How to Make a Language Learning App or Website
More than 1.5 billion people are learning English worldwide.
80% of European citizens aged 15-30 years old know at least one foreign language.
They learn languages for travel, business, and self-improvement. Surprisingly, many people do not even need a specific reason. 46% of Babbel users said that they study a foreign language just because they enjoy it, and 35% of respondents learn languages to keep their brains fit.
Let's find the answers to the questions: How to create a language learning app? How to overcome the most common challenges? And how does Duolingo make money with only 2% of paid accounts?
Changes in the Global Language Learning Market
Languages Learning Apps Competitive Landscape
Languages Learning Apps Challenges and How to Overcome Them with Technologies:
- Lack of Student Motivation
- Hitting on All Four Linguistic Skills
- Knowledge Retaining
- Overcoming the Language Barrier
How to Make a Language Learning Website
Changes in the Global Language Learning Market
The main benefits of online learning are availability, low price, and convenience. Online language learning apps have had a great impact on linguistics as they allow people to begin learning languages right away without a teacher. Besides popular languages like English, French, Spanish, and Chinese, the apps have increased interest in studying rare and extinct languages like Gaelic, Welsh, Navajo, and Esperanto.
Now people do not need to spend time attending classes if they can study with a teacher on Zoom, pass short courses on Instagram, find a native language partner through specialized social media, or go complete a language course using a website or mobile app.
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has seriously affected all spheres of our lives. For online language learning, the changes proved to be both good and bad:
- On the one hand, people stay at home and need to keep themselves occupied. It is a great chance to improve their language skills.
- On the other hand, many people have lost their jobs and stopped dreaming about traveling, so why should they learn foreign languages?
Also, 2020 started with difficulties for language schools and universities that had no online platforms and had to scramble to figure out how to make a custom language learning website. At the same time, existing eLearning platforms, to cheer up their users and attract the news students, made their courses free of charge for the quarantine period. It is clear that many new users will continue studying afterward.
Languages Learning Apps Competitive Landscape
To create your own language app, it is important to know who your competitors are, how they monetize their business, and what success they have achieved.
Language Learning Platform Types
Currently, language websites can be divided into the following types:
- Language courses: Duolingo, Babbel, Rosetta Stone
- Flashcards and Spaced Repetition Systems: Memrise, Quizlet, Brainscrape
- Educational games: Mindsnaks, Tinycards, Anki App
- Contextual reference: Leaf
- Social media: Tandem, iTalki, HiNative, HelloTalk
How do language learning apps make money?
The online language learning market is expected to reach up to 172.71 Billion by 2027. The platforms use one or a combination of the following business models:
- Freemium model: the app and the website are accessible without charge, although some extra features are offered with a paid subscription.
- In-app ads: users pass courses for free, but if they want to remove the ads, they have to pay a fee.
- Subscription: monthly or yearly payments.
- One-time purchase of a complete course.
Surprisingly, many platforms are free for users. For example, Duolingo. Being a free app, somehow it generates $6 billion in revenue. Part comes from only less than 2% of paid Duo’s subscription users. Other revenues come from ads, investors, and paid English Tests (analog of TOEFL).
Top Language Learning Platforms
Here are the most popular language apps worldwide:
|Year of creation||Number of languages||Number of users||Business model|
|Duolingo||2012||36||300 million||Freemium, Ads|
This is a language learning platform that offers the most languages (36) and has the greatest number of registered users (over 300 million). The biggest advantage of the platform is that they provide their language courses free of charge. Though there is a Premium subscription, most of their income comes from paid in-app advertisements. The app allows its users quick progress in all language learning skills.
This is one of the oldest language learning platforms. In the beginning, the lessons were provided in the CD-ROM format. Now the courses are available only by online subscription. One thing that makes Rosetta Stone unique is that the platform gives the opportunity to have online tutoring courses in addition to the program. They can be individual or group sessions with a live teacher.
Busuu is a language learning app that is known throughout the world. The platform promises that its students will make visible progress in their second language in only 16 hours. The Busuu app courses were created with the help of a large team of linguists from major institutions. There are free and premium levels of service. Users who choose a free option, can learn only one language and have limited services.
In spite of the relatively small number of languages presented on the platform, Babble has a good reputation among users. The app focuses on communicative skills and interactive dialogues. It has an innovative system of speech recognition for better training of users’ pronunciation. With their bite-sized lessons of just 10-15 minutes, it is really easy to engage in the learning process even during a busy day.
Memrise is a flashcards app that uses a mnemonic approach and relies on the systematic repetition of words and phrases which also improves the students’ memory. The app has 4 types of subscriptions including a free version and one-time payment for lifelong premium access.
