Two months ago, I decided to learn French (so that I could read more comics by Chantal Montellier). I wanted to try using an app this time, because I’ve pondered learning French before, but after looking at a textbook, I somehow always found myself cleaning the kitchen stove instead.
I’m just saying. It’s hard to get motivated by a textbook. Doing an actual French course might be a good idea, but I’m so unstructured these days…
Anyway, I did some slight research (i.e., asked on an irc channel) and went with Duolingo. It’s the most popular language app, and it’s not difficult to figure out why: It looks really pretty, it works well, and it relies mostly on repetition as a way to get you to learn stuff.
So you get hundreds of small lessons where you’re supposed to, say, use “de” or “le” correctly in a sentence, and you’re supposed to learn, as if by osmosis, when you’re supposed to use which word.
And this works well, really. By that I mean that it’s fun: Hours fly by while tapping on the phone, and you feel like you’re learning something. And you do! I’m able to read, extremely slowly and with the occasional help of a translation app, comics that a French two year old would be able to breeze through.
But it also so occasionally so frustrating. Sometimes when you get things wrong, you just want to shout at the phone “zut alors! pourquoi! pourquoi!” But Duo remains mum — it’ll sometimes tell you explicitly what you’re supposed to use, but it rarely explains why, and why it’s logical that you should use one thing there, but another thing there in a similar situation.
The sensible thing to do here would be to buy a book of grammar or something, but then again: A less than perfect app that you use all the time is better than a perfectly pedagogical book that you never open. (That’s just me.)
So I went looking for apps again, and Pimsleur is recommended by many — but it focuses on spoken French, which isn’t my primary interest. The next one up is Babbel.
Yas! It actually tells you why things are like they are! A lot!
I like the chattiness. It doesn’t try for gnostic brevity that’s the popular approach, but has faith in that people know how to read several sentences in a row.
It also does the traditional lists of conjugations, which I like, too. Duolingo doesn’t do this, but instead drills you in the variations — but never all at the same time, so after two months of Duo, I’m still having problems remembering that “vais” and “vont” are different conjugations of “aller”.
Duolingo does have some of the same stuff, but is less pedagogical. Notice how they explicitly say the gender of “cinema” here, because we haven’t learned that yet, and we’re learning “a + le = au” here. I love that. You feel you’re being given an understanding of the language, instead of just having to intuit things on your own.
Like this — I’d registered that sometimes it was “cents” and sometimes it was “cent”, but I had no idea why (or when, really).
Even the example conversations are good — they don’t feel as artificial as they do in Duolingo. The voices are also great, and sometimes amusing: They had one guy from England who spoke French with a heavy accent…
So everything’s perfect now, right? No, of course I wouldn’t deign to write a blog post unless it’s about Whingeing To The Max.
Babbel has all this knowledge embedded: The example sentences are better than in Duo, the voices are better (in Duo it’s frequently hard to tell what the computer voices saying), the language tips are fantastic…
But the app sucks.
There. I said it. It sucks.
It’s buggy, it’s annoying, and the “game mechanics” are awful.
Every time you start a lesson, you get this “learning tip”. Yes, I got it (!).
The first time you open the on-screen keyboard in any lesson, you get this nagging pop-up. And no, I’m never going to install the AZERTY keyboard, because I can thumb-type fast on the QWERTY one.
One third of the tasks are doing these letter scrambles. And I just loathe them. I realise that this is being used as a way to give the user hints about what letters are in the word, and how long it is, but I absolutely hate it. I can thumb “compliments” on an on-screen keyboard like *snap*, but it takes me so long to hunt and peck these randomly ordered boxes. If they wanted to give tips, couldn’t they just show these scrambles, but also pop up a keyboard?
Oh, and yes — when you’re keyboarding, that’s exactly what they do: They (optionally; you have to click a button first) show these letter scrambles. Whoever made this app had a fetish for scrambling…
… because word scrambles are also what you do for sentences. But it’s not bad here — except that they include “-” as a word, which is slightly annoying. (In Duolingo, this is one of the major “game mechanics” thing, except that they include words that aren’t part of the sentence, too, which makes things more fun.)
When you type out stuff, you also have to include the hyphens — which is annoying on Iphone keyboards at least, since it takes three jabs of the thumb.
Some of the bugs may be the result of them not having tested things on such an obscure platform as an… Iphone 15 Pro. Iphones (the non-max ones) have screens that are smaller than the average these days, I guess, so many times all the options don’t fit on the screen.
And sometimes the “hints” will block part of the text, and once I had the keyboard covering the text box I was trying to enter text into.
It’s also just plain slow. On this screen, you’re filling in four words — but each of them involve typing on the keyboard, then “go”, then wait a second, then another second while the keyboard disappears, then get the sentence read out, then wait a second while the keyboard reappears, and then you can do the next word. It’s like “GNGNGNG LET ME DO IT!”
So I dunno. It’s just frustrating: Babbel is obviously vastly superior app pedagogically, and I’ll probably learn French a lot better by using it than by using Duolingo.
But Duolingo is fun, and Babbel is maddeningly frustrating. So I’m back to it probably being better to use a less than perfect app that I’ll actually pick up daily than using a well-thought-out pedagogical app that’s just buggy and annoying?
Babbel has the look and feel of somebody’s first app — a proof of concept, without any polish. But Babbel has been going since 2008, so I’m guessing it’s futile to hope that they’ll make the mechanics less annoying, or even fix the obvious bugs.
Why can’t things be perfect!
We’ll see. For now I think I’ll try using both, even though that might be a huge waste of my precious, precious time.