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by Sandy Scragg | May 2, 2019 New York Teacher issue
As technology has developed, so have methods for using technology to learn a language. Forget about “books on tape” — the new language apps automatically adjust to your level as you learn. These programs aren’t meant as a replacement for in-class language instruction, but they can be effective supports to extend and continue learning both in and out of the classroom.
The websites listed all have at least a basic, free version, though some have subscription-level options with many added bells and whistles. (Rosetta Stone and Berlitz, perhaps the two most well-known language-learning systems, are accessible by paid subscription only.) All have both a phone app and an online platform. Not only can these programs be used with students learning a variety of foreign languages, but they can also be used for English language learners to practice and improve their English skills.
Duolingo (www.duolingo.com) is powerful and also completely free. Extremely popular, the program points to a CUNY study as proof of its effectiveness as a learning platform. Their “schools” section allows teachers to use the program with their students and keep track of their progress. Duolingo is built around a gaming structure, with the threat of losing lives with mistakes and, conversely, gaining points for correct answers. You start by creating a free account and taking a placement test to see if you can start at a level other than a complete beginner. The foreign languages taught in Duolingo courses (at this count, 32, though more are always being added) range from Spanish to Swahili.
Babbel (www.babbel.com) promotes the conversational aspect of language learning. It focuses less on building vocabulary and more on learning common phrases used in everyday speech. You can use your internal microphone to speak back to the prompts to practice your pronunciation. Babbel’s practice contains native speakers with varying accents to get you started speaking another language quickly. Babbel has both free and paid versions, with the subscriptions providing potent options.
Busuu (www.busuu.com) is built around a flashcard system and works on vocabulary-building as you learn. Busuu is organized more formally into courses, including assessments, but it also has a social option to connect with native speakers for conversation and critique. There’s even a review section where you can see what you’ve conquered and where you still need to practice. Busuu has a premium level that allows for more grammar practice, offline access and certification from McGraw-Hill.
Memrise (www.memrise.com), which has free and premium options, focuses on learning words and phrases through spaced repetition and regular review. It contains video clips of native speakers so you can listen to a wide variety of speakers as you learn the language. You can jump into any level without taking a placement test.
The research is sketchy about the potential of these apps alone to build language skills, but in combination with a classroom learning environment, they can be powerful resources. Many students find these apps more fun and motivating than worksheets. And, with their audiovisual component, students can work on building all four modes of language learning (reading, writing, speaking and listening) at the same time.
Sandy Scragg is an instructional technology specialist with more than 15 years of experience in New York City public schools.
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