Table of Contents
2. Theoretical Background
2.1 Mobile Apps
2.2 Language Learning Apps
2.3 Methodological Approaches of Language Learning Apps
2.4 Advantages and Disadvantages of Language Learning Apps
4.1 Past Experience with Language Learning Apps
4.2 Requirements for a Good Language Learning App
4.3 Potential of Language Learning Apps
Table of Figures
Table 1: Most famous language learning apps
Table 2: Summary of distinguishing features of five of the most famous language learning apps
Table 3: Comparison between three language acquisition theories
Table 4: Aspects that participants like about the language learning apps they used so far
Table 5: Aspects that would need to be improved
Table 6: Features of a successful language learning app
Figure 1: Number of available apps in the Google Play Store
Figure 2: Number of available apps in the Apple App Store
Figure 3: Most popular Apple App Store categories in September
Figure 4: Student numbers per faculty at the University of Trier
Figure 5: Gender distribution of students of the University of Trier
Figure 6: Number of participants who used the following language learning apps
Figure 7: Past experience with language learning apps
Figure 8: Evaluation of factors for a successful language learning app
Figure 9: Which language level would you aim at?
Figure 10: Highest language level that can be achieved by learning with a language learning app?
Figure 11: Opinions about language learning apps and the language classroom
Not long ago, mobile phones were only a means of communication and it was hard to imagine that one day they could fulfil literally hundreds of tasks. Today, thanks to mobile apps, they can be a map, a book, a video game and even a spirit level all at once. One of their most valuable new features, though, are educational apps. They allow users to learn anything from coding to chemical elements to languages and have been changing the educational landscape ever since.
Language learning apps have been especially disruptive. No other type of educational apps is used as often as they are. Today, apps like Duolingo and Babbel have more than 100 million active users, with their numbers increasing by the day (Google Play Store, 2019). They offer courses in languages from Spanish to Hawaiian and are no longer limited to vocabulary teaching only.
The goal of this bachelor thesis is to find out how often language learning apps are already used and to analyze their potential for the upcoming years, i.e. whether they might be able to supplement or even replace traditional language classes one day. The study presented in this thesis consists of two parts: an analysis of the term language learning app, their user numbers and their teaching methods in order to be able to find their strengths and weaknesses (Chapter 2) and a survey conducted among students of the University of Trier (Chapter 4) in which they were asked about their past usage of language learning apps, as well as their attitudes and opinions towards language learning apps in general, including their opinions about the potential of language learning apps.
Given the almost exponential growth in the usage of language learning apps over the past few years (Google Play, 2019) and the fact that students are usually more open for new technology than the average of society, it might be reasonable to assume that the majority of students have already used language learning apps before and that they might think that language learning apps will one day replace traditional face-to-face language courses or at least supplement them.
2. Theoretical Background
2.1 Mobile Apps
Applications (short: apps) are omnipresent in modern society. Most technical devices nowadays use them: tablets, smartphones, computers and even watches. According to the Meriam Webster Dictionary an app is defined as “an application designed for a mobile device (such as a smartphone)”.
From a technical standpoint, however, this definition is only partly true. Strictly speaking, the term application (short: app) is not limited to programs that operate on mobile devices. This means that apps can be used on both mobile devices (e.g. smartphone) and static devices (e.g. desktop) (Tech Terms, 2019). This is also reflected in the definition of the term by the Cambridge Dictionary. It describes an app as “a computer program that is designed for a particular purpose” or “a small computer program that you can download onto a mobile phone”. Therefore, it makes sense to differentiate between apps that are designed for mobile devices (i.e. mobile apps) and apps that are designed for static devices (i.e. desktop apps).
