How to Spot Bad Language Apps: 5 Warning Signs

There’s no shortage of language learning apps. It seems like every other week a new app hits the market and claims that it’ll have you fluently speaking a new language in a matter of months. 

More often than not, these apps end up being ‘me-too’ apps that essentially do the same thing as other apps without excelling in any particular area. The truth is that there are a wide variety of language learning apps available, so to be deserving of language learners’ time and attention, it’s essential that they do a few things very well. 

Of course, not every app is out to accomplish the same goals. Some are much more niche-focused and will, therefore, be judged by a different set of criteria.

But, for those that aim to help learners in the early stages of their language learning journey, it’s essential that they excel in the following areas:

  • Unique curriculum and content for every language
  • Crystal-clear audio recordings
  • Teaches pronunciation and grammar
  • Variety of exercise types
  • Great value

Curriculum and content for different languages

Every language is unique and deserves to be taught in a way that takes this into account.

This should be obvious, but somewhat surprisingly, many language learning apps teach every language in the exact same way. It’s not at all uncommon for an app to create a course in one language, then essentially translate that course into a bunch of different languages. 

While this might cut costs for them and make it possible to offer a course in multiple languages, it comes at a major cost to students. This can lead to important topics being taught poorly, such as differences between formal and informal tenses or teaching greetings that aren’t commonly used in your target language. 

Some apps, such as Mondly, look pretty good on the surface. But, it’s not until you dig a bit deeper that you’ll find the content is exactly the same in every language. 

Warning Sign #1: 

Switch between the languages offered and check the lesson plans. If they’re the same, run for the door! 


Quality of audio recordings

Nearly every person who endeavors to learn a language does so in order to communicate with other people. While reading and writing are, of course, a very important part of the process, being able to speak and understand the spoken language is absolutely essential. 

This is why it’s so surprising to see some apps using text-to-speech computer-generated audio recordings instead of hiring native speakers to create high-quality audio recordings. 

When you’re starting out in a new language, you may not realize what sounds natural and what is a bit strange. Having the audio come from non-native speakers or be computer-generated puts learners at a major disadvantage.

After all, the quality audio recordings will influence your own pronunciation as you should be practicing mimicking what you hear. Plus, this will be the first step in training your listening comprehension skills. 

So unless you’re trying to sound like a robot or are more interested in hearing what Siri has to say than the new friends you’ll make, be sure that the app you choose uses natural-sounding audio.

Warning Sign #2: 

The app plays unnatural, robotic audio recordings any stuff you click on. 

Explains pronunciation and grammar

For most people, it won’t be possible to listen to an audio recording and perfectly reproduce that sound. When learning a new language, it’s very likely you’ll have never made a sound that’s common in your target language.  

An app that teaches you the differences between the sound in your native language and your target language can be extremely helpful. Learning about common mistakes made and ways to avoid them can save you years of saying things the wrong way.

Sometimes you need to get a bit nerdy and look at diagrams of where your tongue should be and whether the sound is aspirated or not, among other things. 

Additionally, it’s not uncommon for apps to claim that teaching grammar is unnecessary and unnatural. Sure, a four-year-old may not need to learn grammar rules to internalize the language, but that doesn’t mean you don’t. 

And while I wouldn’t recommend sitting down and memorizing grammar books before you’ve begun communicating in your target language, that doesn’t make grammar unimportant. Learning some basic rules that are suitable to your level can save you countless hours of not quite understanding why a sentence pattern is the way it is. 

Rosetta Stone is probably the most well-known language learning program out there. However, it can be extremely frustrating to use as they never actually explain important grammar concepts. Instead, they leave you trying to infer grammar rules, which can lead to lots of second-guessing yourself.

Warning Sign #3:

No explanations for anything. The app expects you to figure it out on your own. 

Variety of exercise types

We often think of language learning as a singular skill, but in reality, language is used in multiple ways. This could be asking for directions, reading a menu at an unfamiliar restaurant, understanding a TV show, or writing a resume. 

While a general understanding of your target language is important for all of these, they’re slightly different, but related skills. This is especially true for a language that has a different writing system than your own. 

Since these skills are all a bit different, it’s important for a language learning app to practice all of them. For example, if the app only tests you on vocabulary, then you may have a difficult time constructing a sentence. Likewise, if an app only asks you to listen to content and never speak, your spoken language skills are likely to lag behind. 

Another benefit of using an app that enables you to practice with a variety of exercises is that it can help keep things interesting

Learning a language is a slow process that requires consistent practice. An app that relies too heavily on a couple of exercise types can quickly become boring, making it harder for language learners to come back to it each day. 

One final, yet important factor is that these exercises should be created by human teachers as often as possible. Using AI to generate different exercise types can work in some instances, such as spelling words or matching pictures. However, in other cases, it’s not yet possible for their algorithms to create exercises that actually challenge and test the users’ understanding. 

Lots of different language learning resources, such as Glossika, include multiple-choice questions in which only one answer may make any sense at all. This can create the illusion of understanding, but in reality, it’d be hard to actually answer some of the questions incorrectly.

Warning Sign #4: 

The app has only a few exercise types, and none of them challenges you to think. 

Great value

Most of us have a limited budget and not enough time. Money spent on language learning shouldn’t feel like it’s being wasted. Time spent using an app shouldn’t feel like it would have been better spent doing something else.

A good language learning app should make you feel great about the value you’re getting in return. 

This doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be cheap or free. Something can be excellent value even if it’s more expensive than other options. Similarly, a resource that is completely free but wastes your time isn’t great value. 

Some people may feel like apps ought to be free and think that anyone serious about learning a language should be using textbooks and workbooks. And while books definitely have their place, and I’m not arguing that apps are necessarily superior, I do feel like people often undervalue the benefits that language learning apps can provide. 

A good app may cost less than a textbook, while providing equally valuable content, a tracking system, audio and images, instant feedback, and can even make you feel like you’re playing a game – which gets you to study even more!

An app that offers great value is worth the time and/or money you spend with it. It’s one that makes your life better, and it’s likely most users would agree.

Warning Sign #5: 

Current customers scream ”a waste of money”. 

In the end, let’s not forget a good app can’t do the real work of studying for you. A good tool helps you achieve your goal much faster while a bad one wastes your time and energy.

I hope you haven’t paid for any apps that had these warning signs. If you have, please share your experience in the comment to help others avoid them!

About the author:

Nick Dahlhoff started All Language Resources to help people figure out which language learning resources are worth using and which ones would be better off avoiding. Since starting the site, he has tried out hundreds of apps, courses, podcasts, etc and written many in-depth reviews. He’s currently living in Beijing and studying Chinese.


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4 years ago

Very helpful, thanks! : )