Apps. Illusions and facts.

I have just read this post and thought maybe I have more to say on the topic than a reasonably sized blog post comment would fit. It’s about apps, students, and teachers in between (or by the side).

Within 2 years I’ve come quite a way from being frantically and irritably enthusiastic about apps for learning English to being bearably enthusiastic and critical about their content, value and purpose. The history of my iTunes purchases would show you positively more than 50 various apps, either specifically designed and presented as tools for learning a foreign language or fit for that goal from my view (at the moment of purchase). It would be a strong and valid argument that my devices are a curious teacher’s devices, bound to be different from any curious student’s ones.

There are several statements, open for criticism of course, that I believe to be largely true.

1) Students need guidance in choosing apps. Producing a list of apps, whether long or short, is not guidance.
2) To think and hope that students will continually and persistently use apps you recommend, or apps they find on their own, would be an illusion.
3) Some apps will stick, most won’t. It’s highly individual. Most just won’t!
4) Recognize the difference between apps for use in class WITH a teacher and apps for use outside of class.

Random comments now.

On durability:
If you have ever played a game on your phone, you might have noticed that it gets boring pretty soon. Some games last longer in your phone than others but all of them without exception come to a dead end in terms of your interest in them. The same, in my experience, relates to apps for learning a language. Any apps which are not in your day-to-day use will likely have a short life span.

On the key factor:
The key factor being what it is that personally suits your style of… not really learning a language, but rather having a relationship with your phone. My example is this: I’m subscribed to quite a few podcasts. Some of them I rarely but do use in class. Others were added with a fair prospect of listening to in my spare time, or long commute hours. That was an illusion. Fact: there’s something in listening to podcasts as a type of activity that does not tick for me. However, I know people who are regular listeners and do that with pleasure, which I’m jealous of. I’m ready and willing to learn that skill… Some day. 🙂

On apps used with or without teacher:
There are apps intended to be used in an instruction-led mode, that is for classroom use, for homework, for a course of English. For me the best (or worst) example is Quizlet, which I still can’t imagine to be used by a student of mine, on their own, for the fun of adding own flashcards and playing vocabulary games there is questionable. It looks a nerdy pastime, really, and, as “Jenny” rightfully noted, phones are perceived as a nice way to relax after studying and working hard.

Not to appear overly grumpy, here’s a list of apps designed for autonomous language study but proved working/ popular among my friends and students:
Memrise (mentioned previously here – and, by the way, I gave up on it for now)
Duolingo (recommended by a few teacher and non-teacher friends)
Lingualeo (all-time favorite for Russian learners for several years! Lots of positive comments and nice feedback. Some of my colleagues at the university where I teach use it in class and for homework.)
Busuu (my personal favorite which does work for me, or rather would work if I were a disciplined learner)

Now this is where I see the dissonance that could be mended. The ubiquitous association is “books and notebooks = studying (and doing it hard); phone and apps = friends and fun”. Look at your phone, browse through what’s in it. My guess is your home screen would probably reflect your interests and lifestyle. This is exactly what I see as a chance for those apps to make way into your (= a language learner’s) mobile device. Apps which are not originally made for learning any language could become pleasant and discreet partners in your daily life. Those apps which do not thrust much of focused linguistic exposure on you, but provide you with the content you’re up for, in systematic view and following recognizable patterns. Fotopedia for photos and stories, Instagram for photos and communication with friends, TripAdvisor for travelling, Horoscopes for the lovers of horoscopes, Infographics for the lovers of figures and facts, Fitness for sports and training programmes, Games (first thing on my mind) for anyone – whatever comes along with the specific scope of interests of the cell phone owner looks potentially English-worthy to me. If you’d like to push students’ use of apps, be nagging and ask for feedback on it once in a while. I often chat with my students about it or just show interest in what’s in their phones.

Being a teacher, I might not be a typical learner of a foreign language, but since most of my Japanese studies happen in the realm of mobile devices, here’s what I can share.
– My 日本語 folder is full with 12 apps, only three of which I regularly use.
– Phone itself is set in Japanese, so the majority of all other apps operate in Japanese, too. Which, frankly speaking, is oftentimes frustrating but also fun.
– Blog posts and articles I find online (on culture, language, grammar, whatever else Japanese) are saved in Pocket app. It’s helpful for me to get back to the same things again and again.
– There are a couple of great Japanese-speaking chat partners that agree to chat with me in Line. Stressful, enjoyable, Japanese-only chat time. I love it and hope it is useful, even if unsystematic (or thanks to it maybe?).
– One day I’ll write a separate post on this issue… For now I’ll just admit to reading a guide to Japanese grammar (!!! reading a grammar guide, seriously, me) AND finding it very useful. Yes, it is an app.

My final lines, possibly summarizing all those bits and pieces of facts and thoughts about apps:
Mike asks why Korean students don’t use apps for learning English. I’m not saying it by way of giving an answer, but my belief is that the problem lies in the wording and expectation from this wording – “an app for learning English”. I might very well be wrong in my assumption that Korean/ Russian/ Italian/ Indonesian/ Finnish/ etc learners of English would have the same reasoning as Jenny. They could, though, start using apps for learning English as soon as these apps stop being handed over to them as apps for learning English. Or they could already be using their phones in the ways that they do and enriching their English, without giving it much of a serious thought. And this, to me, is also fine.

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9 thoughts on “Apps. Illusions and facts.

  1. Igor says:

    Thanks a lot for this post.
    It was great to find some info on the apps for casual language studying and I was particularly mesmerized by Memrise app. “Growing plants” instead of working is not really a procrastination, right? =)

    • annloseva says:

      I guess it could be called a useful way to spend working hours))
      Thanks for reading my post and leaving a comment! I’d be interested in your progress with Memrise, especially in how long it lasts for you.

