There is a lot to like about language learning apps:
- They allow you to squeeze in more language learning time throughout your day. Busy schedules can make it tough to find large chunks of time to throw at language learning. But even the busiest person can use apps to leverage their “hidden moments,” short chunks of unused time such as waiting in line that can add up to many hours of language study a week.
- Their gamification features help increase consistency by leveraging the power of habit. Instead of relying on willpower (a recipe for failure in the long run), you can outsource motivation to dopamine-driven “habit loops” (cue, routine, reward cycles) that keep you coming back for more every single day.
So that’s the good news.
The bad news? Apps alone will never get you fluent in Japanese.
- Most language learning apps focus on isolated, out-of-context words. We learn words best when they are in-context, connected to other words in useful chunks and collocations, and related to topics and ideas we care about.
- Most apps prioritize ease and play at the expense of efficacy. I am a big believer in making language learning as enjoyable as possible, but there will inevitably be some less-than-joyous aspects of mastering Japanese. In practice, the most effective activities are often the least comfortable (e.g. speaking with a tutor). Apps can provide a seductive distraction from such essential but scary tasks, fooling us into a false sense of progress.
- Few apps provide direct, active practice. Instead of getting you to hear, read, say, or write authentic Japanese (the core activities that lead to fluency), most apps involve indirect, passive recognition activities like matching, translating, etc. Such activities are certainly easier and more comfortable than listening to authentic Japanese content or having a conversation with a native speaker, but they won’t enable you to understand and produce real Japanese.
The bottom line? Language learning apps can be a healthy supplement to a complete Japanese language learning “diet” full of listening, speaking, reading, and writing practice. But just as a multivitamin is not a replacement for real food, apps are not a replacement for the core tasks that actually lead to fluency.
So feel free to use a few apps here and there each day (e.g. Duolingo or Clozemaster), but make sure that your time within such apps doesn’t replace or get in the way of the direct practice that truly builds Japanese fluency.