Guest Blog Author: Llacey Simmons runs the blog Our 21st Century Kids to give other monolingual parents the information and strategies they need to raise bilingual children and help conquer the Chinese and Arabic languages.
As parents trying to teach and reinforce new languages can be challenging, and we need all the help we can get. Language schools and immersion programs are great, but they can also be time consuming and expensive. With the latest technology sitting in our pockets, or in your hand right now as you read this article, using language apps can be the cost-effective way to go. In fact, computer and cellphone apps are quickly becoming one of the best ways to supplement language learning.
Extending the language exposure
There are a few reasons why language learning applications can help you and your child learn a language faster. The number one reason: apps makes it easy and convenient to get language input.
The amount of time needed to learn a language can range from 1,500 to 2,500 hours. Sure, you can become conversational in less time, but achieving a level of fluency can take many months or years. By using an application for 1 hour a day that’s 7 hours per week on top of any other learning throughout the day. It adds up fast and can be used in your child’s downtime to gain valuable language exposure.
On top of that, these apps have interactive images and sounds to bring the language to life! Attaching words to pictures and associating movement with language are two excellent ways to learn quickly a new language.
Price and ease of use
Another important reason to use applications is that they are cheap and in some cases free. Language classes, immersion programs, and even private tutoring can be effective, but can also run hundreds or thousands of dollars. Textbooks or language guides can cost $40-$100, and even reputable programs like Rosetta Stone can cost around $500. But many of the language apps for kids are well under $10.
Apart from the very real positives of language learning apps, using applications also teaches our children about technology and how to use digital devices. With digital literacy being a growing and much-needed skill for our 21st-century kids, apps can appropriately expose them to the technical skills they’ll likely need later in life.
Top Language Apps for Young Kids
Let’s look at some the best language applications currently on the market. While this isn’t an exhaustive list, the six apps listed below are my personal favorites and have the best philosophy of teaching to make learning happen quickly.
Gus on the Go is a language learning app made specifically for kids. Each language is $3.99, and there are currently 28 languages in total.
Gus on the Go has interactive lessons aimed at teaching vocabulary and phrases. The games are easy to understand and styled so they will be appealing to children. One, in particular, is a vocabulary game where Gus, an owl, blows up balloons with each correct guess of the word. After completing certain lessons, new games become available, so there is an incentive to learn built into the app.
Designed more for children just beginning a new language, Gus on the Go can be an affordable way to reinforce new words or get your child excited about learning a new language.
Personal Take: I absolutely love Gus on the Go. My preschooler can start the app and navigate through the screens on his own and I can even learn some new Chinese words. The unlocking features can be a bit cumbersome to figure out since you have to complete certain lessons before moving on. This app has been great for my son to build some simple object to word recognition, but as his Chinese skills are quickly progressing, I see that we may need to switch to a more intensive app.
Duolingo is a free application that is making serious waves in the language learning world. What makes Duolingo a personal favorite is that it has simple lessons built around grammar, vocabulary, and real-world usage. It won’t endlessly drill skills (unless you want it to) and has an attractive and interactive way of teaching.
Each lesson is crafted around a single theme, and the lessons build in complexity intuitively. The lessons offer the chance to use multiple skills including grammar, writing, speaking and vocabulary building.
What makes Duolingo especially good for a child is that the lessons use amusing characters and animals to show how language is used. Every lesson earns “lingots” which can be used in a digital store to buy power-ups or extra lessons and your child’s progress is tracked daily.
The language library is large, but unfortunately, there is not yet Chinese or Arabic. However, the designers know these are popular languages for learners and are actively working on adding them soon.
Personal Take: Many of my friends have used Duolingo with their preschoolers with much success. It may require a bit of a team effort, but it can be a great way for parents and kids to get in on the language learning action. Kids are instantly drawn to the adventure and quickly pick up new vocabulary words as they move through the levels. In some cases, there may be text/instructions that have to be read, but this is where making app time a family activity can be fun for everyone.
Memrise is an app that has come a long way over the past few updates. It used to be a “brain training” application that uses games, memorization, and language training. Unlike Duolingo, Memrise has lessons in 200 languages including Chinese, Arabic, Russian, Japanese and Turkish, so there is a huge library of languages to choose from.
Memrise takes an interesting approach to teaching where lessons are portrayed as a game where you grow memories in a garden. The creators want us to think that “when you learn a new word, think of it as planting a new seed in your memory”. This means that using Memrise will “grow” a language as your child learns new words and phrases.
The lessons start small by teaching letters and words or short phrases. When learning Arabic, for example, it takes an approach and shows individual letters, tying the letter to sounds and pictures so they can be easily remembered. Unlike other language learning applications, Memrise takes the user through the language’s alphabet and/or characters from the beginning.
The unique approach of Memrise means it’s great for learners both young and old and will be visually appealing to a child.
