Digital Tools to Master a Second Language
Luckily, if you’re looking to introduce your child to a second language, a slew of new apps offer easy and fun ways to supplement your child’s learning with interactive games, stories and videos. The mobile apps, available in popular languages such as Spanish, French and Chinese, add to a growing collection of digital tools that can help students study a second language – from YouTube videos to one-on-one video conferencing with a tutor. One university study, sponsored by the popular language app Duolingo, found that students who spent about 34 hours on the app could cover a college semester’s worth of Spanish language instruction.
Mobile apps can help students pick up and practice new vocabulary and grammar, says Elizabeth Bernhardt, director of the Stanford Language Center. At the most basic level, mobile apps can act like flash cards to drill key words and phrases. But Bernhardt adds that parents shouldn’t expect their children to start speaking Spanish just by exposing them to a few apps.
“Language learning is hard and it’s a social process. Young kids in particular need a lot of interaction,” says Bernhardt, who recommends parents sign their children up for a language immersion summer camp if they’re serious about their children learning a second language.
Digital tools, she says, can only go so far.
“It can help, but it can’t substitute for a good teacher who knows the language and the culture, who knows how to work with young kids,” she says. “Nothing is going to substitute for that.”
With that caveat, my family tested several language learning apps, particularly ones that offer more than one language option, to see how effective they are at engaging and teaching children a second language. Whether or not we absorbed any of the lessons remains to be seen. We’re still working our way to 600 hours.
Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Irish, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, German
Available: Web, iOS, Android, Windows
Middle school and above
One of the most widely recognized language apps available, Duolingo is targeted more for adult learners than children. By turning the process into a game, however, it makes learning a new language fun. Fans even call it addicting. The course is broken into a series of lessons that you have to master, and you move up much like you level up in a game. Earlier this year, Duolingo also introduced its language tool for schools, which means we may soon see it soon in classrooms.
More than 200 languages, including French, Spanish, German, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Swedish
Web, iOS, Android, Amazon
Free, premium subscriptions cost $9 per month
Middle school and above
Memrise also turns learning a new language into a game, with a leaderboard that tracks your progress and motivates you to keep going as you compete against your friends and others taking the same course. While it has the usual beginner, intermediate and advanced language classes, it also offers lessons broken down by subject matter. My family’s personal favorite was an introductory Chinese class that teaches you how to read a restaurant menu. And while we’re not sure how useful it is, there’s also a course to familiarize you with the creatures of Pokemon.
Chinese, Spanish, French
Web, iOS, Android
Free to $7.99 each
Ana Lomba offers bilingual e-books of popular children’s stories, such as Cinderella, and uses them to introduce a new language. The story of Cinderella, for instance, teaches children how to express the time and day, as well as key vocabulary for the home, household chores and clothing. You can listen and follow along with the story in both your native tongue and your second language, switching back and forth to help you pick up words and phrases you don’t know. Though the graphics leave a bit to be desired, kids will enjoy hearing their favorite stories in a new language. &pagebreaking&Dic-Dic
Russian, Spanish, French, Catalan, English
Dic-Dic is best for elementary school students to help them learn to read and spell new words. It bundles all the languages into one app at no extra cost, so you can potentially learn new vocabulary in several languages. The app guides you as you tap out the letters of each word, and shows you how to pronounce it. Bonus: You can also use it to practice spelling words in English.
Gus on the Go
26 languages, including Arabic, Vietnamese, Hindi, Croatian and Portuguese
iOS, Android, Amazon
$2.99 to $3.99
With a cute cartoon owl as your guide, Gus on the Go is packaged for the young child learning the basic curriculum of colors, shapes, animals, numbers, foods and things that go. The 10 lessons consist of animated quizzes and games. In one, balloons float up the screen, each holding various animals and foods, and you must selectively pop the ones that are called out by the narrator. As you master each lesson, you unlock another level, until you have learned 89 words in a new language.
Spanish, Chinese, Polish, Russian, Italian, French, German, Portuguese
Free to $11.99 for a bundle
With more than 100 words for each language, Play2learn uses colorful, child-friendly graphics to introduce basic word groups, such as body parts, foods, animals and toys. You can either tap the object and learn how to say it, or you can test yourself by tapping the object that the speaker names. If you get it right, the app colors in the object, until the entire picture is filled out.
Bay Area-based freelancer writer and parent Ellen Lee writes frequently about technology.