“Generally speaking, educational providers are getting their toes into the water [but] haven’t thought through what developing an app means,” Sweeney says. “They get an F at the moment.”
That’s a big failing when you consider that prices vary wildly. You can find simple, 20-item flashcard apps for $2 or even free, but you have to pay more for extra content. Apps that have more-complex games and puzzles can cost $5–$50.
“There are all sorts of developers in the marketplace for the wrong reasons at the moment,” Sweeney says. “That’s got to settle down, and, presumably, the quality will float to the surface in the next year or two.”
Until then, don’t trust the reviews in the overcrowded app markets. They’re often written by the app developers themselves, Moore and Sweeney say. The search functions in all of the markets also are skewed toward the apps that entered the market the earliest.
“I’m interested to see what Apple [and the other app markets] do to categorize their markets better and make it easier to find what you’re looking for,” says Ben Buckwold, who is the founder of the online publishing company Red River Press. “It’s only going to become more and more flooded as people try to get on board and create their own apps.”
We believe that the best that you can do is to ask a language teacher to suggest a few apps. (For a look at the few language-learning apps that our experts recommend, see “Four New Apps to Boost Your Language Skills.”)
TREAD CAREFULLY. As you might suspect, most language-learning companies claim that their products are the best and easiest approach to language learning. A lot of the promises that these companies make in their marketing is phrased in a way that’s misleading and overly optimistic, according to all of the experts with whom we spoke. The companies never define what it means to become “fluent” or “conversational,” and only a few provide any estimate of how many hours that you should devote to study to reach certain levels.
“You can’t learn [fully fluent] Spanish in 3 months,” Sweeney says. “But [companies] can’t say, ‘Learn Spanish in 4 years,’ because nobody is going to buy that product.”
In reality, the number of hours that are required to gain functional fluency depend on the language and a student’s ability, according to David Woods, who is a retired professor of linguistics at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Most experts agree that it typically takes 200 hours of study to reach basic fluency in English, French or Spanish. Arabic, Japanese, Korean and Mandarin typically require at least 500 hours to reach basic fluency, according to Foreign Service Institute, which is the federal government’s organization for training diplomats and other employees to work abroad.
Moore guesses that the language-learning industry is a bit like the weight-loss industry or the beauty industry, she says. “There are lots of exaggerations and claims that [companies] try to get away with.”
Consumers have to remember the toughest advice to follow: Be patient and practice consistently. The explosion in social networks and language-learning apps might have given consumers more options, as well as the idea that it’s easy to become fluent, but none of these approaches can substitute for the many hours that it takes to learn a language.
Elizabeth F. Farrell is an educational consultant. Her writing has appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, NASDAQ Magazine and The Wall Street Journal.