In this paper the focus will be on mobile apps, as language learning apps mostly operate on mobile devices and have been especially disruptive in this area. The first mobile apps were created with the development of the first smartphone (named “Simon”) in 1994 (Aamoth, 2014). It contained 10 apps: an address book, a calendar, a calculator, a fax app, a filer, a mail app, a note pad, a sketch pad, a time app and a to-do-list app – which for today’s standards would be pretty basic but at that time revolutionized the market. However, until it came to the rapid growth of mobile apps that we know today, it took another 13 years, until the year 2007, when Apple launched its first iPhone and the Apple App Store was created. Soon Apple’s main competitors Google and Microsoft with their operating systems Android and Windows followed and created their own App platforms (Callaham, 2019). What followed was a period of almost exponential growth. In the US alone, the number of smartphone users skyrocketed from 62 Million in 2010 to more than 265 Million today (Statista, 2019). This is also reflected in the number of available apps on the market. Over the past decade, it has been growing at even higher rates than the number of smartphone users as can be seen in the following two bar charts (cf. Figure 1 and Figure 2). The two charts depict the number of mobile apps that are available on the two largest app distribution platforms: the Google Play Store (cf. Figure 1) and Apple App Store (cf. Figure 2).
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Figure 1: Number of available apps in the Google Play Store (Source: Statista)
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Figure 2: Number of available apps in the Apple App Store (Source: Statista)
The graphs show that the total number of apps in both the Google Play Store and the Apple App Store skyrocketed from a few thousand at the end of 2009 to more than 3,000,000 apps in the Google Play Store and more than 2,000,000 apps in the Apple App Store in 2017. Moreover, there are not only more and more apps coming on the market, they also get ever more complex and provide entirely new solutions. In contrast to the apps that “Simon” – the first smartphone – provided, today’s apps go beyond functions like address book, calendar and calculator. Today, there are all kinds of apps like news apps, games apps, educational apps, productivity apps and many, many more. Mobile apps can solve problems that ten years ago people did not even think of. Their versatility is one of the reasons for the huge popularity of mobile apps and their massive potential. This is also reflected in the number of app downloads per year. According to a study conducted by data scientists Sam Cheney and Eric Thomson, it was at a staggering 178 billion worldwide in 2017. But not just that. The study also projects this number to grow to 258 billion by 2022 (Cheney & Thompson, 2018). These massive growth rates are another reason for the huge potential of mobile apps, as their audience is becoming bigger and bigger.
Like the number of apps and the number of app users, the number of app categories is also growing rapidly. Apps are becoming more and more diverse. Today, there are 33 categories of apps in the Google Play Store and 24 in the Apple App Store. And in each of the two stores, there are only 7 app categories that have managed to reach more than 3% of all users. The following bar chart shows the 10 most popular app categories in the Apple App Store and their market share in percent.
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Figure 3: Most popular Apple App Store categories in September 2018 (Source: Statista)
By far, the category Games is the most popular app category in the App Store with a share of more than 24% - that is almost one in four apps. It is followed by the category Business with about 10% and the categories Education and Lifestyle with each a little less than 9%.
This means that about one in eleven of all downloaded apps are educational apps – the category to which language learning apps – the main topic of this thesis – belong. If we take the numbers that were forecasted by Cheney and Thompson (258 billion by 2022) and assume that the market share of educational apps will stay the same until the year 2022, there would be 25 billion downloads of educational apps by then – that is roughly 3 times the world population.
2.2 Language Learning Apps
Language learning apps are a relatively new type of educational apps whose purpose it is to facilitate language learning. As this is a relatively new concept, at the time of publication of this thesis there is no clear definition of the term language learning app. However, it could be taken literally as apps that support language learning. This would include apps that contain language courses, dictionaries or other material that might be useful for language learners. In this thesis, however, the focus will be on apps that provide language learning systems for autodidactic language learning. Therefore, the definition of the term language learning app will be narrowed to mobile apps that provide language learning systems and use specific educational methods.
2.2.2 Classification within CALL / MALL
Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL) is an approach to language teaching and language learning in which the computer and/or computer-based resources are used to present, reinforce and assess language material. It is "the search for and study of applications of the computer in language teaching and learning" (Levi, 1997). It puts a strong emphasis on student-centered materials that allow learners to work on their own (Hubbard, 2019). CALL can be used to improve a wide variety of learning conditions, such as learning efficiency, learning effectiveness, motivation, etc. (Hubbard, 2019) and for various aspects of language learning such as reading, writing, speaking, listening or grammar teaching. It includes podcasts, audio tools, chat rooms, flashcards, discussion lists, animation tools and many more. However, CALL is not limited to desktop computers. In a broad sense it also refers to laptops, tablets, smart phones, interactive whiteboard, etc. Dozens of CALL programs are currently available at prices ranging from free to expensive and specific versions have been developed for both individual language learning and CALL use at public schools. They all embody two important features: interactive learning and individualized training (Hubbard, 2019).
