Smartphone apps that help people learn languages for free or nearly free, a few sentences at a time, are piling pressure on established education firms and setting the pace for how to make lessons more engaging.
Phone and tablet-based mobile products from newcomers like Germany’s Babbel, Britain’s Memrise and U.S.-based Duolingo have overtaken names like Berlitz and computer self-learning pioneer Rosetta Stone in terms of audience, if not yet sales or teaching sophistication, market researchers say.
Tens of millions of users are being drawn to the flexibility of practicing vocabulary or conversation on the go, either as part of a serious course of study or simply a more productive alternative to casual video gaming.
“It is a matter of incremental convenience: smartphone apps offer a wide selection of content that is more easily accessible, anytime, anywhere,” said Ed Cooke, founder of London-based Memrise, whose language apps are mostly free.
The best mobile apps use voice recognition, email reminders and insights from the psychology of mobile games and cognitive science to keep entry-level as well as advanced users coming back for a few minutes of practice each day.
These low-cost products are forcing a rethink by publishers, tutors and suppliers of classroom teaching tools who have long counted on charging double-digit dollar prices for books or hundreds of dollars for courses.
Established companies in the sector are scrambling to make their existing print, software and online products more mobile or retrenching to higher-end courses aimed at businesses or schools so as not to have to compete with free or low-cost apps.
The rise of mobile apps is denting sales in the overall market, said Sam Adkins, chief research officer of research firm Ambient Insight. “The language-learning market is declining in terms of revenue due primarily to the adoption of less expensive, technology-based products,” he said.
Global sales of language tools and services are expected to dip 2.1 percent to $56.3 billion by 2018, compared with 2014, according to Ambient. Meanwhile, the mobile share should climb 73 percent to around $14.5 billion by 2019, it estimates.
Babbel says it has been profitable since 2011, doubling revenue each year since. Users pay, on average, about $6 a month for subscriptions. That has made it the highest-grossing language app supplier in most European countries on the Apple and Google Play stores, according to research firm AppAnnie.
Chief Executive Markus Witte said Babbel quickly found that it was not how much one could learn in one sitting, but how little.
“Binge learners tend not to come back,” he said. “People who learn a little tend to come back more regularly.”
Pittsburgh-based Duolingo has attracted more than $83 million in financing from top Silicon Valley venture capitalists and Hollywood actor-turned-tech investor Ashton Kutcher since its founding in 2011. It says it has up to 100 million users.
While keeping its services free to consumers, it has yet to settle on a sustainable revenue-generating model, having shifted recently from seeking to charge media companies for translation services to becoming more of a resource for schools.
Language teachers are coming to accept the apps as useful vocabulary builders and for conversational practice but say they are no substitute for interaction with a knowledgeable teacher when it comes to grammar and sustaining motivation.
Angelika Davey, a native German language tutor living in Wiltshire in England, says that with the rise of language apps, fewer students are interested in committing to weekly classes.
She has stopped advertising with flyers in her local community and instead finds students online, via social media or Skype.
“Students are different now. People are quite happy to work on their own,” she said. “But they do need a port of call to discuss things with when they get stuck or things go wrong with books or apps.”