I wrote a newsletter about language learning through television and film and I shared our reviews of specific learning apps in Spanish, but what's missing from this discussion is what children can (and cannot) learn from learning apps. Most children love screen time, and if kids are on screens anyway, it might as well be in their minority language, right? But can kids really screen-time their way to bilingualism? App marketing agencies would certainly like you to believe they can, and since language-learning apps generated $8.21 billion in 2021, a 32% year-on-year increase, it seems that many people do.
I'm going to talk about two kinds of apps in the post. The first is what we all started downloading during the lockdown phase of the pandemic: language-learning apps. The second kind of app is one developed for native speaking children of the language that you would like your kids to learn. This kind of app is not typically targeting the development of spoken language skills (but may be focused on literacy skills) and it is not geared towards language learners per se. But depending on their age and proficiency, this is probably the best option for your kids if you kind find them (and your kids can understand them), because the input is the most authentic and naturalistic.
Most learning apps are interactive by design, and for that reason, they can be an effective tool for building passive vocabulary and comprehension skills. But most apps (like television and movies) will not help children learn how to speak a language, because for that there is no substitute for human interaction. A useful distinction can be made between receptive and productive language skills. Almost all speakers of any language (even their dominant language) have stronger receptive as compared to productive language skills. This gap is widest for the language users with the lowest proficiency. That means that by using educational apps, your child is strengthening skills that are already their strongest. So, my advice is that if learning apps are part of your child's minority language input, ensure they also receive ample opportunity to interact with other speakers of the language, so that they can put into practice what they are learning from the apps.
Receptive language skills: listening and reading are receptive language skills, because they involve the comprehension of language input that the person in question receives.
Children who are newer to the target language or who are less proficient users of the language can increase receptive skills and build passive vocabulary by using apps that are designed especially for language learners. For example, I really like Gus on the Go and Gus on the Go Stories, which are available in a number of languages. Research has shown that the gamification of language learning can lead to improved outcomes. Games are engaging because they satisfy competitive impulses in a low-stakes situation. For young children, or at least my young child, one risk of gamified learning is that the desire to earn the reward of a pleasant 'ding' or a virtual coin can lead to mindless guessing without learning. One way to prevent that problem is to use learning apps in short bursts and (as always) to aim for comprehensible input.
Comprehensible input: language input that the learner can mostly understand.
Maybe you're wondering what a child can learn if they can 'mostly understand' the input already. In the context of learning apps, a vocabulary item can be brand new, but if it appears on the screen with a picture that allows the child to infer the meaning of the new word, then the input is comprehensible. A more proficient kid using a different app might understand most of the instruction to "sort all of the blue items into the cardboard box", but after dragging a blue item into the painted box once, they figure out what they were supposed to do and learn the word 'cardboard' in the meantime.
In addition to practicing their receptive language skills, children who already have a strong foundation in the target language can learn developmentally appropriate academic skills and content while practicing receptive language skills, especially by using apps designed for native speakers of the language. Depending on the app, preschool aged children can practice colors, numbers, shapes, spatial awareness, etc. Older children can work on more advanced math and literacy skills, and study any other subject matter that happens to be available in the target language.
Target language: The language being learned. In our context, the target language is probably not the societally dominant language. It may be the child's strongest language (especially if they are very young), but it is still the language that needs the most support if sources of input are limited to one parent, the family, or an immigrant community.
Although children with advanced literacy skills in their dominant language typically transfer those skills to their non-dominant language(s) with ease, children who are actively learning to read in more than one language will likely benefit from literacy instruction developed specifically for each language. I'll explain what I mean by using English and Spanish as the example, but some equivalent point can be made for just about any two languages. In English, 'word families', 'blends', and 'sight words' are all important concepts for children learning to read. In Spanish, these concepts are much less important because there are fewer individual sounds in Spanish (phonemes), less complex syllable and word structure (phonotactics), and few spelling exceptions (transparent orthography). Spanish literacy is taught by learning individual sounds, recognizing syllables ('ma' 'mi' 'mo'...), and then combining syllables into words. For that reason, using 'literacy' apps designed for native-speaking children of the target language is a very good idea, even if the orthography of the target language is similar to the one used for the majority language. If the target language uses a different writing system altogether, all the more reason to investigate literacy apps developed for children whose dominant language is your target language.
Older children can also study grammar explicitly by using language-learning apps in a way that most young children cannot. And that's a great thing about older children - they maintain so much of their biologically-endowed gift for language learning that the littlest kiddos have, but they also have academic skills that they can apply to language learning if they are so inclined. Being so inclined is important though, because pressure and boredom can negatively impact a child's feelings about the language they are learning and do more harm than good.
So if you are moving older children to a new country and preparing them for an immersive experience, language-learning apps like Duolingo or Babbel are probably a good idea, because that type of app can help your kids build a foundation in the language and eventually make more sense of the naturalistic language input they will get out in the real world. On the other hand, if they are already in an immersion environment, they may just be too exhausted to take in any more. When language-learning apps are met with resistance, it is probably time to replace that time and effort with human interaction, because the efficacy of learning apps lies in their appeal. When an app is no longer fun, my advice is to move on.