Personal Take: This is a great tool to use with older children or children that have an intermediate or advanced knowledge of the target language. I’ve used Memrise to learn new Chinese phrases that I can then teach my preschooler. Better positioned as a “parent” tool, Memrise can help you stay current in your understanding of the target language which will help you better reinforce the language with your child.
Tandem is an application that allows you to find and talk to native speakers in another language. With more than 1 million users it’s easy to find a speaking partner, or you can pay for session time with a professional teacher.
The application can be downloaded on an Android or Apple device. If you are connected with a native speaker, you can practice your conversational skills, or upgrade your experience and connect with a teacher for personalized lessons in the target language. If you take a creative approach, this can be a cool way for even a young child (with an adult present, of course) to connect and start using their new language in a conversation!
Personal Take: If you’re a bit creative you’ll be surprised the types of ways you can use this language learning app even with a young child. In my area, Chinese resources are limited, so finding affordable and effective Chinese materials is quite challenging. I have used Tandem and HelloTalk to get my four-year-old more exposure to Chinese and, now, Arabic. We log in to find a speaking partner and my son and I exchange English for Chinese with a native speaker. He loves it because he feels like the teacher and I love it because he can use his Chinese outside of his immersion school.
Busuu is a paid program that focuses on vocabulary and skill drilling as a way to learn a language. BuSuu asserts that 22.5 hours of training through their website is equivalent to one semester of a college language course. At $9.99 per month, BuSuu has a library of 12 languages along with quizzes and specialty courses.
BuSuu uses a flashcard style system to teach a language. Each flash card has a picture, second-language spelling and phonetic translation and an audio clip of the word or phrase. After you learn by using the flashcards, you are given a matching game and a quiz to review the words.
If you’re looking for a quick refresher, or want a way to help your child build their vocabulary quickly, then Busuu can be a great option.
Personal Take: At a first glance this may seem like an app for only older learners. Believe it or not, my son’s Chinese immersion program assigns him flashcard homework using this site. Since I do not speak Chinese, I’m able to pull up the app when we’re waiting for a table at a restaurant or walking through the grocery store and he can practice his character recognition. For those learning more alphabet based languages, this could be a bit trickier, but for Arabic and Chinese, this app has been a great way for me to reinforce the language with my son and build his vocabulary (in the written form) very quickly.
LingQ is an interesting web app that takes a different approach to language learning. LingQ offers multiple levels and languages and uses scripts, which are written out conversations between two or more people, to teach vocabulary and conversational skills. The scripts are linked to audio recordings of the words and definitions to learn the language.
While it may not be the most interactive of the apps on this list, using scripts can be an effective way of learning and using new words. The scripts start out at a very low, beginner level and rise in complexity and length. There is a vast library of scripts to read, so there will always be an opportunity to learn new words.
There are a few drawbacks to this app. One is the lack of alphabet training, so for a language like Chinese the program is somewhat limited and expects you to learn complex characters just by reading the script. For a language like this, it might be necessary to use another resource for alphabet training.
Personal Take: I have several friends with children ages 8 and up who use this to reinforce written fluency. Most have used it for Spanish or French, but have had measurable success. For older children who are able to read, building their fluency outside of just conversation is key. If you are a monolingual mum, like me, doing this can be very difficult. But, with LingQ you can use their short, easy to follow scripts to have your child practice reading words and phrases to build their reading comprehension in the target language.
So, there you have it! By using even a few of the apps listed above, you can give your child valuable usage in a cheap and easy-to-use way. The apps associate words and phrases with visual cues as a way to enhance learning. And, by making language learning a game, it can mean that your child is learning without even realizing it. I’d recommend that you start with Duolingo or Memrise and then check out the paid apps to see if they’re worth the price for you and your family. Or, if your child is under 10 to 12 years old, the best place to start is Gus on the Go which is tailored for young learners.
Language App Honorable Mentions
Designed for young learners (or beginning learners of the language), MindSnacks presents a series of pictures and users have to match the word they hear to the image. For older users who can read, you can disable the audio and try to align the written word to the image. The only drawback to this app is that sometimes the images are not clear and though you (or your little one) may recognize the word, the correct image to choose doesn’t seem apparent.
You may have seen or used, Little Pim’s Flashcards and DVDs, but they also have a mobile app. Made with the little learner in mind, the lessons are nugget-sized and can be done in 5-10 minutes. For an intermediate learner, the lessons may be too easy and the graphics are not the most eye-catching and engaging. But, it is a good place to start if your child is new to using mobile apps.
This app is great for both beginner and intermediate learners. Designed especially for kids ages 2-8 years old, Kids Learn Mandarin teaches over 200 Chinese words by using playful games. Similar to Gus on the Go, this app requires users to navigate through an adventure, unlocking new and interactive lessons. The instructions are delivered in Chinese, so for a new beginner or a child not use to hearing Chinese, understanding what to do can be a little challenging.
The beauty of today’s day and age is that new language apps are hitting the market as you read this blog. Staying current on what works and doesn’t work for your child is key. And, follow informative blogs, like this one, can be the best way to stay in the know!