CAN APPS BE LANGUAGE SAVIOURS?

Endangered languages. How can we save them? This one question keeps getting asked by linguists and language enthusiasts all over the world. And the answer is quite simple – we have to make sure that new generations learn them. But how exactly can we make this happen? Can technology come to the rescue? Can language learning apps be a solution?

No one can deny that in today’s world we rarely leave our homes without a smartphone. This little device has replaced quite a lot of things we used to carry with us. It has replaced a camera, a notepad, a personal organizer, an alarm clock, a map, a dictionary, and even a wallet. Everything we need – literally – can be found in a phone.

Smartphones make our lives easier, there’s no doubt about that. Gone are the days when we had just phones – without the “smart” prefix – which we used for just calling or texting. When you were waiting for the bus or sitting in the waiting room, you couldn’t fire your phone up and browse the Web or watch YouTube. Now you can. You can surf the internet, you can watch videos, you can take selfies if you want. But you can also do something else. You can learn.

Language learning apps have become extremely popular. Talk to a person who is learning a foreign tongue and you will most certainly hear that he or she is using Duolingo, Memrise, busuu, or some other app. And that’s great! If you can’t live without your phone, you should at least put it to good use.

But how beneficial language learning apps really are?

I was using Duolingo for three months, and I can tell you – even assure you – that it is not possible to learn a language with just a language app. You can memorize words and phrases, you can pick up some grammar, you can have fun doing it, but you will never reach the level of fluency. Knowing this, I keep wondering if apps are the answer to saving endangered languages. And if they aren’t, is there any hope left?

There are people who think that saving tongues at risk of disappearing shouldn’t be our concern; that it is a complete waste of time; that it’s simply not worth it. Well, if you are one of them, you may want to quit reading now. Because I strongly believe that the cause is deserving of our attention, and that it is our job to at least try to find the ways to prevent languages from dying out.

Obviously, the easiest thing anyone can do is start learning a language. If half of the world’s population spoke Nauruan, it wouldn’t be on the endangered list, would it? So maybe apps are the solution we are looking for. Not only can they make a tongue popular but also – or rather more importantly – they can give people a chance to learn it.

I am fairly certain that there is currently no single Nauruan language textbook on the market that students could use. I am also certain that there are no plans to publish one. That just wouldn’t be profitable. You have to print the physical books, and those aren’t very “hot” nowadays. Buying a textbook? What for? There are apps! A textbook won’t fit in your pocket, but a phone will. A textbook is kinda boring, but an app isn’t. A textbook is outmoded, but an app is trendy. And that’s the secret – if people are to learn a foreign language, the whole experience must be à la mode. This is where apps do help. Take Irish, for example. Before Duolingo launched an Irish course, the language had about 100,000 native speakers. Now more than 4 million people are learning it through the app. This is amazing. This is the power of attraction. This is saving the language from extinction. Well, almost.

Despite the fact that apps contribute enormously to the promotion of lesser-known tongues, we should not rely solely on them. As I mentioned above, an app will never make you fluent. And rescuing dying languages requires proficiency. We won’t preserve a tongue with just “Aloha” or “Ej et mour”. That’s why, in addition to apps, we need teachers and textbooks and learning resources. We need people who will fight for the cause. But most of all, we need students who will carry the languages on.

So can apps be language saviours? No, they can’t. Only we can be. The hope is within us. Apps, however, can give us tools. And this, my friends, is half the battle.


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