This is a popular online language learning platform that uses videos of native speakers from YouTube. Watching such real videos allows better immersion into the language and culture through music, talks, news, and movie trailers. However, the app does not teach speaking skills. In addition, there is no strict course program. That’s why this app is good only in combination with other learning resources.
Mondly Mondly is an EdTech company from Romania that created an immersive and interactive way to learn 33 foreign languages. They use situational chatbots, AR, VR, and speech recognition technologies to train the communicative skills of a student by creating real-life situations.
Do you want to create a website like Duolingo?Let’s discuss
Language Learning Apps Challenges and How to Overcome Them with Technologies
In traditional education, the teacher coordinates the learning process, encourages students to study, and helps them cope with difficulties.
Online education, on the contrary, relies on a student’s self-discipline and persistence. The aim of technology is to help students organize the self-studying process and stay on track.
There are a number of challenges that online language learning has to overcome. Let’s enumerate the main difficulties language learning apps deal with, and try to find the solutions.
1. Lack of Student Motivation
"Traditionally, one of the biggest barriers facing language learners is motivation," — said Bernhard Niesner, Busuu's co-founder and CEO.
After several lessons, even highly motivated people start feeling bored and look for an excuse not to attend the next lesson.
Besides boring exercises, people may be unsatisfied with the level of the program (too easy or too complicated), lengthy lessons, lack of grammar explanation, or absence of personalization.
Use some of these ideas to solve the motivation problem:
- Initial level testing
Anyone who has learned the basics of a language may soon get bored doing exercises for beginners and quit immediately. But people who have never studied the chosen language may need more repetition and more time for basic study before they can move on.
So, the first thing after the registration on the platform should be level testing. According to the test results, the users will be assigned to the appropriate level of difficulty.
- Setting individual goals
The next step to maintain high motivation is to set goals. Let the users indicate why they are studying. For example, to get a promotion or move abroad. Seeing their goal each time they open the app will stimulate their thirst for learning.
Bernhard Niesner, Busuu's co-founder and CEO, explains: ‘Retention is closely linked to an individual's goal. For instance, if someone is learning for work, education, or family reasons, they tend to stick with language learning much longer than someone who is learning for travel or fun.’
Also, allow users to set up daily goals quantifiable in a number of earned points for completed tasks. This will help students see daily progress.
- Variety of exercises
In 2012, Duolingo surveyed the students and found that most users dropped out after less than 2 hours of study! The main reason was the monotony of completing the same exercises over and over.
Recently, Duolingo rebuilt their most popular courses from scratch, creating their famous tree of lessons that gradually increases the difficulty of the material. A new sequence of learning processes complies with international standards, the CEFR. With the new system, most Duolingo comments exclaim that lessons are interesting and fun. Most people, who tried to learn a language with the app, were amazed at how addictive the learning process became.
To stimulate the users’ interest, the platform owners need to gradually add new types of exercises. Here is the list of exercises used in Duolingo:
- Arrange all the words into a grammatically correct sentence.
- Complete the translation of a sentence with a missing word.
- Select the correct translation of a sentence.
- Match a picture to a word.
- Fill in the missing word into the blank in a sentence.
- Rearrange the words in the shuffled sentence.
- Speak the word or sentence into the microphone
- Match the word to its translation.
- Type the translation of a sentence.
- Type what you hear in the audio
- Respond to chatbot answers to continue the conversation.
- Reminders to stay on track
Scheduling is very important in our busy lives, so setting reminders to go to a new lesson is a critical feature that will help users continue to study daily.
- Competition and gamification
Even if you do not want to make language learning games, there still should be an element of fun and competition.
For example, in Duolingo users earn 'XPs' (experience points) for each completed task, and after finishing a set of lessons they get a ‘crown’ (or next level opened) and bonus points. The points can be spent on buying ‘lives’ that allow users to continue the lesson if they make mistakes. Also, the number of collected points moves the student's position upper on the leaderboard. And on the contrary, with each missing day of studying, the users lose their positions on the leaderboard. This motivates them to commit to a certain portion of exercise each day. Consistency is one of the most important factors in learning a language. The downside of this experience is that leaderboards have turned people into XP hunters, striving not to learn, but to win the competition.
Not everyone learns the same way. People benefit more from a tailored education plan. If there is no personalization, students may feel that they are left with their problems alone.
To improve this, when you create language learning software, add such features as personal vocabulary where users can add new words from exercises, and later, systematically review them.
Let’s look at how Busuu handles personalization. They created machine learning algorithms that track each user’s learning behavior and identifies their personal vocabulary and grammar weaknesses and strengths. This information allows the platform to create personalized vocabulary repetition that helps users memorize difficult words and constructions. Using AI in language learning reduces the learning time because this approach is more immersive and tailored to users’ needs.
