Do language apps actually work? Fun vs results

do language apps work

Learning should be fun, but what’s the point in having fun if you’re not learning in the first place?

It’s always fun to play with language apps. But, for me, it’s more fun to make progress!

One common comment that I hear about my favorite language learning apps and courses – including my own Italian language course – is that they’re not fun.

That’s why I feel like ranting about gamification in language apps.

do language apps actually work

Why popular language apps are fun

Language apps are addictive but not particularly effective.

Duolingo is the most addictive app. It’s not surprising that it also has the largest user base (yes, it’s also free of charge).

The addictiveness of tools like Duolingo has more to do with business models than with language learning and has more in common with social media and massively multiplayer online role-playing games than with language courses and textbooks.

It’s designed to:

  • Pull you right in
  • Help you set daily goals (even if theyìre too low to make any progress)
  • Tell you that you’re right whenever they can, for example when checking your pronunciation
  • Provide multiple-choice responses that require less effort than open questions
  • Praise you constantly, like for responding correctly several times in a row or completing a lesson
  • Display your progress via various point schemes
  • Use email and phone notifications to stay on track
  • Bet points that you wouldn’t keep your streak up for another week
  • Make you rich in worthless points, and make you cherish them

do language apps really work

Why language apps don’t work

Only when you get out of this bubble, do you realize that those points don’t reflect your communication skills.

At the first practical question like “how to get downtown,” you gape like a fish. Words and phrases from Duolingo’s sentences swim through your mind, but you’re unable to recall them and pull them together.

Real-world questions are open, not multiple-choice. Without a prompt, you’re speechless.

can you learn italian with a language app

This skill unbalance can be made up for by covering aspects that are overlooked in language apps. The most typical is speaking. Ideally, you should be having real conversations with native speakers.

But then, why don’t just speak from Lesson 1 of your app or course, like Ripeti Con Me prompts you to do?

Gamification vs results

The reason is simple: challenging study material is not fun and most casual learners give up because nobody likes to make mistakes and mumble unfamiliar words.

Luis von Ahn, a co-founder and the CEO of Duolingo, candidly admits that:

“The biggest problem that people trying to learn a language by themselves face is the motivation to stay with it. That’s why we spend a lot of our energy just trying to keep people hooked.”

Making the lessons more difficult reliably speeds up learning—but also increases dropout rates.

“We prefer to be more on the addictive side than the fast-learning side. If someone drops out, their rate of learning is zero.”

This is gamification – making something fun like a game.

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Do language apps like duolingo work

Internal vs external motivation

Why do you need to make it fun? Because you lack motivation.

Since you’re not able to find internal motivation, you expect a tool to give your external motivation.

“In the U.S., about half of our users aren’t even really motivated to learn a language; they just want to pass the time on something besides Candy Crush.”

However, external motivation is like sugar on a pill. People don’t like taking bitter medicine, but rather suck sugar.

Brutally speaking, if you need an app to motivate you, don’t even try to learn a language. Do something else, like gardening, workout, or watching football.

Yeah, watching is more suitable because it requires less effort than playing.

Ask yourself the right question

In this jungle of language learning apps, people wonder:

  • Do language apps like Duolingo work?
  • Can you really learn a language from an app?
  • How effective are language learning apps?

However, the real question is: “are you motivated enough to benefit from serious study material?”

If you’re studying Italian and you’re motivated enough, check out Ripeti Con Me!

Still translating in your head? Wanna speak Italian for real? Check out Stefano's courses to think directly in Italian and become fluent fast!


Italian language tutor, course author, and polyglot. After learning 12 languages, I can tell you that we all master languages by listening and mimicking. With my method, you'll be speaking Italian from Lesson 1.

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