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:
- Master all the main grammar rules and structures first. Get the minimum amount of vocabulary needed to start reading and listening simple texts.
- 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.
- 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.