Language Apps and the A2 Wall

Stuck on Half a Ladder

This post is for everyone who jumps on language-learning bandwagons and then falls into the dirt.

Learning a new language is like scaling a wall. You need a ladder to get to the top. But, once you're on higher ground, you leave the ladder behind. That's the only rational attitude to take in this matter. The problem, though, is that many of you pick your ladders without looking up. You climb with just the wall to your face. And, when you reach the final rung... bricks. Sure, you can always look down and brag about how high you are. Real polyglots, however, look up and whisper, "Shit!"

All for-profit language industries bet on this. They give you half a ladder to sell you the extensions. I came across this just days ago with a Busuu ad. "An entire college semester in just 22 hours!" it promises. Uh-huh, great… Just one thing, though: A college semester of a foreign language isn't worth diddly dick. Most of the language app world peddles this bullshit line, and it does it for a reason. That reason is because you're ignorant and lazy. You don't know that institutional language instruction is atrocious, and you want to be sold an easy way out. So, failure after failure, you ascend on one platform, then slide back to the base. You pick up another half a ladder. Oh, no! Did that one fail you, too? Well, guess what? They're designed to fail you. That's how their upselling strategies work.

You prove George Carlin right with every uninformed time investment you make:
"I think Americans really show their ignorance when they say they want their politicians to be honest. What are these fucking cretins talking about? If honesty were suddenly introduced to into American life, the whole system would collapse! Honesty would fuck this country up!"
That said, Carlin's words span beyond American politics. First, bullshit is not uniquely American. East Asians are astoundingly full of shit. Second, bullshit is not specifically political. As Carlin also reminds us, "Bullshit is everywhere! Bullshit is rampant!" It's in the for-profit SLA industry, for sure. But, bullshit is also in the people who buy bullshit. That means you.

You had one job!
Hundreds of hours and ten apps later, you can barely hit a single A1 benchmark? There's a word for that — pathetic. It's even more pathetic than you realize. If you had spent 200 hours under an effective method, you'd be an A2 speaker. As I see it (and I see it all the time), it's your own damned faults. Maybe you should have been honest with yourselves at the beginning. Honest progress requires honest effort. If you believe in magic shortcuts, you deserve to fail.

I get why naïve learners suck, but what makes these major apps suck?

It's a basic economic feedback loop. Monoglots entertain bilingualism. App developers provide a minimally effective product. The product inflates monoglots' egos. Their egos demand more satiation. Other firms see that demand. They produce flashier versions of the same shit. The cycle repeats. The products suck. Monoglots stagnate.

Now, the reasons why they stagnate at A-level acquisition are varied. Nevertheless, two are immediately relevant. One, monoglots who reach B and C levels in a target language often recognize that major language apps are a waste of time. That reduces signals to produce curricula for them.

Two, most app developers are not applied linguists by training. Most are just passably bilingual. Some are totally monolingual. Most were only passively exposed to language curricula, and they don't do good SLA research. They then build a team to build their curricula. But, since they can't separate sane pedagogy from shiny bullshit, they mostly make shiny bullshit. A-level materials are the best they can produce.

This is SLA's usual
user-developer dynamic.
Pedagogy has always had this problem. All too often, what sells well doesn't work, and what works doesn't sell well. There's no pitch that goes, "Do the fucking work, and you'll see the fucking results!" There's no "do-you-even-lift" meme for language students. There are, however, tons of bullshit diet pills. Just browse for a foreign language in Google Play or the App Store. Then, check a random app for that language. Odds are that the team that developed it knew fuck-all about language acquisition. 

Thus cycles the language-app circle jerk. The majority audience, ignorant monoglots, jerk off the majority developers, ignorant app developers, who in turn jerk off the majority audience. Instead of looking up at the wall, people look down at their own puds. So, it's not just app developers' faults. You dumb monoglots make this masturbatory scheme possible. That said, zip up your pants and tilt you heads up. You're about to see how far you really are.

