Can an app really help you learn a language in a couple of weeks?
So you want to learn another language? There are many apps that claim to get you speaking a new language in just weeks, or even days. But do they really work? We put Babbel, the app touted as the number one selling language learning app in the world, to test.
A group of enthusiastic Bell Media employees which included Joey Arsenault, Jeannine Avelino, Julie Nolin, Liesel Unger and Laurell Pecnik volunteered to be our students, and the McLaughlin on Your Side team gave them their assignment. They would have just over two weeks to learn Russian, with the help of Babbel, which uses speech recognition technology to help absorb and retain its language lessons.
Our group quickly downloaded what they need to their smartphones to get started on their assignment, and over the next two-and-a-half weeks, they practiced.
“73 per cent of Babbel users would feel comfortable having a short simple conversation in their language with just five hours of lessons with Babbel,” said Julian Underdown, Babbel’s country performance manager for Canada.
We asked Russian-born Misha Ageev, owner of Crossroads Café, to be our interpreter. And he was ready to put our participants to the test.
We split the group in two and the conversations began, along with an alphabet test.
While some had a tougher time, others picked up the language quickly.
“For two weeks, using that app… it’s amazing,” said a surprised Ageev.
But the reviews from our students were mixed.
"I could mimic the noises that the word was but I wasn't actually learning the word," explained Arsenault.
"I think the app is effective. It's not a week. It's not two weeks," said Pecnik.
“I feel like I learned the words that I didn’t really need off the bat, rather than the ones I really needed,” Avelino said.
“There is no way to learn the [Cyrillic] alphabet in two hours,” said Unger.
"Having an app isn't usually enough," said Nolin.
And she may be right. It’s just a tool.
"At a higher level you definitely need interaction with proficient speakers," explained Trude Heift, a Simon Fraser University professor who specializes in computer-assisted language learning.
Babbel says the app gives you the confidence but motivation is key. What’s important to note in our test is that our participants didn’t get to choose the language.
"It's generally easier to learn a language if you are choosing the language you want to learn," said Underdown.
Practicing with real people can make a huge difference and Avelino, who performed very well speaking Russian after using the app, did acknowledge her boyfriend who has studied Russian was an asset.
"He was mostly helping me with my pronounciation," she said.
When all was said and done, the group agreed a personal tutor trumps learning a language with an app. But when you don't have access to a tutor the app is definitely a good start.
Babbel believes three weeks is enough for simple converstation. But remember effort in equals results out.
Russian is one of the 14 languages Babbel offers. You can download the app for free but there is a subscription fee.
The more time you buy the cheaper the price. It’s $20 a month, $45 for three months and $78 for six months. A full year about $120.