Learn English with an app?
Is it possible?
Is it effective?
You’re looking for ways to learn English by yourself or you go to English classes and you’re looking for tools and resources for self study.
You see these colourful, all-singing, all-dancing apps and think BINGO!
- Inexpensive (sometimes even free!)
- Flexible – go as fast or as slow as you like
- Convenient – take your mobile out of your pocket anytime, anywhere and learn!
- Fun – games, competitions, badges, medals, leagues: all kinds of interactive, motivating things
It seems to be a no-brainer, but…
6 months later you’re not fluent in English and wonder if it’s time to free up some space on your phone and delete the app.
What went wrong?
Maybe you made the same mistakes as I did when I installed the bright green owl (Duolingo) on my phone.
But before you click delete, let’s explore this is a bit more.
Just like any other tools in life, you need to know how to use them to get the best results.
So, how do you use an app effectively to learn English?
#1 Choose the right app
Don’t choose an app just because:
- It’s free (it might be free, but it’s a waste of time if it doesn’t get you results)
- It’s popular (although a lot of people are using it, it might not be what you need)
- It’s got lots of bells and whistles (the more, the better is not always best. Sometimes having too many features can distract you from your main objective -see point 3)
Choose an app because it gets you results.
We all have different motivations for learning a language and thus have different goals.
Does the app help you achieve your language learning goals?
This might seem obvious but, if your goal is to improve your vocabulary then choose an app that focuses on this. If you want to learn grammar rules too then make sure the app includes some grammar. If you want to work on pronunciation, choose an app that’s good for this.
Lesson learnt: Choose an app that best meets your needs.
I didn’t do this!
I spent months learning the vocabulary in Swedish for clothes, animals, colours, food when really what I wanted to learn was how to have a basic conversation in Swedish. The reindeer is behind the restaurant won’t really help me engage in conversation with the locals or fellow travellers when I eventually get to Sweden.
#2 Use an app as part of your fluency toolkit (not the only thing in it)
I don’t know anyone who has learnt to communicate confidently and effectively in English using only an app (if you have, tell me the name of the app!) Although apps are improving all the time they still have some limitations.
Fluency in a language is more than knowing the vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation system. These are all an essential part of the fluency puzzle but they don’t complete it.
A lot (but not all) apps focus on these things. But what about…
Knowing how to adapt our language and behaviour in different situations depending on where we are, who we are speaking to and why we are speaking to them?
- Cultural fluency?
Knowing how to adapt our language and behaviour when communicating with people from other cultures
- Strategies for communication?
Finding ways to make ourselves understood and understand others when communication breaks down.
- Non verbal language?
Using body language, facial features and gestures appropriately to help communicate our true meaning
Use other tools and resources alongside apps to complete your toolkit; newspapers, books, blogs, websites, TV, video, radio, podcasts, real people…
You’ll experience English in use in a variety of authentic contexts and it will help you to work on all the different parts of the fluency puzzle, not just vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation.
Lesson learnt: Don’t depend on an app alone.
My one and only Swedish companion for a long time was the bright green owl. Now my toolkit is much bigger, I’m making more progress and my curiosity for learning Swedish is increasing everyday as I immerse myself in the language and culture through a variety of tools and resources.
#3 Remember why you’re using it
Despite all the bells and whistles; the games, the competitions, the leagues, the rewards etc, remember your goals.
What are you using the app for?
To come top of the league and get a gold star or to get into university in an English speaking country, to get that promotion at work or your dream job, to travel the world…
Lesson learnt: Don’t lose your way amongst all the shiny objects!
I did! (But it wasn’t entirely my fault!)
I started learning Swedish with my son who was more engaged with the league table on the app and our streak record. And before I knew it he’d dragged me in and I lost my way. The goal became not to lose our (10) day streak and to finish top of the league that week. I’d forgotten why I was really there.
#4 Make it a habit
When we’re learning any language we need motivation and commitment. Things don’t happen overnight. We need to be disciplined.
Avoid just picking up your phone when you have a free minute and make using an app part of your language learning schedule.
Some apps actively encourage habit building. In the setup process they ask you when you would like to learn; in the morning, on your commute to work, on your break, in the evening etc, for how long and how often; 10 minutes 3 times a week, 5 minutes every day… This can be useful for those of us who are less disciplined and need a gentle reminder that it’s time!
Lesson learnt: Be consistent
Not only did we lose our daily streak (which infuriated my son!) I didn’t get the results I was looking for.
If we use them appropriately, apps can be both effective and engaging and a valuable part of your fluency toolkit, you just need to find the right one for you and use it wisely!
Some of the apps both me and my students have used are:
However, there are a whole lot more. Check out these curated lists:
Looking for more tips and strategies to learn more effectively? Take my quick quiz Are you a Smart English Learner?