Start by just looking at what B1 competence actually means. Or, check my summary below. How many of these things can you honestly say about your foreign-language attainment?
  • I can understand at least 90% of foreign-language input if…
    • it's clear, 
    • it's slow, 
    • it's straightforward, 
    • it's not idiomatic, 
    • it's personally relevant or about 
      • everyday life, 
      • a basic narration, 
      • or a simple argument, and
    • it's in a standard dialect.
  • I can produce output at least 90% reliably if…
    • it's simple, 
    • it involves basic connections of and additions to atomic sentences, 
    • it's mainly directed at a speaker, 
    • it involves very basic 
      • narration, 
      • comparison, 
      • evaluation, 
      • recommendation, or 
      • argumentation, 
    • it uses mainly high-frequency terms 
      • plus some rarer, personally relevant terms, and
    • it's personally relevant or about everyday life.
  • I can compensate for my at most 10% of deficiencies with…
    • circumlocution, 
    • default syntax patterns, 
    • obvious pauses to plan and repair my language, 
    • prompts for repeated or clarified input, and 
    • clear, basic paraphrases of others' output. 
  • I can also…
    • scan texts for info, 
    • handle single-page forms and documents, 
    • engage these familiar topics without preparation, 
    • be mostly intelligible, and 
    • adapt my language to unexpected situations.
Now, honestly ask yourselves, "Can an app deliver on these things?" Directly? Not a chance. Language apps can only assist you indirectly. Even to be indirectly helpful, an app would need to put real stress on you. It also needs to put the right types of stress on you. You need output stress on completely understood input when you begin. As you advance, you need input and output stress. The stress-free experience is a baseless monoglot appeal. It has no place in no-bullshit app development.

Stress: Your body and mind need it.

Nevertheless, it's very hard to program the pressures of real-world language exchanges. I can think of just three that can be programmed: 
  1. Time pressure - quick output, 
  2. Memory pressure - lexical and grammatical knowledge, and 
  3. Retention pressure - tracking input. 
Time pressure is often the most lacking. Jerk-off apps give you an eternity to produce output, even though the real world doesn't work that way. If you take too long to respond, speakers react negatively. They assume you don't know their language. They dumb their speech down. This actually burdens natives and stifles conversations. Any decent app needs to apply real pressure on you to produce language correctly and promptly. It needs to help you diminish those "obvious pauses".

The second one, memory pressure, is what most apps hone on. Spaced repetition software dominates this sphere. Now, it's not the only way to go. Recombination and reintroduction can work, too. However, most language apps don't even offer that. This is mainly due to their situational syllabi. Such syllabi assume that humans have perfect memories. Since we don't, using such a syllabus is like climbing a busted ladder. With each step up, the rungs beneath you crack and break. For such an app to work, you'd need to restart from the base every day. However, those same apps are too busy jerking you off with trophies, medals, check marks, and gold plates. An effective app needs to force you back as you falter. It needs to push necessary review on you.

Then, there's the third, retention pressure. This is one major A2 stall point. B-level skill demands more retention from you. You have to keep more info in your head at the same time. You have to process more and more complex messages. The problem is, when monoglot diddlers build their software, they shy away from "excessive" complexity. Part of it is that they don't know how or when to introduce it. Another part is that they don't want to stress their user base with real challenges. They're content to let you climb that rickety ladder until it breaks. What do they care? The only people left on their asses are the suckers who bought the bullshit!

Now that's how you build a ladder!

Let me guess. You think PollyGot has solved these issues.

Not entirely. It does have increasingly complex messages. It does gradually challenge your memory. It does have real time pressure. It also gets you reading at B and C levels. Previous versions, however, didn't. I implemented and improved such features over time. I did so by exploiting one major advantage. A disgruntled polyglot is its primary user and sole developer. 

You see, when development teams produce apps, they test them on you, the consumers. (Trust me, they view you as consumers first.) Their key metric for "quality" is popularity, and that is royally stupid. That's not my motive with PollyGot. My key metrics for quality are sufficient frustration to long-term acquisition. Sure, popularity would be nice, and it grows bit by bit. But, I'm much more satisfied with knowing something actually works, not that it sells well. Even my own mother, a business professor, loathes this attitude I carry. Well, sorry, Mom, but it's what I've got to do. Maybe I should quote Mill the next time we speak: 
"It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are of a different opinions, it is because they only know their side of the question."
In previous iterations, I caught myself, saying, "This is too fucking easy!" or, "It's not dense enough!" or, "Shit! It's too repetitious!" When I catch myself saying these things, I tweak PollyGot's algorithms, user interface, etc. My goal is not to make users feel good. It's to keep them consistently and meaningfully challenged. 70% of PollyGot users uninstall the app after two days. 90% of them uninstall it after a week. Clearly, my challenges and other devs' challenges are miles apart. I have to compromise a pleasant user experience for serious user benefit. I have to impart what works in a reliably usable way. In Mill's words, I don't seek to treat my users like pigs.

At some point, though, the real burden falls on the learner. Every person has to decide whether language acquisition is just a hobby or a serious pursuit. Serious learners look up each wall and say, "I need to be on other side!" They don't make excuses for themselves. They put in the effort and don't pray for educational miracles. I strive to make the process as painless as efficacy will allow. That's all anybody can honestly promise. No dumb pitch. No half-ladders. No bullshit.

PollyGot: Building the real ladder folks don't want to climb.