Five little owls learn to tell who

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The little green owl is crying: "You have run out of hearts," she sobs. The owl is the mascot of Duolingo, a language learning app. If the user has made five mistakes, the animal will cry. And the language student knows: He has to repeat this task. On the other hand, if things go better in a language lesson, the owl will cheer him on. The app with owl is intended to make language learning more entertaining: Instead of clinging to dry theory from a textbook, app students solve puzzles, label photos and construct sentences from scraps of words on their smartphones or tablets.

There are now dozens of apps like Duolingo, and the number is growing all the time. Competitor Babbel, for example, already has several million users worldwide. Tens of thousands of people download the language games from the app stores onto their smartphones every day. The Berlin-based company Lesson Nine, which Babbel produced, recently announced that it wanted to expand into the USA. More and more people are learning English, but also Portuguese, Arabic or Chinese no longer once a week in evening classes, but on the go on their smartphones, in the train, in a taxi or on the plane. If the eagerness to learn decreases, the app reminds the language students of their plans. And that's not the only “smart” thing that the small programs have to offer.

Linguists rate the new learning tools positively. “Many apps are state of the art,” praises Bernd Rüschoff, professor at the Institute for Anglophone Studies at the University of Duisburg-Essen. "It's easier to keep information if you work it out yourself and don't learn it by heart." Today, languages ​​are also taught in schools in an increasingly action-oriented and playful manner, says Rüschoff. He is currently researching an app tool kit for language teaching in schools.

Foreign language apps are primarily suitable for beginners without prior knowledge, the linguist limits. After a short time, the point comes when language students have to talk to each other in order to develop their language skills. “You learn languages ​​in order to speak them,” says Rüschoff. The apps inevitably fail here. The hard accent of a waiter in Mexico or the English of a taxi driver in Wales are likely to be a problem for app learners. The speakers in the learning programs are practically accent-free - and the computer programs cannot hold conversations either. Anyone who wants more than just exchanging a few empty phrases with the waiter on vacation or being able to communicate rudimentarily has to look beyond the edge of the screen at some point.

Some manufacturers try to compensate for this disadvantage. Babbel and Busuu have set up user communities, so-called communities, in which the students of the online language schools can exchange ideas, practice together and, for example, arrange to meet on the phone. Getting to know each other further is not excluded. In the “I tell you a story” app, English and Italian storytellers read out stories that even beginners can easily follow. This expands the vocabulary and trains listening comprehension. The contact with the app language teacher is one-sided, after all, listeners cannot ask questions, the story comes off the tape.

Only a few app manufacturers come really close to the exchange with real language teachers or classmates. An exception is the provider EF Englishtown, which in addition to the app tasks also offers group courses and one-to-one lessons with a language teacher via video conference call. With a starting price of 49 euros per month, the offer is also significantly more expensive than many other foreign language apps. For just under eleven euros more you can get an annual subscription at Babbel, for example.

Many apps are even free at first glance - users can download them from the app store without paying for them. However, the offers are rarely really free, warns Markus Burgdorf, author of the “App-free” blog. "They finance themselves through so-called in-app purchases." In order to really be able to use all the offers of the foreign language app, users then have to activate a paid full version, activate additional functions or take out a membership.

In general, it is difficult for users to get an overview of what which app has to offer for which price. While Babbel is asking for a free lesson, Busuu claims that its users can basically learn languages ​​for free with the basic version. But if you want access to additional material and instructional videos, you need a premium membership. Duolingo, on the other hand, is actually free for the user. The service is financed by hiring its users as translators: as part of the language lessons, users have to translate sentences from websites.

If you don't want to learn a language from scratch, but only want to keep your existing language skills from rusting, advanced learners can stick to tried and tested providers. In addition to internet start-ups, well-known textbook publishers such as Klett, Langenscheidt and Pons have long since developed programs for smartphones. On the one hand, they are now offering their heavy-weight dictionaries in digital lightweight format. In addition, they also have digital vocabulary cards for on the go in their program. Langenscheidt charges 9.99 euros for his vocabulary trainer, Klett costs 4.99 euros for the Apple app, which is significantly less. If you have an Android device, you pay even less in the Google Play Store at 2.99 euros - some packages of empty paper index cards cost more.

Such vocabulary trainers are worthwhile for language students who already have a basic knowledge of grammar. You can learn more conveniently with app support. And: The app analyzes exactly where the vocabulary gaps are. The vocabulary trainer from Pons, for example, offers five different test scenarios and puts together new vocabulary collections over and over again. On the other hand, those who learn with paper index cards usually only have the choice between two stacks: one for "Can I". And one for “I can't”.