Although there are a number of apps and websites that provide online language learning, such as Babbel, Rosetta Stone, Duolingo, etc., they all have one thing in common: end-users have said that these apps are a temporary fix to help out with their children’s education, but there have not been overwhelming numbers of people who have indicated the remote learning apps they are using are a sufficient replacement for teachers. Despite the large number of people who have been downloading these apps over the past several weeks (up by hundreds of percentage points versus normal, according to this article), there seems to be a reticence about accepting this as the new norm. By contrast, CORE Languages connects you to live instructors, whether online or in-person; due to the pandemic, however, we are only offering online instruction at this time.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of these platforms and apps, and how effective are they really when it comes to interacting with native speakers of the target language? They are particularly good at building vocabulary, learning stock phrases for everyday use, and reviewing. However, without a live instructor, you are limited by the extent to which you can practice interacting with a person using the language. Will your accent prevent someone understanding you? There are some apps that can evaluate your pronunciation (e.g. Rosetta Stone) – you simply speak into a microphone and record yourself, and the software analyzes it and gives you feedback. Yet the lack of practicing actual conversation is quite limited, though apps reproduce many common, everyday conversational snippets.

How much is lost in terms of the social impact of learning live with an instructor, whether online or in person? Sure, there are forums and the ability to communicate with other users on certain apps like DuoLingo, but those are peers, not instructors. Maybe the novel coronavirus pandemic has laid bare many things that we took for granted: daily interactions, shopping for things whenever we needed them, friendships, attending social and cultural events, but also teachers. Online language learning that includes an instructor is important for several reasons.

Working with a teacher, you can practice those topics and zero in on what you really want to learn, instead of searching for terms across multiple vocabulary lists and chapters or lessons. This level of efficient learning is more difficult with apps, although most do have word lookup features, but they are time consuming. Unfortunately, online dictionaries are not built into these apps, but instead, they rely on their own content or tools like Google Translate, which are not ideal in terms of contextualized and authentic language, not to mention difficulties with slang.

One advantage that apps have is that they offer on-demand learning on mobile platforms. Certainly, you can learn with an instructor using Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts, etc. (see my article comparing video chat platforms) on your mobile devices, but the ability to pick up a phone or tablet and just practice or learn whenever you have some downtime is easier with apps. There is something to be said for setting a regular appointment for meeting with your online instructor – accountability is much higher when you are dealing with another person, and you are less likely to get off track and slow down or stop your lessons. This is a distinct advantage of working with a live teacher, as one of the biggest problems with apps is how frequently users quit, despite their convenience factor.

By cultivating a working relationship with an online instructor, it will be an easy and comfortable transition into meeting face-to-face – or continuing online – with your teacher when the crisis is over. You will have already established a good rapport with one another, and should your schedule change, you always have the option to meet virtually whenever necessary. Need to travel overseas for business? No problem! Your instructor can help prepare you in ways that would be very difficult using apps (e.g. crash course in cultural differences, the area you are traveling to, local slang or dialect, etc.). Does this mean you should cancel your accounts with language learning apps? No, but understanding the strengths of each form of online language learning and how to best use them will ultimately improve your overall experience.