Learning Spanish: classroom or apps?

Sierra Cymes

Sierra Cymes
Sierra Cymes

Today, smartphone apps take the arduous task of learning a new language and make it fun with entertaining, game-like learning apps. But can these apps be a substitution for the traditional education in a college or university?

Duolingo, one of the top 15 education apps since its creation in 2012, wanted to find out. The company commissioned a study conducted by independent researchers from the Queens College City University of New York. The study had people who were at least 18 years of age and who were native speakers of English with no Hispanic origins use the Duolingo app for eight weeks. To track the results, participants took a college level Spanish placement exam before and after the period of study. The results showed that on average, it only took 34 hours on Duolingo for a beginner to learn a first college semester’s worth of Spanish.


As a college student with a Spanish minor, I have spent a nice wad of bills towards buying textbooks and paying for tuition fees. The idea that the same education could be received at a fraction of the cost got me excited, but also skeptical. So I decided to try out this amazing app.

Duolingo can only be described as one of a kind. A creative mind thought up this educational tool that makes learning a language into a game, complete with ‘lingot’ points and level achievements. You’ve learned the past subjunctive – congratulations, you get two lingot points and a level up.

This app is innovative, but I have a few issues with it. It can be hard to access the past information you’ve learned, and as you may progress through multiple levels of language quickly, this relies on your short-term recall. Also, the vocabulary is scattered in with the grammar, so it can be difficult to get through a single level if you know the present tense but not what the Spanish word for banana is. Duolingo is immersive, but it lacks in its organization of vocabulary.

As a traditional Spanish student of seven years, I’ve sat in countless worn desk chairs and looked upon many a dog-eared poster (embarazada means pregnant, not embarrassed). And yet as a product of either my education or me, I am only at an intermediate level. If what these apps are promising is true, I could have achieved my seven years of Spanish education in about 10 days.

Before I sign out of my university Spanish courses, let’s have a look at a few of the top apps online right now.

At first glance, the app Mindsnacks may seem more appropriate for children than adults. But its cartoon graphics, catchy tunes, and speed or scramble games give it a fun arcade like atmosphere. For students like me, this high-pressure practicing does not result in learning, just a headache and stress. But at the same time this game is a refreshing change from repetitive flashcards and grammar exercises.

One thing you rarely do in traditional classroom is speaking. Learning is always made better by practical application, and a way to clock in some time speaking is through the app SpeakTribe. Through listening and speaking this app which will take you all the way from simple words and phrases to conversations quickly. But speaking is only a small part of the total picture when it comes to learning a language.

I would recommend these apps as a supplement to a traditional education, but not a substitution. I need to see a few more success stories before I give up on a system that has stood the test of time.

Collegian Columnist Sierra Cymes can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @sierra_cymes.