State of language learning apps

As someone interested in learning languages, I am frustrated by the lack of good options, especially when starting with a new language.

Wait, what? It's a ridiculous thing to say: anyone could laundry-list apps like Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, and Pimsleur. Those that have done more research might even know of LingQ and Mango languages. The list goes on.

But here's the problem: the vast majority of these apps buy into a false and disproven theory of language aquisition, based on memorization and grammar. They don't work.

Krashen's Input Hypothesis

Stephen Krashen's Input Hypothesis is the accepted theory of how people aquire language. It states that learners progress in their knowledge of the language when they comprehend language input that is slightly more advanced than their current level. For a complete beginner, who knows none of the target language, this that there has to be hints to help comprehension of a text, such as pictures, hand movements, word definitions, or other cues.

People aquire language by listening to loads of comprehensible input: the more the better. This is how children learn languages, and this is how anyone can learn languages at any age: this ability does not go away. True polyglots learn by reading, watching movies, and by making meaningful connections with native speakers.

The input hypothesis lies in stark contrast to how most people think language is learned. Our schools are obsessed with grammar-teaching and memorization, both of which do not work in aquiring language. There is a difference between learning and aquiring a language: linguists and grammarians learn a language in order to study in a stressful and intensive learning process, much like how high-school Spanish is taught. However, babies and true fluent speakers aquire language in an effortless process that occurs automatically when one is absorbed in a book, conversation, or soap-opera.

Language learning apps today

Armed with this knowledge from Krashen, the goal of any language learning app is to get the learner to a basic enough level so they can comprehend more compelling resources, like Youtube, Netflix, podcasts, or books.

Language learning apps are just not able to do this. We've all tried Duolingo. We all know how painfully boring it is. No gameification can fix a grindy, memorization-based method that doesn't work. All other language learning apps are just as boring.

LingQ is certainly the best and most aligned with the Input Hypothesis, but it's still too boring for the learner: LingQ forces the learner to trudge through boring mini-stories, looking up every word in the dictionary along the way. LingQ is still too memorization-focused too, as it encourages the learner to review vocab with flashcards. LingQ is not an optimal tool for complete beginners to use.

The Solution

There needs to be a new app, designed specifically for total beginners, which aims only to bootstrap learners to a basic level. The app should excel at this one goal only. Learners will read stories progressively ordered stories, that are not only extremely interesting, but incredibly easy to understand. Easy comprehension will be provided by relavant pictures and animations for each individual sentence. The learner should never have to look up a word, because meanings will be instantly apparent from context.

This is the kind of language learning app that would work, and never experience the low retention rates of other services. It ensures learner progress, because it's just so easy to progress.

The world needs better language learning apps. C'mon guys, all it takes is one app to do it right!

Stay tuned for part 2! 🙃