What apps assume about learning

For any given language learning app, it is important to analyze the underlying theoretical assumptions which are embedded in the app.   No app is neutral when it comes to language acquisition theory; app designers make assumptions about what learners need to learn and how best to learn it.  Some sample assumptions are:

  • Are forms which are frequent in collections of native speaker speech taught before infrequent ones?
  • Is the feedback in the target language?  If so, is it at an appropriate level for the user?
  • Are instructions in the target language?
  • Does multimodal input (pictures, sounds, videos) increase learnability?
  • Are words from the same semantic field (i.e. color words, or words about the beach) best learned together?
  • Are grammar patterns be induced from data or explained via rules?
  • Is learning repetition-driven? Interaction-driven?  Experience-driven?
  • Is there such a thing as a one-to-one correspondence between words in different languages?
  • Is there one linear path of language development, or should users be offered different paths?
  • Is how a form is used by target language speakers an important consideration in presenting vocabulary?
  • Are frequent collocations of a word important to present along with new vocabulary?

Each application makes dozens of such assumptions, and what an app assumes is not always made clear.  Second language acquisition researchers have learned much about each of these questions, but app designers don’t always consult this research, or make decisions about which research they will incorporate, while designing apps.  It takes some discernment to figure out what language acquisition theories are built into the apps.  The following rubric will help you figure out which of three broad theories of language acquisition a given app may be most drawing on.

Signs that the app draws on behaviorist theories of language learning:

  1. Does the app use the learner’s first language to teach the target language?
  2. Does the app rely on repetitive drilling?
  3. Does this app use flashcards?
  4. Does the app assume or use one-to-one translations?
  5. Are words pronounced or presented in isolation?
  6. Does the app show learners exactly where an error occurred?
  7. Are errors corrected but not explained?
  8. Do students receive feedback instantaneously and always?
  9. Does the app incorporate spaced repetition (forms are reviewed at ever-increasing intervals)?
  10. Does the app teach overt rules about the language, which learners than practice?

(If more than 5 of these 10 statements are true, this app makes use of behaviorist theories of language acquisition)

Signs that the app draws on cognitivist-interactionist theories of language learning:

  1. Does the app encourage noticing of new forms within the input (i.e. are the target forms louder, in a different color, larger, blinking, moving, so that learners pay attention to them)?
  2. Are words defined or presented in multiple ways and contexts?
  3. Is the app’s content authentic and memorable?
  4. Does the app give users the chance to work through a communication breakdown?
  5. Is there ongoing assessment within the app?
  6. Does the app assume that by practicing receptive skills (listening, reading), a user will eventually be able to produce the language?
  7. Are new forms embedded within the context of sentences and larger texts like dialogues, stories, or documents?
  8. Does the app provide numerous examples, from which learners have to infer or induce the rules on their own?
  9. Does the app allow for collaborative work?
  10. Do learners have to demonstrate their comprehension of language by producing new language (rather than multiple choice)?

(If more than 5 of these 10 statements are true, this app makes use of cognitivist-interactionist theories of language acquisition)

Signs that the app draws on sociocultural theories of language learning: 

  1. Do users get to communicate information that they care about to real people?
  2. Is the app tailored to users’ backgrounds (i.e. it is not “one size fits all”)?
  3. Are the users constructing or performing real-life identities via the app?
  4. Does the app encourage cultural competence alongside language competence?
  5. Do users have flexibility in what they learn via the app?
  6. Does the app consider frequency (i.e. how often a new form is actually used by native speakers in authentic language)?
  7. Are new forms embedded within a social context?
  8. Are learners exposed to input created BY speakers of the target language FOR speakers of the target language?
  9. Is language variation accounted for (as opposed to assuming that there is only one way “to say something” in the language being learned)?
  10. Are a variety of voices engaged to speak to the user (male, female, young, old, different regions, education levels, nationalities, professions)?

(If more than 5 of these 10 statements are true, this app makes use of sociocultural theories of language acquisition)

For the language app you are considering using, which of these three theories gets the highest score?   Each type of app has its place in a learner’s language learning process, and the most useful applications might get a high score in all three areas!  Click on each of the theory areas to learn more about that theory, and about what apps that use that theory might do for the users.