On language learning with apps

As part of my morning commute, I’ve been continuing with my languages. It all started with if I’m going to move to Portugal I should probably get started in learning Portuguese. Thus started my weeks long evaluation of the top recommended language apps.

I think it’s also a little sadomasochistic of me to be doing this. Every morning I am learning French/Spanish/Dutch. That’s successively, one after another. I’m quite tired from my long hours at work, my lack of sleep at night and my early morning departures to get to CrossFit on time and I’m still hammering my brain with all this language learning. Its mentally draining before I start the day and yet I get a sick pleasure out of doing it. There is satisfaction in acquiring language and also satisfaction in waking up my brain every morning.

Firstly, Spanish is my third language but while I understand and comprehend 80% of what is being said and written, I don’t speak it. That’s generally my problem with language learning is that I’m really good at absorbing all the inputs but there’s no output. I can’t bring myself to actually speak the language and I think it’s due to me loving to talk and being reduced to the sentences and vocabulary of a 5 year old in order to get my point across. It’s frustrating and slow and so I don’t. It’s also really easy to get away with responding in English and that’s a crutch that I use way too often.

As part of learning Spanish I changed my phone’s language to it. Sometimes its Spanish from Spain, other times it’s Spanish from Colombia and whichever country I want to mix it up with. I like variety and learning the different words for the same thing.

I did this because my phone is the one thing that I use all the time, all day, every day. What better way to learn when you’re basically forced to learn it? Unfortunately, the downside of this is that all my apps pick up that the phone’s language is Spanish and the apps display Spanish natively. This is normally fine with apps not to do with language learning but its problematic when the language app thinks you’re a native Spanish speaker and that you’re learning the new language based on that.

This means that when I’m learning French, I’m simultaneously translating from English to Spanish to French. The app displays the word in Spanish, then the corresponding word in French and in my head I’m translating both into English. But on the other hand, I’m re-learning Spanish again through French. It’s complicated, its difficult at 6am every day but I find pleasure in it. I don’t know why.

I use Memrise to learn French.

Secondly, I’m learning Dutch despite my complicated relationship with it. I’m maintaining my levels and trying to acquire more vocabulary not because I want to go back to the country and live there, no, god no, but because there is a possibility that my future nieces and nephews will be Dutch speakers. Yes, they will also be English speakers but it’s also a weird twist of fate that my brother and I ended up learning the same language.

I use Duolingo for Dutch. I also used Babbel’s free trial for Dutch and while I liked it, I couldn’t justify paying money for it when I had already got the other ones.

Thirdly, Portuguese is not working out for me. It’s impossible to get the pronunciation in both speaking it and in comprehending it. My app is teaching me Brazilian Portuguese which I think is already better in terms of pronunciation and enunciation but Portuguese from Portugal is discernibly different. So many Brazilians have commented on how hard it is to understand Portuguese from Portugal and in my own experiences Portuguese from Portugal sounds more like an Eastern European language.

I used Busuu for Portuguese but have now repurposed it to French.


My gripe with Duolingo is that it teaches you absurd sentences. The other day I had to translate the sentence ‘The turtle is having a party in prison’ – because all those words are relevant to everyday life when you’re learning a new language.

It also is very literal and if you don’t get the right order of words, despite the meaning being the same, you’re marked incorrectly. I used Duolingo for Spanish long long ago and I didn’t agree with a lot of their ‘correct answers’. This literal word order business becomes problematic with Dutch at higher levels because there are what are called ‘separable verbs’. I’m not up to that yet in my app but it will be interesting to see how they treat this unusual word order.

A language teacher I know remarked one time that it’s good to learn syntax but that’s about it.

The vocabulary is random and although the app says it’s learning how learners learn so that it can be more effective, I don’t believe it.

They don’t teach you grammar, they don’t really teach you tense and it’s just straight up memorising.

Which is the premise of Memrise but Memrise treats it differently.


Memrise gives you full sentences in the end. It also teaches you verbs and conjugation in flip card style and does a lot of repetition and revising in what they call ‘a fun way’.

It’s a little devoid of context though but if you’re an input person then having this much input in a repetitive fashion should work for you. It does for me to know the vocabulary and the verbs. Luckily I already know Spanish conjugation and French seems to be quite similar.

If I had to learn French from not knowing anything but English then help me God because they certainly don’t teach us English grammar anymore. I learnt how to conjugate in Spanish.

But I guess that’s the advantage of the flash card memorisation system is that you don’t really need the grammar in order to understand what you’re doing. If you know that these 2 words put together means ‘I love..’ and this other pair means ‘you love..’ then do you really need to know HOW to get there from the infinitive when you just want to say I love you and you love me?

I mean eventually yes but it depends on your goals. Either way, memorisation works but I am aware of its shortcomings.

The exercise that I love and dread the most is the rapid fire revision because it hurts my brain. Imagine not being fully awake at 6am on the commute to work and your app throws this at you. Flash card style, 4 options, choose the right one in less than 10 seconds. You get 3 strikes and you’re out. It really gets the blood pumping and I find myself even holding my breath sometimes. Surely this can’t be good for me but hey whatever, I’m masochistic remember.