- Short-term specialization courses
Language learning ‘marathons’ that last several weeks have become very popular in helping students achieve specific goals. Students can gain specific knowledge like professional slang (business, medical, juridical, maritime, technical, scientific), or they can prepare for an exam or an interview.
- Recognition of app certification by universities and other authorities
Getting a recognizable certificate is a great motivation. If a student is learning a language with the app, it would be nice to have some online testing equivalent to TOEFL or IELTS. Duolingo has already provided such an alternative!
They created the Duolingo English Test (DET). The results of this test are accepted by over 2000 institutions around the world. The users take a test for $49 without preliminary registration and get their results within 48 hours. They would need only a computer and a web camera. The video records and written answers can be sent to any selected university for assessment by the admissions committee. Duolingo owners hope their test will start bringing them 20% of their revenue by 2021.
2. Hitting on All four Linguistic Skills
Language knowledge is judged by progress in the mastering of four skills: Speaking, Listening, Writing, and Reading. So the task of the language learning app owner is to cover all these skills in the app.
First of all, the main problem for online learning is the grammar explanation.
Most of the apps are focused on communication and implicit teaching without long explanations of grammar rules. The user learns intuitively in the game format, making mistakes and remembering different constructions. Then the user can apply the same structures to other sentences. However, each language has many exceptions and its own peculiarities that need clarification. Without understanding the grammar rules, the user will always make the same mistakes.
According to the 2019 survey of Busuu users, 20% of learners would like more grammar instruction from the platform.
Intuitive learning is good at the beginning stages when grammar is simple and education is focused on memorizing vocabulary. But when the topics become more complicated, users need more explanation. Here are some ideas for solving this challenge:
- Integrate tips and dictionary articles that can be opened by tapping or hovering over the word and can show the remarks of usage and possible word forms. For instance, Busuu developed a feature called Grammar Review. Due to machine learning technology, the app can predict exactly what the student needs and helps them practice their weaknesses.
- Show a short explanation video before each new lesson and then practice the rule with the exercises.
- Some platforms also use forums and chats where users can ask for clarification from natives and peers.
- Finally, you can blend exercises and live sessions with a real teacher who can coordinate the learning process and program according to the student’s needs.
Another problem is pronunciation. The apps usually pronounce words with a computer voice without intonations and without explanations of how to articulate the sounds correctly. Thus, users struggle with listening and speaking.
To overcome problems with pronunciation, you should hire native voice artists who can record exercises and dialogues.
Memrise uses short videos where locals use definite phrases to help students develop listening and comprehension of accents.
Technically, the app needs an excellent speech recognition system, to understand the users’ speech and evaluate the correctness of users’ pronunciation.
3. Knowledge Retaining
An average Duolingo course introduces its learners to about 2,000 words. The app states that 34 hours at Duolingo equals one semester of learning a language at the university. But all newly acquired information is easily forgotten if not repeated.
Here are some ideas on how to help students retain what they have learned:
- Retaining knowledge tasks
From time to time, students need to repeat the material or they will quickly forget it. Spaced repetition exercises can help with that. For example, Duolingo has five difficulty levels on each topic. When the user completes all five, the topic is considered finished and is highlighted with gold color. However, after some time, the level’s icon gets shattered, signaling that the content needs to be reviewed.
- Periodic assessments
The best way to know your progress is by passing a test. The app should provide controlled checking in the middle of the process and at the end of each section. This will convince the students that they are doing well or it will show them that they are not serious enough and need to repeat the material.
4. Overcoming the Language Barrier
With traditional teaching, many students are afraid to make mistakes and get bad marks. This continues after the course when people meet natives and they are afraid to test their skills.
- Chatbot communication to overcome the language barrier
Chatbots can simulate conversational dialogues and bring about fearless speaking.
Several years ago Duolingo had a chatbot that was very popular but the company removed this feature. However, users still express the hope that the feature would be returned and even possibly integrated with smart speakers to be able to earn XPs via Alexa or Google Home.
The main challenge for companies, right now, is to create a chatbot that will be able to support live conversation, not only the ‘canned’ answers. And it looks like we are now standing on the threshold of such innovation.
Japanese startup TerraTalk is experimenting with an AI-powered app that allows Japanese students who are learning English to speak to a conversational assistant that will reproduce a live situation. The app is able to understand what the student says and give feedback. Such talking with a chatbot allows the student to overcome shyness in speaking to natives and the fear of making a mistake.
Another project is the newest app LanguageChat. It combines AI and Cloud Natural Language API from Google, AWS, and Azure to allow users to generate their own content creating the topics that are interesting to them. The project was presented on Kickstarter and has already attracted its first subscribers.
- Getting more immersive learning with AR and VR
Augmented and virtual reality has started to penetrate language learning platforms. You can check how Mondly uses VR technologies for better language immersion. The students virtually get into common-place situations in airports, hotels, or zoos to interactively learn new expressions and to train their listening and speaking with the bot. This is not only effective but also fun!
