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I'm not sure this is the right spot for this question but I think it is appropriate and on topic.

I speak fluently one foreign language (from here on referred as L2) aside from my own native language and for the last two years I've been learning another foreign language (from here on referred as L3) that sparked interest in me.

Note that I purposely did not state what L2 and L3 are, since I feel this could apply to almost any language.

I've been learning L2 since I was 5, there where no apps, just books, and flesh and bones teachers. As a 5 years old kid, I learnt L2 mostly passively from my parents, (imagine how happy a kid is to learn another language and study regularly ;) ) then, much later on, I picked up the grammar and refined some critical points, such as grammatical structures, irregularities and so on. But I mostly used books and, a very inefficient approach. To be clear: I think books were inefficient because I was not fully committed, I can say this confidently because looking back at those books, they're still as top notch as you can get on L2.

As I stated above, L3 is a newcomer, but by using a more systematic approach, two years made me decent with speaking, writing and listening. This new approach that I used with L3 is a bit brutal, but for me works. Here it goes:

  1. Master all the main grammar rules and structures first. Get the minimum amount of vocabulary needed to start reading and listening simple texts.
  2. Read (online) and listen (YouTube/podcasts) a lot, recognize the structure of the language. If you feel like it, substitute your media entertainment (YouTube/films/books) with the language of choice. If possible, practice with a foreign friend.
  3. Add more and more vocabularies as the final piece.

This approach is by no means the best. In fact, most people I know do not like it at all. But it works for me, it has given me great satisfaction with L3.

One of the essential things to master a foreign language, in my opinion, is practicing with natives (it made the difference for L2). This is a bit hard, especially if you are trying to learn a language that is spoken far away from your place. This is where mobile/desktop apps come in the game.

Apps like iTalki, for instance, connect people from all around the world that share a common goal: learning a language. On iTalki, you find a language partner and start to talk. Each one can correct the other and so on. However, my experience with these apps is a bit confusing. I've contacted a lot of people for practicing my L3, but given the distance, topics are always boring (i.e. they're not helping developing the language skills) and when (and if!) they become interesting, most people simply leave the conversation. By the way, this seems reasonable to me (therefore I'm not criticizing any language student) since people have limited time and they cannot really spend all their time checking their phone/computer for the purpose of answering mid-long conversations.

This is my experience with iTalki. Just a bunch of time spent looking at ads and very little improvements.

A friend uses Duolingo, I think from a year at least, last time I heard him speaking L2 I saw almost no improvements (and he agrees the app is not doing much for him).

My personal conclusion is of course that, apps are tools, by themselves they are useless. Determination and motivation are essential when learning a language, technology, as usual, can help, but cannot be a substitute for studying. My personal opinion is that most of these apps are being marketed as a "quick solution for your learning efforts". I look a bit bitter when saying this, but to be honest, I'm not and I would be glad to be proven wrong.

Finally, my question: is there any scientific research done on the effectiveness of learning through mobile/desktop apps? Is there a general opinion on the subject held by academics?

Please note that I'm interested in learning and mastering the language only for practical purposes.

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    Hi, welcome to Language Learning SE! Please be aware that the terms "L1" and "L2" are commonly used to reference one's native and secondary languages respectively. Thanks for joining our community; I can't wait to see the answers this question receives! – Hatchet Apr 4 '17 at 18:33
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    @Hatchet Thank you! I did not know about that, should I edit the question then? – mickkk Apr 4 '17 at 20:09
  • That would be great! – Hatchet Apr 4 '17 at 20:13
  • Why do you want to learn it? If you want to communicate, then tools may help, but can never replace actually practicing communication. – WGroleau Oct 24 '17 at 18:59
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Well, we got an entire study that took place in June 2011 about it.

They have claimed that apps are just like the real, physical thing but can do a lot more:

In some instances, newer hardware and software have allowed for enhanced functionality. Phrase books, for instance, can now hold much more content, including video as well as audio, and integrate with online sites

and

Vocabulary development programs have become more sophisticated and powerful. One I have been using for studying Chinese is eStroke. Its primary purpose is to help in learning stroke order for writing Chinese characters, but it also includes an extensive dual-language dictionary, features excellent animations, and includes personal library and quizzing functions

Science Direct also done a small study in Iraq and has concluded that devices should have a huge impact in English acquisition:

Meanwhile, 99% of the participants of this paper used mobiles to a great extent for developing their English language learning. This was suggested by the participants themselves in the focus group discussion. Furthermore, each discussed application is relevant to English language learning. Therefore, as it had been hypothesised, it can be concluded that the mobiles (smartphones) have a great impact on English language learning by nearly all the targeted university students in Sulaimani, Iraq.

and also:

A great number of applications can be found in smartphones with regard to English language learning. Thus, applications such as radio programmes, free PDF books and articles, vocab, advanced grammar, TOEFL, spell checking and proofreading were used by the targeted university students. That is to say, they encompass listening, reading, speaking, writing, vocabulary and grammar, and increase awareness of international tests. These are major aspects of English language, particularly for EFL students in a CLT classroom. As a result, they are effective, not only outside the classroom, but also within the ELT classroom.

This site has a more broad view on this topic overall:

Other apps designed for language learning include dictionaries and phrasebooks, which can be relatively expensive in terms of app prices, but can be integrated into other apps, such as Kindle, so that the dictionary function works when reading foreign language texts. Some of these include pronunciation guides. There are also grammar drilling apps, some of which are provided by big names in language learning like Collins or The British Council. These are perfect for students who want to do grammar exercises or practise verb conjugations, for example.

For writing skills there are spelling apps and also character writing apps for languages such as Japanese or Chinese as well as dictionaries that include pronunciation guides. Other apps, such as MacMillan Sounds, are specifically designed for learning phonetics. There are even apps which students can use to create their own flashcards to help them memorise vocabulary, such as Quizlet.

To shorten the above in my own words and understanding is that there are apps for multiple learning styles whether you want quick memorization to writing to grammar, or even your own personal method, which could consist multiple apps to help you out.

This site does though bring it home with a very positive view on apps and how helpful they are in language learning though it really all boils down to yourself and your own interests and preferred learning methods:

It is unlikely that one app will provide all the solutions a student needs for language learning, but smartphones and tablets can store many different apps for different purposes.

This is the best thing that apps can bring: a portable solution to every learning style which can suit different language learning skill requirements: grammar, vocabulary, reading, listening, writing or speaking. A combination of apps (app mashing) that cover the different skills will help language learners engage, any time, any place and at any pace with a variety of teaching styles, from the repetitive grammar drills to the gamified all-in-one solutions.

Only the learners know which ones work for them. It is up to them to download, try, and work out which is best for their needs.


I am not sure if there is a general consensus on technology but due to advances to using technology in schools and other learning environments, I will say that technology (apps included) will help you out.

Therefore, applications should be quite effective in aiding the process of learning a new language. Notice how I said aiding since these studies did not mention if the participants used any other materials for learning (i.e flashcards, books, practice sheets).

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