I also like the little videos of French speakers (or native speakers if you’re not learning French). They’re really diverse and it anchors the language learning by using visual and audio inputs. The short 3 second videos are people saying the words and sentences you just learnt and variously you either have to select the right answer or rearrange the words to resemble what you heard. I like it because it also shows the different accents, different people, and different races of all native French speakers – not just white people.

Like all learning apps, Memrise is gamified. But I don’t really give a shit about games or reaching next levels. It’s like Duolingo is always asking me to get more lingots but I don’t know what they do nor do I want to watch ads to get more.

Memrise is based on a rocket exploring space and planets. Each level is a new planet or something but since I’m not really paying attention, I’m not sure how I am doing in exploring the universe. I see points and there’s a points ladder but needless to say, it’s not the thing that’s motivating me to come back every day to use the app.


Admittedly I haven’t logged much time with Busuu.

What I find strange about this app is the instant enrolment in the community. Its community based learning after all I suppose but basically when you do the tasks such as recording yourself repeating a piece of text or writing a piece of text in answer to the question, it gets sent to the community for them to mark and correct it.

Then there are the constant email notifications (also automatic) that someone is requiring your language to mark and correct their tasks.

And the kicker? The community is creepy yo. You get instantly friend requested by men who seemingly want to help you with your language learning but have somehow downloaded the wrong app and thought it was Tinder.

As much as I am writing publicly on a blog and sharing my most inner thoughts, I am actually a person who is quite private. I don’t like such intrusions on my privacy and I certainly won’t be part of a community unless I choose to be.

Aside from that, from what I can see, Busuu has very ambitious plans for my French learning. According to the app, if I spend 10 mins a day every day learning French I’ll reach B1 levels in 3 months or so.

So when you first the app and choose a language they assess you and give you a customised learning plan which I think is designed to motivate and help you along instead of gamifying the whole process like the other apps.

Honestly for a traditional learner like me, this was very enticing and I was sucked in a bit by it.

But having used it for a little while now (not as much as the above apps) I can tell you that it’s going to be impossible to reach the levels they predict at only the small time commitments like that.

There’s also a lack of repetition. Although they teach grammar tips and great colloquial titbits that will help you sound like a local and not a textbook, none of the sentences and dialogue has stuck in my brain like the other apps.

Busuu is more like the digital version of your textbook and the community is like your classroom but at least in a classroom there’s a bit of social control on how pervey people can get.

Apps vs classroom learning

I learnt Spanish entirely in the classroom. I did a bit of it when I was travelling but I acquired most of my levels of Spanish through a structured community college course over many months and probably years. I mean these were the days before apps and the alternative were the audio tapes that offered ‘repeat after me..’

I wanted to do this with French but the community college course is now expensive and only 2 hours a week for 8 weeks. At the end of the 8 weeks apparently you’re going to be able to introduce yourself. My app has taught me that in 2 days. I just can’t justify investing that money in a language course in classroom.

Another thing is that there are differing levels of student learners and they inevitably affect and impact my learning. I found this in Dutch classes too. I am quick to pick things up while others might be slower. I don’t want to brag but I definitely am in the top of any pack of any classroom.

French classes would be a good substitute for my practical psychology class and I did find a lot of my friends from my Spanish class but I don’t want to commit that kind of money for something that I perceive to be not as effective anymore.

Evolving goals

I think my goals have changed. I want rapid language acquisition and I’m dedicating every day to it because I want to get back to Europe. I also think it’s great to know more languages. I think it’s a great cultural shame to only know ONE language and that’s English. I don’t think I’m better than others because I know other languages but I do think it helps with cross cultural understanding.

I’m still not so clear on why I’m learning French but it seems obvious to me going from Spanish to French. It’s also the other official language of that tiny European country so I’m hedging my bets. If one day I do decide to pursue a dream of working for that supranational organisation then I may need to at least understand French.

Dutch as I said was to maintain my levels for my future nieces and nephews. It’s also not a bad thing that I acquired a language. It’s not one that many people speak but it’s exhilarating when you see Dutch and you realise you can read a lot of it and understand a lot of it. I get a sense of achievement that I think I can be proud of now with distance. Also, I choose to learn Dutch now as opposed to someone telling me I had to. I don’t respond well to being forced to do something and I’ve always dragged my feet on that one, till now. The irony.

Portuguese was to live in the country but unlike their neighbours, Portuguese people are actually very adept at foreign languages. They speak at least 3 languages: English, Portuguese and French. Yes French surprised me but I think they learn it in school as their foreign language. So I figure if I learn French, I’ll be alright there. I know, I really should learn the local language but Portuguese is just really hard right now and the motivation is not there like the others.


Ask me again in a few months to see how I progress. Hopefully I’ll be finally speaking Spanish and the rest, well we’ll see.


Photo by Marcellin Bric on Unsplash

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