- Communication with peers
Forums and chats with peers can help students gain confidence in their skills as they start communicating with foreigners. This practice shows the level of language proficiency perfectly and breaks down the barriers to communication.
How to Make a Language Learning Website
Now let’s move to the technical part, and examine how to how to make an app like Duolingo or Babbel.
How to structure the development process to achieve the best result? Let us give you a plan.
Usually, development is gradual. Core features are made first and this is called MVP, or minimum viable product. This is what most startups begin with to verify the Product-Market Fit before investing too much in development. To create an MVP, identify the core features of the website, and what the unique value proposition is. In the next iterations, you will add features and make changes to the existing platform based on feedback from your first users.
Here are the steps in the language learning app development process. Most of these steps go in parallel to speed up the process.
1. Create content
Content is the main thing — exercises, grammar tips, illustrations, and sounds.
You will need to create really amazing content: it should be relevant, up-to-date, appealing, and even amusing. Hire language teachers, volunteers, students, actors, and graphic designers to make the material.
Babbel learning content is created by a professional team of over 150 linguists and language teachers. But in the beginning, you do not need to hire such a big team.
Here is how Duolingo started working on its content.
At the dawn of the creation of their first courses, Severin Hacker and Luis von Ahn, the founders of Duolingo, read a ton of books on language teaching and built basic courses for English speakers who were learning Spanish and German. For that, they googled the 3,000 most commonly used words in each language and translated them into English to create simple exercises. Based on this, they created an algorithm for lessons. Two years after they launched the website, they attracted professional linguists and second-language-acquisition researchers to create grammar tips and conjugation tables. As good revenues were coming in, Duo’s owners started adding new languages and recruiting native-speaking enthusiasts willing to help create a vocabulary for new courses.
2. Create a Design
You need to consider the core purpose of the platform and user workflow; then come up with a design. The appealing design and well-thought-out UX are very important for language learning and many exercises are based on flashcards and image associations.
3. Choose the App Platform
Only 20% of traffic comes from desktop users, and 80% from mobile. Therefore, it is important to adapt the app to all popular platforms, primarily iOS and Android users.
4. Create the Front-End
5. Build the Back-End This is the part that is invisible to users. It is located on the server where all the magic happens: the user types the request in the browser and it is sent to the back-end where the program algorithms process the data and figure out what to do next. To create a backend, a variety of technologies are needed. Which you should choose depends on the complexity of the project.
- Busuu uses PHP, Java, MySQL, Nginx, PostgreSQL, AngularJS, Amazon S3, Amazon EC2, Amazon Elasticache, Objective-C, Ruby, Symfony, MemCached, Android SDK, among others.
- Memrise was created with software such as Python, Nginx, Django, Amazon Cloudfront, and Headlebars.js.
As you can see, there is no recipe for which to use for platform creation. So it would be best to rely on the tech team’s judgment and expertise.
6. Integrate the latest technologies
Nowadays, it is hard to imagine how a language learning platform could exist without a conversational assistant, Voice-Recognition, AR/VR, Machine Learning (ML). In addition, Cloud Natural Language Processing (NLP) that allows machines to read and analyze the text is critical. Luckily, there is no need to reinvent the wheel, and developers can integrate your platform with Google and Amazon solutions through their API.
One of the examples of implementation of ML and NLP is the Duolingo English Test for defining the language learning level according to the international standards. Research showed a high correlation of DET scores to the scores of TOEFL and IELTS. ML and NLP technologies used by Duolingo help them:
- automatically create thousands of DET tests
- assess and grade complex answers aligning them with CEFR language proficiency levels (A1 - C2)
- accumulate all information and count the final score
- increase test security (with biometrics and computer vision)
How much does it cost to develop a language learning app?
A lot depends on the complexity of the project, the country where you outsource the development, and the level of experience of your contractors. For example, developers from Eastern Europe and Asia cost a half to a third as much as people in the US and Western Europe, while still providing high-quality code.
How to Apply This to Your Business
Hopefully, this report was helpful and provided some valuable insights on how to create apps for learning a new language. There is no need to build Duolingo or Busuu clones as they cope with their tasks perfectly. You need to find what gaps are still uncovered and create a solution to them.
From our side, we can provide full technical consultation, help with the identification of requirements, and development of your project from scratch. We have expertise in creating eLearning platforms and educational games for universities, conferences, and businesses. Don’t hesitate to write to us and ask your question. We are looking forward to starting a new amazing online learning website!
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Author: Anna Klimenko is a market researcher and author at Greenice with multifaceted knowledge about different types of business and technical solutions. Anna’s experience in technical writing and product management allows her to understand web development processes and enables her to translate technical concepts into plain language to help entrepreneurs make informed decisions.