In this my nephew J-- and I are alike: we spend too much time in front of the screen, a little round shouldered from too many hours engrossed in its virtual world. For him, it's been Angry Birds, Plants vs Zombies, Adventure Time Card Wars, and Clash Royale. For me, well, largely the same actually, except my list is longer. What can I say? I'm a bad influence.
But in a recent visit to their house, he was engaged in something different. Well, he was still staring at his phone, but instead of the furious tapping I've come to associate with his games, he pondered more thoughtfully before pressing.
"What's up?" I asked. "New game?"
"我在读中文," he said. "I'm studying Chinese."
"太棒了!" I said. "What app are you using?"
"Cool. I'm using Memrise." We compared features, his having the advantage of basic calligraphy and mine having video clips of native speakers.
Welcome to the new age of language learning, thanks to the app economy. My nephew is using his app to augment his Chinese lessons at school, I'm using mine to correct a decades-long mistake of neglect. (Why oh why did I take my Chinese lessons for granted when I was younger?)
The strength of these apps in their simplicity: it's really all just flashcard drills underneath, but tracked and gamified through the phone. The app measures your progress and moves you up to higher levels as you complete lessons. You earn points for doing lessons, and you build a chain for using the app every day. For obsessive compulsives like us, it's a good enough motivation.
Granted, it's probably not nearly as good as having a teacher or classmates to converse with, but...it's cheap and readily available at any time. I pick up my language learning app during breaks and while waiting in line.
As to effectiveness, I can really only speak from my experience. I've been learning languages through apps for the past four years. Chinese is actually my third language. I started with Spanish first, and this year, in a mad competitive rush, I completed French. I've gotten to the point where I can read in Spanish and French. I would place my comprehension at about 50% for each, the missing half consisting of vocabulary and some of the more complicated sentence structures. The real challenge, though, is speaking and listening. This requires immersion in a community to really pick up.