  2. Thank you for this post. You know, I’ve never really asked my kids what they do with their phones. They aren’t allowed to use them in our school (unfortunately) and after I got in trouble for being lax about the rule, I have tried to do better. But I wonder if the study habits of the better students are in some way reflected on their phones. Maybe they’re set to English, or maybe the int’l video chat app they like is on their front page. The better students are more likely to have Facebook accounts (and to have added me). The kids are always curious about my phone (and amazed that it’s all in English, but even more amazed when some things happen in Korean). I let them look over my shoulder and talk to them about how I use my phone, but maybe now it’s time to talk to them about how they use their phones and see what options come up for English in their funtime.

    • annloseva says:

      This is an interesting point about possible correlation between English performance and their phones. I don’t have sufficient evidence to claim it always works this way, and I don’t know how it happens for teens.. But for my adult students I think there is some truth to this idea. Not always though – there’s a student, very fluent (even if range of vocab/ grammar used is very limited), and when I suggested he should try set his phone in English for a week and then report what it’s like, he only got on with it for a few days and then switched it back to Russian. He said there was some good excuse for that)
      Another example (the opposite kind) is one former student who is in my Facebook “friends”. He struggles with English pretty much (as could be seen from overwhelming inaccuracy)) BUT he’s really trying to use the language, chats with me in English, etc.

      It’d be fun to compare what’s in the phones of students of the same age in different countries, especially those on different continents, and which part of that content gives them portions of English every day.)

      Thanks a lot for the comment, Anne!

  3. Hana Tichá says:

    Hi Anna,
    I really enjoyed reading your post, even though I’m not exactly an expert in this field. I don’t even have a smart phone or anything resembling it. But I try to go with the flow – at least on a theoretical basis.
    I’d say that the problem is that there are so many of apps available and new ones are being developed while I’m expressing my humble opinion. For me it’s just overwhelming and when I consider something overwhelming, I tend to leave it. I think young people are more ‘digital-native’ and curious so they may not feel so helpless. However, I observe that they can be pretty fickle – they use an app enthusiastically but at the same time they are looking for something even more interesting. This lack of consistency is not helpful, not for language learning.
    Also, do I really believe in apps/online tools for English learning? If not, how can I convince my students that they’re good for them? I personally use Quizlet and it’s proved quite useful for my own learning. That’s why I can recommend it to my students without pretence. I can show them how it works and what the benefits and pitfalls are.
    Well, I’d better stop now in the view of the fact that I know next to nothing about this topic. But it was nice to stop by, as usual 🙂

    • annloseva says:

      Hi Hana,

      I always appreciate and admire your thoughtful attitude to the posts you read, your willingness to take part in (or initiate) a discussion – it’s a great model for me to look up to and follow! Thank you for reading this and for leaving this particular comment, which I’ll try to respond to now (maybe in too much detail)).

      You’re saying apps are overwhelming – and I agree! Of course. To me, if I choose to think about the overwhelming amount of apps, it also means an instinct to let go of the idea to use them… in pretty much the same way as when my attention is focused on the overwhelming amount of blog posts I want to read, or projects I’d like to take part in. There’s a fair amount of inconsistency on my part in my professional development online, born out of exactly these reasons. I agree it’s not very helpful and I could be doing more and better, but well, to be honest, I think in the end my choices are right, because they are what they are. Maybe – just maybe! – this comparison doesn’t work perfectly well. Maybe I should be more demanding to myself and to students, too.

      I can try to see your point about ‘digital-native’ but I think you’re being too harsh on yourself saying you’re less curious than those young, so digitally native in their habits, people)) I know it doesn’t work for good stats but just a very vivid example for me: I went to TESOL France in 2011, it was my first experience in conferencing. I was in the minority there when in Shelly’s session I shrugged my shoulders to the names of most apps she was calling out for us to recognize. 90% of the audience there were teachers older than me (some of them much older). I’m not at all sure why I needed this flashback here))) my main line of thinking is that any kind of limitation to what you think you can do comes from what your own mental “settings” on this are. I hope I’m making some sense and do not sound categorical or not respectful of your opinion! This was not my intention for sure. 🙂

      I really like the point you’re making about Quizlet – in that you can recommend it to your students with no pretence since you know it’s been useful to you. This is a great truth here for me. And here is where I lay my promised request: you might have read at least once that I don’t get the fuss about Quizlet. However, I’d like to see how it’s been used with success. Can you tell, practically, how do you go about your learning with it? I’m ready to give it another try (number 3))).

      Thank you very much for your comment, Hana. I hope my reply is fine and I managed to get my message across somehow. I’m so grateful to this chance to talk about the same (controversial!) issue considering different sides to it.

      • Hana Tichá says:

        Dear Anna, I think I know what you mean when you describe your experience at TESOL France and the concept of ‘mental settings’. I believe that the right time hasn’t come yet for me to delve into the ‘appsphere’ 🙂 But I’m open to the immense amount of possibilities and I’m ready to reset my mindset any minute of my life. Thanks for your reply.

      • annloseva says:

        🙂 It was not my intention to promote the “appshere”, though, or insist on the necessity of any changes)) I really liked your choice of words to speak your mind about the problem in the original comment – AND the idea of the right time for everything is the one thing I truly believe in.
        Thank you for sharing that post with me on Twitter, too!)

  4. […] about for something like 4-5 years: activities, professional communities aka PLNs, technology (apps, web tools, blogs, social media), sharing students’ work, etc. I am far less thrilled about […]

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