Can an App Help you Learn Mandarin Chinese?

Do Apps help make language learning easier and more affordable?

The recent $15 million series b funding of a language app called Memrise invites the question: “Can students really learn a language through an app?” Traditionally, language learning happened at home through the family, in school as part of a formal education program, through immersion in the target language environment, or some combination of the three. Learning a language, such as Mandarin Chinese, through an app is tempting because Chinese classes can be hard to find, they cost money and travel to China/Taiwan can also be arduous and expensive. Can an app solve these language learning issues?

What Can an App Help Students Do?

Most language-learning apps are based on the “freemium” model. Users can download the app and use a limited number of features for free, but then must pay to unlock the rest. Many of my students use Duolingo or Memrise. I’ve played around with both in order to understand what they offer. At worst, these apps function like an electronic deck of flashcards. Students think they are studying, but they are not really learning. At best, I think that they can help students reach short term goals with their language learning.

How Do Students Really Learn a Language?

It is important to keep in mind that people learn a language through communicatively embedded input that is comprehensible to them. In other words, people must listen to and read meaningful language that they can understand. Using a app as a deck of flashcards does not give students the right kind of input. A word that shows up in a list on an app with pinyin and an English translation, such as 苹果 (apple), it is certainly comprehensible to the user. The translation is right there. This type of input, however, has no communicative context. A user may remember the word later on. With enough review on the app, s/he probably will. This is not the kind of deep learning that results in the target language eventually falling from a student’s mouth the way that a native language does.

Other Language Learning Resources

Based on what I have seen from my students, the name Memrise says it all. The app can be useful for helping students memorize characters for short term learning, but it is not a program that provides the comprehensible input for language learning. Just because apps so far are not good substitutes for a quality curriculum or an immersion environment, does not mean that there are not good tools out there that can help students outside of the classroom or other language learning environment. Learning Chinese Through Stories provides meaningful content in a convenient podcast form (I suggest for it intermediate students and above).

There are additional resources on the blog here and here.

Do you have a favorite app to support your Mandarin Chinese learning? Share in the comments!

Screen shot of Memrise, a language learning app
Screen shot of Memrise, a language learning app

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