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Why language learning apps are competing with Spotify, YouTube rather than in-country learning

If apps were countries, the current champion of international education, the US, which has over one million international students across all levels of study, is recording small numbers when compared with the tens of millions of app users that top language learning apps can now claim.

Using game mechanics such as earning points and levelling up provides learners with feedback and makes them feel good

Duolingo claimed over 120 million users around the world when this article was first published in print in 2017, while Babbel says it picks up on average 1,300 new users every hour.

But language learning apps aren’t interested in going after the market of teachers. Perhaps surprisingly, they also don’t seem concerned with each other as competitors.

“We are fighting with a different stimulus,” says Gino Micacchi, chief product officer of Spanish-based ABA English, which delivers app-based learning alongside dedicated tutors to mentor students.

“Our competitors are not Duolingo or Babbel. Our real competitors are Netflix, Spotify and all the apps that are competing for users’ attention.”

Because they are rooted within the technology of apps, language learning developers are also rooted to the same business models, which includes revenue building through things such as paid advertising, in-app purchases, and freemium subscriptions.

This point also explains why many apps aren’t presently concerned with their direct competitors.

“The market will eventually shake out”

“I think we’re at the early stages still of experimentation. There’s nobody that’s proven that they have a scalable business model,” says chief executive, Mike Elchik at WeSpeke.

“The market will eventually shake out and there will be business models that thrive in the global economy.”

How does in-app learning work?

Language isn’t mathematics. But with mobile technology both shaping and driving the way we live, the irony is that language learning mobile apps, which are based on mathematical logic, are changing how lexicon is learned more than ever.

“Learning a language is hard,” says Sam Dalsimer at Duolingo. “From what I’ve seen, most people try it and start, but somewhere along the way it gets tough, and they stop.”

Motivation plays a key role in whether app learners continue learning. It is rarely enough for them just to want to succeed.

Mining motivation

In a classroom, the human element drives motivation naturally, but it’s not as easy with an app.

US-based Duolingo has rooted itself firmly within the app environment, using gamification to help learners achieve their goals.

“Making Duolingo built to feel like a game is part of the way it’s effective,” explains Dalsimer.

Using game mechanics such as earning points and levelling up, he argues, provides learners with feedback and makes them feel good, while also quantifying progress and incentivising further goals.

Utilising push notifications and measuring streaks – the number of days in a row a user engages with the app – also helps to encourage a learner to keep going.

“If I say you’re one in a million, then mathematically, there are seven thousand people just like you”

“If they keep using it, they keep learning; it reinforces itself. The more you learn, the more successful you feel,” he says.

Other developers argue, however, that because language is a shared experience between people, an app’s role isn’t to replicate human interaction but to facilitate it.

The middleman

Germany-based Tandem, which touts itself as a language exchange app, connects partners around the world to teach each other through video chat.

“It’s quid-pro-quo on the community side,” says Arnd Aschentrup, Tandem’s chief executive. “Two people take turns and we teach each other our mother tongue.”

Aschentrup says by using this app, in combination with other vocabulary-only apps, the motivation goes beyond anything a teacher would normally provide.

“I think a large part of the motivation is [making] friends,” he says. “You make deeper connections and enjoy really interesting cultural experiences in the app.”

“Developers see casual, on-the-go learners and professionals seeking to upskill as their bread and butter”

Taking the idea of cultural exchange even further, US-based WeSpeke sees itself as a combination of social networking, content delivery and matchmaking.

“We’re borrowing the business model of the dating websites,” explains Elchik.

“If you are English and want to learn Spanish and I’m Spanish and I’m wanting to learn English, that’s a good start. But if you and I liked all the same music, the same genre, the same bands… then we have things to talk about.”

Elchik says the idea of pairing people based on common interests came from his own travels, where he was amazed to find people with the same passions around the world.

“There are seven billion people on the planet. If I say you’re one in a million, then mathematically, there are seven thousand people just like you. It’s just a matter of finding them.”

Another brick in the wall

Developers are clear on who they don’t see as part of their target users: international students.

Even Duolingo, whose English proficiency exam is now accepted for entrance into over 90 US institutions, including Yale, sees traditional brick and mortar colleges as a mainstay of language learning education.

“We’d never want to replace teachers,” says Dalsimer. “But for people who don’t have access to high-quality teachers or great schools, this is a way that technology could [help].”

Instead, developers see casual, on-the-go learners and professionals seeking to upskill for work as their bread and butter. When looking at the numbers, the potential market for these apps is staggering.

Still, even if apps haven’t caused a revolution in the classroom, they have at least played a significant part in inspiring change.

Cambridge English has recognised the role technology and apps can play within and without the classroom, developing The Digital Teacher, a framework to help language teachers critically assess the value of a particular digital tool and increase their confidence.

“The key question that people want to be looking at is: what is the added benefit?” says Maggie Dunlop, senior research manager at Cambridge English. According to Dunlop, by getting teachers to consider that question, developers themselves benefit.

“Teachers are incredibly invested in their profession. They have a lot to contribute to the work of app developers who are seeking to serve them and their work,” she says.

Moving forward

While developers seem unconcerned about competition from their peers, sensitivities preclude most from discussing future phases in services and tech before they’re ready to launch. But they do give some hints.

Some are developing chatbots so learners can practise a language without feeling like they’re being judged. In a somewhat ironic twist, in the same way Tandem and WeSpeke connects users to teach each other, the artificial intelligence is also learning from and teaching the user.

For Kristina Narusk, head of product at UK-based Memrise, which prioritises fun learning experiences, the real developments will come when an app finds a scalable approach to their service.

“It’s very motivating to think how to make language learning accessible to everyone,” she says.

“There is no big, overwhelming player on the market that the whole world knows.

“I always believe the best product will win, but what is the best product for one to two billion users in the next five to seven years?” she asks.

The Holy Grail of language learning apps isn’t the best method of teaching an individual. It’s the best way to teach the world.

  • This is an abridged version of an article that originally appeared in The PIE Review, our quarterly print publication.  

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