As CALL includes various activities and devices, it can be divided into sub-categories that are specific to a particular device or group of devices. One of these sub-categories is the category of Mobile-Assisted Language Learning (MALL). The term describes all studies and applications of mobile devices in language teaching and learning (Goodwin-Jones, 2006). It is not only a sub-category of CALL but also of mobile learning (mLearning). MALL includes all kinds of mobile handheld devices such as cell phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), smartphones and tablets (Viber & Grönlund, 2012). In contrast to other forms of CALL or traditional language classes, in MALL there is no need for the learners to sit in a classroom or at a computer to get learning materials. This means that students can use and access MALL programs whenever they want and wherever they want. In fact, MALL can be considered an ideal solution to language learning barriers in terms of time and place as they can be used in remote areas or for people who want to learn a language in their spare time (Mosavi Miangah & Nezarat, 2012).
As language learning apps are mobile applications that provide language learning systems, they are also part of MALL and accordingly also of CALL. They include the main characteristics of mobile learning like permanency, accessibility, immediacy, interactivity and the situating of instructional activities (Ogata & Yano, 2005). They also embody interactive learning and individualized training. Unlike other CALL programs, however, some language learning apps claim that they are not only designed to supplement traditional language classes but that they can also replace them. Whether or not language learning apps could really be able to do so, will be one of the questions of the practical part of this study. However, it can be said that language learning apps reshape the possibilities of CALL and there are constantly new concepts appearing.
2.2.3 Most famous Language Learning Apps
Like the rest of the app market, the number of language learning apps has been growing steadily over the past few years with multiple new apps joining the market. There are apps with many different approaches that focus on different aspects or methods of language learning. However, there are five apps that are currently the most successful ones on the market according to the number of downloads: Duolingo, Busuu, Babbel, Rosetta Stone and Drops. Each of them offers courses in a variety of languages. The table below (cf. Table 1) shows the number of downloads of each of these five apps, as well as their average rating, the number of reviews and the number of courses that are offered in English.
Table 1: Most famous language learning apps (Source: Google Play Store, 12.04.2019)
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In the following, we will take a closer look at each of the five apps and analyze their respective teaching methods.
Duolingo is currently the most used language learning app on the market with more than 100 million downloads and over 30 million active users per month. It offers 85 different language courses in 24 languages, of which 32 are in English. Duolingo uses a unique business model that combines language learning with crowdsourced translation: Language learners can use the language courses free of charge and in return they translate texts into their native language. Duolingo can then sell these translated texts to companies like CNN or Buzzfeed and make money this way (Nawal, 2018). This allows Duolingo to spend more money on the development and design of its courses and still offer them free of charge. This makes it arguably the best free language learning app on the market.
Therefore, Duolingo is not only the most used language learning app, but also one of the most popular ones. It has an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 with more than 7.5 million reviews in the Google Play Store – no other language learning app has even come close to as many reviews. It also claims to be the most effective app for language learning which it links to a study conducted by the City University of New York and the University of South Carolina, which found that an average of 34 hours of Duolingo are equivalent to a semester of university-level education (Vesselinov & Grego, 2012).
According to its own website, Duolingo’s design is primarily based on the language acquisition theories of active recall (“test effect”), spaced repetition (“forgetting curve”), core vocabulary and multi modal learning. The theory of active recall claims that it is important to actively stimulate the learner’s memory during the learning process. Duolingo tries to fulfill this by using complete sentences that learners have to generate from memory – mostly in the form of translations. The second theory, spaced repetition, is a learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material – in Duolingo’s case vocabulary or grammar. It tries to exploit the psychological spacing effect, which states that studying is more effective when it is spread out over time (Baddeley, 1997). Duolingo tries to leverage this effect by employing a specific algorithm that analyses how a learner uses the app and creates and adapts repetition schedules accordingly. Core vocabulary, the third language acquisition theory used by Duolingo, is the focus on common words and concepts which is then gradually extended by introducing more rare and complex ones. Duolingo does this by so-called “skill trees”, which start with core vocabulary and then gradually develop. Duolingo’s fourth and last language acquisition theory is the theory of multi modal-learning. It states that the information in the real world usually comes as different modalities which is why it is easier to learn by using multiple senses - like visual, auditory, and tactile information. Duolingo uses a combination of these senses in every lesson — listening, reading, interpreting pictures, typing, speaking, etc. Gamification is also an important part of Duolingo’s concept. For instance, it allows learners to set a goal for themselves, such as trying to earn 30 points per day. The more they hit their goal, the more bonus points – called Lingots – they earn. These points can be spent on little perks and extras in the app.
