Why Real Conversation Is Key to Language Learning

Conversation is crucial for learning a language

Learning Languages apps: A good starting point, but no substitution for live practice if you want to be fluent.

There are tons of language learning apps popping up seemingly everyday, and some of them are wildly popular. I bet you’ve even tried one! Earlier this month, the New York Times published an article on what’s possible with language apps and what isn’t. It may not surprise you that you can’t become fluent if you don’t learn and practice in real-time with another speaker. 

We’re all for fun and meaningful learning experiences with great teachers here at Lessonface, and we believe, just as Mr. Ravenscraft says, that apps like Duolingo and Babel can be quite useful indeed-- up to a certain point: “The short answer is that you can definitely learn some things from an app, but if you want to become fluent in a language — or even conversational — they won’t be enough.” 

Let’s take a quick look at how language learning is so different and what live language learning has to offer beyond what you can learn through an app:

Language is a social endeavor. Sure, you can talk to yourself (which is actually good practice if you don’t have a language partner to chat with!), but talking to yourself is probably not the reason why you’re learning another language. Most people want to speak the language with someone. You need other people to make it happen. But the nature of conversation can be a bit funny because on the one hand, it can be pretty formulaic for simple exchanges (e.g. “Hey, how are you? Good, you? Good, thanks. Have a great day. You too, see ya!”) yet very unpredictable for more complex exchanges (e.g. if you’re asking for directions, that means you don’t know where you need to go, so you likely won’t know what direction the other person is going to tell you go in.) So you don’t really know what the person is going to say next in a conversation or how they’re going to say it. That’s why memorizing phrases through language apps or a phrase book isn’t really learning--because it's one directional 

That said, the four skills (reading, writing, listening, speaking) are certain related but they do need to be practiced in fairly equal amounts since they are distinct from each other; reading a language does not mean you will be able to speak it, for example. And many times, apps can’t provide you with opportunities to work these different skills in a natural setting: “Most importantly, though, language apps are not other humans. It sounds like an obvious observation, but the entire point of learning a language is to communicate with other people. You can learn as many words or sentences as you want, but until you’re able to have a conversation with another person, you’ll never be fluent.”

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Secondly, you become a speaker of the language the first day you begin learning it. You can’t say the same about chemistry, or history, or physics! (One semester of chemistry does not a chemist make.) Before joining Lessonface this year, I was a professor of Italian and Second Language Acquisition. By the end of the very first 50-minute Italian 101 class of the semester, students learned how to introduce themselves, say their age, where they’re from, and ask and answer a variety of simple questions-- all in Italian. (In fact, I never spoke a lick of English until it came to explaining crucial syllabus policies.) In short, they were able to have their first real conversation with another speaker and they became speakers of Italian the day they began learning it. Che bello! 

Thirdly, language is culture, not just a set of words you mix and match together to make meaning. Speaking another language means to be able to relate to another human. That also goes beyond the level of verbal communication into body language, gestures, posture, concept of personal space, and lots of other practices, perspectives, and products of a particular culture. So what’s your language goal? To talk about roller skating in Russian? To chat politics in Polish? Astrophysics in Arabic? Language apps can get you to about an A2 level with consistent, diligent study and practice, but getting to B and beyond requires practice with another speaker at the very least: “If it’s not already obvious, language apps simply can’t get someone to level C2 — or anywhere close — on their own. There simply aren’t lessons to teach you, for example, how to have a complex conversation about banking regulations or astrophysics or whatever your field of expertise. It also means that if you stick solely to the lesson plans in each app, you won’t communicate with another person. By definition, these two limitations would rule out reaching even level B2.”

While there’s no magic bullet to language learning, it really comes down to three Hs: habit, human contact, and a bit of humor. If you’ve got all three in spades, you’ll be well on your way to being conversational in whatever language you’re studying. And don’t forget: in order to speak the language, you’ve got to speak the language in real, natural conversations with other folks who speak it too. And that means making mistakes out loud! (I’ll talk more about why making mistakes is necessary to improve fluency in another post.) 

Have you used the apps mentioned in the NYT article? Post about your language learning experiences in our forum-- we’d love to hear more about it! I’ll be posting blog posts and videos on our YouTube channel regularly about foreign language learning research queries and conundrums so if you’ve got questions, comments or concerns, or if you’re thinking about learning a foreign language (or you just want to say hi!) drop me a line: daniela@lessonface.com. I’d love to hear from you! Thanks for reading! 

Dr Daniela Busciglio's first live online class on Lessonface starts on June 4! Learn Italian by speaking and interacting with others. Learn more and enroll>>

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