Applications such as Duolingo challenge traditional language course books.
Applications such as Duolingo challenge traditional language course books.

Several internet and mobile applications have been developed for studying languages. Would they be enough to replace traditional learning?

Internet applications for language learning are now more popular than ever. For instance, the free Duolingo-application has over a 100 million registered users. How well do computer and mobile applications fare in comparison with traditional teaching?

Michael Möbius, a university teacher of Germanic philology in the University of Helsinki, is currently working on a PhD on Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL). Among the strengths of internet and computer applications, Möbius lists an independence of time and place, free pace of practice and immediate feedback.

There is, however, also room for improvement. According to Möbius, language applications often feel mechanical and their ready-made learning paths offer little flexibility.

”You often have the feeling that the programme is in the centre of it all, not the student”, Möbius says.
According to Möbius, language learning applications often follow an easy line, so to speak: they entail exercises that are easy to implement on the computer. Thus, the applications favour, for instance, multiple choice questions, gap-fill exercises and short answers.

”At the moment, internet and computer applications are mostly suitable as additional material alongside traditional courses given in class. Social interaction in class offers much more stimuli and methodological variation”, Möbius compares.

Nevertheless, the applications have developed greatly in the last years.

Both Duolingo and the popular Rosetta Stone application (subject to charge) offer speech exercises that are based on voice recognition. The most developed programmes also give clear feedback. For instance Duolingo allows for little spelling errors and shows, in the case of wrong answers, the location of the error in the sentence.

”The feedback needs to be accurate, directional and motivating when there is no teaching staff present”, Möbius lists the qualities of good feedback.


According to Möbius’ dissertation, universities’ language teaching very rarely employs pure online courses. Instead, simple additional learning material is provided online. Möbius also thinks that there is room for improvement in teachers’ practices.

”Traditional materials in book-form are still largely relied upon, sometimes even as scanned versions. No added value is seen in using computers.”

Even Möbius himself does not believe that internet applications could completely replace traditional language teaching. He does, however, wish that different teaching methods could be mixed more often than now.

”I would wish that, in the future, it would be easier to integrate applications to classroom teaching. It is daydreaming to believe that at some point language learning would take place only online”, Möbius says.


In Finnish:

Kielet haltuun netistä (10.12.2015)

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