Busuu is the world’s largest social network for language learning (Vesselinov & Grego 2016). It was named after a language spoken in Cameroon that has almost become extinct. Its concept is to incorporate the communicative elements of social networking into self-study language learning. This is implemented via chatrooms and the possibility to have exercises corrected by native speakers under the condition that you also correct exercises of other learners in your native language. With more than 80 million downloads and courses in 12 languages Busuu is the second most downloaded language learning app in the Google Play Store. As of January 2019, it had more than 90 million registered users in its community and an average rating of 4.3 out of 5 with only about 260,000 reviews (Google Play, 2019).
Busuu courses contain approximately 61 lessons and up to 340 units (Vesselinov & Grego, 2016). Each lesson contains vocabulary and grammar units, including dialogues for further practice in context. This is supplemented by practice and feedback with native speakers. Unlike Duolingo, however, Busuu is not free of charge as users need to buy monthly or yearly subscriptions. This may be one of the reasons why it has worse reviews. On the other hand, unlike Duolingo, Busuu also offers certified courses for the proficiency levels A1 to B2 according to the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR). This is due to a partnership with one of the world’s biggest educational publishers, McGraw-Hill Education (David, 2013) and one of the reasons why Busuu claims it can bring students to an upper B2 level.
According to the Busuu Effectiveness Study, conducted by Roumen Vesselinov and John Grego, Busuu users need on average 22.5 hours of study in a two-month period to cover the requirements for one college semester of Spanish. This would make it about 1.5 times more effective than Duolingo (34 hours). The main instrument for evaluating the level of knowledge of Spanish in the study was the Web Based Computer Adaptive Placement Exam (WebCAPE test), which is an established university placement test (Vesselinov & Grego, 2016).
Babbel is the world’s highest grossing language learning app (Google Play Store, 2019). It was named after the imperative mood of the verb babbeln, which means to chat in various dialects of German and is also a pun on the biblical legend of the Tower of Babel, whose construction made God so angry that he made the worker languages mutually unintelligible for each other so they could not finish their project (Britannica, 2019). Babbel is the third most downloaded language learning app with more than 10 million downloads and courses in 14 different languages from 7 learning languages – so 98 in total. It has an average rating of 4.4 out of 5 with about 370,000 reviews and was awarded both Google Play’s best app of 2015 and Apple’s best app of 2014 in 9 countries. Moreover, in 2016, the American business magazine Fast Company even recognized Babbel as the most innovative company of the year in the area of education (Fast Company, 2017).
The Babbel Efficacy Study, a study conducted by Roumen Vesselinov and John Grego, the same scientists who also conducted the Duolingo Effectiveness Study and the Busuu Effectiveness Study mentioned above, claims that Babbel users were able to cover the requirements of a semester-long college Spanish course in just 21 hours of study with Babbel over a two-month period. That would make it slightly more effective than Busuu (22.5) and about 1.5 times more effective than Duolingo (34). The study also claims that complete beginners of a foreign language (in the study: Spanish) needed only about 15 hours of study over a two-month period with Babbel to cover the requirements of one college semester of Spanish (Vesselinov & Grego. 2016). This would make Babbel especially efficient for beginners.
Babbel also claims to combine communicative didactics, cognitivism, behaviorism and constructivism (The Babbel Method, 2019). It uses small learning units that cover topics like travel, culture, local cuisine, and nature and try to apply to everyday life. Each unit consists of interactive lessons of about 5 to 10 minutes that cover all four aspects of language acquisition – reading, writing, speaking and listening – by gradually building up dialogs and using voice recognition software.
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