s a possibility.
  3. Blogs. Blogs are good for keeping track of your studies. I’ve used blogging by tracking some of my studying but it’s mostly fallen appart from time to time. However, writing and reflecting on your studies is an important way to learn and straighten out your mind. Also reading other people’s blogs helps you get other ideas and encouragement.
  4. Anki. Yes, you do need to memorize things to a point. Even with all of the CI techniques that I advocate for, memorization helps. If you work on memorization intensively, then you’ll need something to help you manage all of those flashcards. Anki wonderfully solves the problems of flash-card management and review management.
  5. Google. Google can act as a dictionary. Google images can also help. If a word appears and you can’t find it in a dictionary, take it to google. The word could be new or trendy. or it could be a phrase that the dictionary doesn’t know yet.
  6. Online dictionaries. It helps you get an answer quickly. Not always accurately, but fast and many times with example uses.
  7. Easy learner content. Such sites as News in Levels for English, and NHK News Web Easy for Japanese really help with getting new and compelling comprehensible input. There are even some videos on youtube for learners. These videos are much better than the hard to understand native level content. You’re aiming for comprehension, not native material that you can’t understand. Don’t start with multidimensional calculus. Start with counting and arithmetic first.

Reality: Most language apps that you see advertised suck.

Duolingo is not about teaching people to learn a language. It’s about getting people to work for them for free by translating text. (

The Bottom line

Yes, much of this technology is making you dumber.

You could spend your time better with textbooks and tutors. Most affluent and elite people know this and hire tutors for their kids.

You must learn a language from people in the end. Technology can help, but most of the app peddlers out there are selling the same old trash dressed in different shiny bows.

Even if the junk is free, it still costs you time and opportunity. Don’t waste your time. You can’t do everything by yourself in your room.

photo credit: Broken via photopin (license)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s