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‘Using language apps won’t get your German skills where you need them’

'Using language apps won’t get your German skills where you need them'
Photo: DPA
Relying on language learning apps is like putting old wine in new bottles. Put down your mobile phone if you want a more rewarding and profound connection to the German language, argues seasoned German teacher Michael Schmitz.

German: much easier than its reputation

Modern-day language learning apps are being promoted as THE solution to soothe the pain of learning a language. This is ironic, as the teaching techniques used in these apps date back to the 1950s, the golden age of behaviourism. Behaviouristic learning theories focus on observable behaviour of learners and ignore what is going on inside of them. That means it ignores the deeper, most important layers of the language learning process.

Many think that German is difficult to learn, yet nothing could be farther from the truth.

Gamification is the new behaviourism

Apps like Duolingo, Rosetta Stone or Babbel utilize the technique of “gamification,” which at its core is simply a modernized behaviouristic language learning approach: If you do this, you’ll be rewarded, incentivizing you to do more of it. If you don’t do that, you’ll receive a reminder to resume the activity, as otherwise you’ll lose something. While this may seem fun and desirable at first, in the long run a learner’s mind is not so easily manipulated.

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The only true reward

What really makes language learning a rewarding experience is not the promise of virtual rewards, but rather the ability to connect the culture, the people and the language of the new country with one’s own experiences, knowledge and values.

Learning German can be an adventure with an abundance of discoveries.

If you don’t believe me, travel to Germany and order “eine heiße Schokolade” in a café and measure your pulse shortly afterwards.   

Such things are a thrill for language learners that can only be achieved in the real world. If you have ever experienced any kind of an “aha!” moment in which you understood something deeply, imagine this kind of experience happening again and again while learning a new language, if it is being learned properly.

Life is too short… to learn irrelevant information

To learn German efficiently you need to be exposed to relevant and engaging material. While checking out a new gamification feature on Duolingo recently, I came across the dialogue “I am an apple.” “No. You are not an apple.” To be honest, I’m still struggling with finding a use for this wonderful philosophical exchange as it is rather irrelevant and I’m unlikely to ever make use of these phrases.

Working with these apps starts off as a fun experience but soon feels like speaking to a wall or reading a book that one finishes only because one has started it despite being bored to death already on page 20.

Learning German is a very active, bi-directional process. Teacher (or app) and learner have to engage in a mutually beneficial relationship. Looking at the way German is taught almost everywhere I see mainly one-sided learning set ups: Teachers (or apps) serve information and learners have to eat what they get served. I have hardly ever heard of a language school nor seen an app which taught learners how to become more independent, which is almost cynical in design, considering that one of the main goals of every German learner is to become an independent user of the language without having to refer to (digital) translators all the time.

The answer to learning German efficiently, the universe and everything

What’s the solution then to learning German efficiently if it’s not apps, you wonder?

While gamification and a fancy presentation are certainly supporting learners in their aim to master a foreign language, they seem to be often mistaken for the main ingredients of the learning process.

But apps are not always 100% bad. Some, like Memrise or Anki, serve as helpful supplements in a language learner’s arsenal. One has to keep in mind that an app is nothing but a means of transport for content and learning or teaching strategies. If the content or the strategies are flawed, an app will not compensate for that.

If you are serious about learning the wonderful German language, it is better to look for a private tutor or work with German courses that take you for what you really are: a responsible adult who’s perfectly capable of making a justified effort towards self-improvement. Simply put: it is ideal to begin with a course that teaches you how to become an independent learner and that shows you how to establish a connection with the language and the German culture ideally “simply” by living it. This means activities like reading authentic German content (e.g. books or news articles), watching series and movies, and, of course, communicating with real Germans in a natural context.

Get a $20 USD discount on Michael Schmitz's Every Day German course

Someone – it wasn’t Twain – once observed: “Life is too short to learn German…” I’d like to add: “…the wrong way.” It isn’t going to be easy – hardly any complex relationship is – but it’s worth the effort and the occasional frustration. That being said, if you are bored and feel like giving up, try another approach.

It is most likely not you or the language that has failed, but rather the language learning approach that you have chosen.

Over the last 10 years I’ve developed a German online course that not only teaches you German up to level B1 but that also aims at making you an independent and autonomous learner. A good tutor is one who makes himself redundant as soon as possible leaving the learner in competent hands: his or her own.
smarterGerman was originally developed for private clients, but now I want everyone to have access to my course. So, I built a digital version that everyone can afford. Come with me on my Everyday German course which can join for a fraction of the cost of a traditional German language school.

As a reader of The Local you’ll also get a $20 USD discount on my Every Day German course covering everything from beginner level (A1) to everyday conversational German (B1) if you chose the single payment option. You can also just fully and freely preview lesson 01 which will already teach you amazing techniques that will quickly improve your German learning.  Find out more here.

Michael Schmitz blogs about learning German at smartergerman.com