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Learning a Language With Apps, Habits and a Deadline

With a bit of travel coming up and a keen desire to be able to hold up my end of the bargain in a conversation, I’ve doubled down on my use of language learning apps recently. My primary method of learning to this point was Duolingo, which aims to make learning a language fun with a game-like structure, characters who you either learn to love or do your best to ignore, and a methodology that “align[s] with the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), which describes what learners can do with the language at different proficiency levels.” Nice.

Duolingo advertises themselves as a free app, and you can definitely use the app free so long as you don’t mind putting up with the advertising. It didn’t take long for me to find the ads frustrating and just pay for the add-free version (mission accomplished). If you’re going to spend any amount of time on the app it’s worth the $60 USD per year for the Duolingo Plus Individual Plan. If you use it every day it works out to $.16 cents per day. Manageable.

I’ve managed a streak of 767 days sprinkled with the help of a few “streak freeze”protections along the way when I’ve been traveling or simply didn’t get to it. I’m a big believer in maintaining streaks for habit formation, and have tried to check the language learning box every day for a couple of years now. What I’ve found is that as learning has become more habitualized in my routine using the app just takes care of itself.

I feel that Duolingo does well in teaching reading comprehension, but I’ve found myself lost in rapid-fire conversations with native French, German and Portuguese speakers (the three languages I’ve focused on with this app). I felt like something was missing with Duolingo, and began looking around at other apps to supplement my daily learning. And that’s when I came across Pimsleur. If Duolingo falls short in one area, it’s in keeping up in conversation with native speakers. Pimsleur uses a couple of tricks to help with this. First, they structure learning modules around a specific conversation, using four tricks to help you understand a conversation that might have overwhelmed you when you first heard it:

“Graduated Interval Recall — a scientifically-sequenced and proven schedule which moves the items you learn from short-term to long-term memory.
Anticipation — by “anticipating” the answer to each question, your brain is actively learning and developing new neural connections.
Core Vocabulary — The Pimsleur Method teaches the most common words and grammatical structures so you can start speaking immediately … in a meaningful way.
Organic Learning — you learn grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation in context using conversational exchanges — just as you learned your first language, but with the added benefit of a method scientifically-proven to accelerate learning in the adult brain.”

I’m still using the unpaid version of Pimsleur, focusing specifically on German with it, and I find it beneficial. The graduated interval recall and anticipation jump out at me as being really helpful. I found myself inserting the right word or phrase more often than not, and the way they break down the phrase for you makes it easier to leap forward conversationally. But it is a conversation, so you can’t just quietly sit in a room with others while using the app if you want to learn to speak, you’ve got to talk. This is powerful, but it also requires that you carve out a time and place for it (I don’t anticipate using Pimsleur on my next flight, but I’ll surely use it while driving).

When combining Pimsleur with Duolingo, you can effectively “immerse” yourself in a language if you put enough time into it. Sure, nothing beats true immersion for learning anything, but let’s face it: most of us have day jobs. Combining the two competing apps seems to be the right formula for me.

The essential ingredient in any learning tool is focus and commitment—actually using the tools to learn. That’s where habit streaks and deadlines help you become focused. I’m happy just to keep the streak going every day, but I really feel more urgency to learn German knowing I have a trip to Austria and Germany locked in. And French doesn’t get a pass now—I’m sticking with the routine of learning both French and German (sorry Portuguese), and plan to book some time in either France or Quebec soon to dial up the urgency with French too.

The Holy Trinity of habits, the right tools and the urgency of a deadline bring focus to the task. For nothing focuses the mind like the possibility of being hopelessly lost in conversation. We ought to hold up our end of it instead of expecting the world to just switch to English. Êtes-vous d’accord? (Ja, ich stimme zu)

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