Smartphone Apps: It is Easier Than Ever to Learn Spanish

I am often asked for suggestions on how to learn Spanish. Without a doubt, language immersion is probably the most effective way. Travel to a Spanish-speaking country of your choice and stay there for three to six months. This is not always possible or practical. With the advent of smartphones, however, it is much easier to learn Spanish-or some other language. Since returning from my Sabbatical leave to Chile earlier this year, I splurged and purchased an iPhone. I have found a lot more time to spend in language learning (in my case, Hebrew) by using a smartphone. A few minutes here and there throughout the day can be very effective. I am not required to fire up the computer in order to study. Instead, I can practice while going on walks, preparing breakfast, or waiting for someone. This review is directed to beginners. I chose three representative apps to review. I want to thank these developers for making available a courtesy copy of their apps (listed in alphabetical order): AccelaStudy 2.0.1, Byki, and Gengo WordPower 3.1.1. In this review I write about various elements that you may consider before choosing a language learning app. Your priorities and learning style will dictate which apps are most helpful to you. 1. Pronunciation features. All three apps provide clear, well enunciated words (although I must say I prefer the pronunciation offered in Hebrew than in Spanish). As you move to a new flash card, AccelaStudy and Byki automatically provide the pronunciation for the new word. In Gengo WordPower, you have to request the pronunciation by pressing on a speaker icon. At this time, a large number of words in Gengo WordPower have no pronunciation associated with the card. I believe this is a serious drawback. Pronunciation features: AccelaStudy ***** Byki ***** Gengo WordPower ** 2. Vocabulary. All three apps provide enough vocabulary to keep you busy for months. The word categories are varied and should have something of interest for everyone. Byki also offers additional vocabulary lists that may be downloaded for free (these are made available by a large community of Byki users). Although the quality of these free lists vary, this feature is very valuable. AccelaStudy stands out by providing both the masculine and feminine expression of words. Number of words: AccelaStudy >2400 Byki > 1000 Gengo WordPower +/- 2000 3. Ability to customize vocabulary list. The ability to customize a vocabulary list permits us to avoid or delete words that we already know, or do not want to learn at this time. In addition-and this is a very important point-we can reduce very long lists to shorter, more manageable ones. AccelaStudy provides the most amount of self-customization. Ability to customize: AccelaStudy ***** Byki * Gengo WordPower * 4. Ability to add or edit vocabulary. This feature is not likely to be as universally important as the previous one, but it is very important to me. For instance, I was learning the colors, and wanted to add metallic colors to my list. Also, there are often several choices on how to say something. Spanish speaking countries share most words, but there are some that are very regional. Byki permits this, but you have to purchase the PC Deluxe version of the software and then download the new list to your iPhone. Gengo WordPower has a different, very affordable, iPhone app through which you can do this (Gengo Cards Spanish). AccelaStudy does not offer this feature at this time but they plan to do so. Add or edit vocabulary: AccelaStudy * Byki *** Gengo WordPower ** 5. Brief expressions. As we are learning, we want to start with one word or short expressions, rather than longer sentences. AccelaStudy and Gengo WordPower do a better job in this area than Byki. The latter sometimes includes longer expressions that are difficult to master, along with very basic vocabulary. I also like the more difficult, longer expressions, but these should be kept separate from one or two word vocabulary lists. Brief expressions: AccelaStudy ***** Byki **** Gengo WordPower **** 6. Control over speed. All three apps naturally permit users to control how fast they move from one flash card to the next. In addition, AccelaStudy has a test function in which users can regulate how fast test questions appear. This is an excellent feature. Control over speed: AccelaStudy ***** Byki **** Gengo WordPower **** 7. Photo vs. word design. Whenever possible, it is better to have a photo representative rather than a written description. The idea is to associate the word in Spanish directly with that item, rather than have to take multiple steps. Let us pretend we are learning the meaning of the word cow in Spanish. Much better than reading the word cow in our card and hearing vaca, for instance, is to immediately see a photo of a vaca and hear vaca and thus associate the photo of a vaca with the word vaca. Because it may not be obvious what a card signifies at first, it would be ideal to have the option of toggling the word in English on and off, besides having the photo. At this time, none of the apps have a toggle function. The only app that has the photo appearing as I select a new word is Byki. Gengo WordPower has a photo available for about half the cards, but users have to press a button in order to see it. This makes the feature time consuming and not very useful. This is a shame, as Gengo WordPower tends to have the most beautiful, aesthetically appealing photos. Photo vs. word design: AccelaStudy * Byki **** Gengo WordPower ** 8. Testing process, mechanics and ease of use. AccelaStudy has the most sophisticated design, with five distinct learning steps (actually, more than that when you go into the controls and decide to change the direction of language testing, an extremely useful feature). In AccelaStudy it takes a bit of up front effort to learn about the multiple features, but it is time well spent. To see how well you are progressing, however, you need to go to a different window. Byki has a very simple, intuitive design and will prompt you to move from one learning state to the next, until you have gone through all four stages. You can either accept or decline the invitation to move to the next phase, or can move forward on your own. Byki has the nicest, clearest way of letting you know how you are progressing, without ever having to leave the study area and open a different window. Byki will also test you more frequently on words you are struggling with. Byki has many other ways of informing you how you are doing, including a number that appears by the app which lets you know how many lists you still have to learn. Gengo WordPower has two learning steps, card review and final testing. One can gauge progress in a different window, which nicely appears by each list. One weakness in Gengo WordPower is that after one reaches the last card in the group, it does not automatically go back to the first card in order to keep working on memorizing new vocabulary. Testing process: AccelaStudy ***** Byki ***** Gengo WordPower *** 9. Search vocabulary. Sometimes, when I am trying to review a list in my mind, I do not remember one particular word. All three apps have the capability of searching in English or Spanish. I find this to be an extremely useful feature. AccelaStudy is ultra-fast. As you begin to type a word, all words that begin with those letters appear so you can select your word before you finish typing it. Byki requires the full word to be spelled out and the search itself is slow. Gengo WordPower permits you to provide as many or few letters as you wish, and then gives you all of the words that have these letters (sometimes these are in the middle of the word) and returns the answers in English rather than the language you searched in. Search vocabulary: AccelaStudy ***** Byki *** Gengo WordPower *** 10. Words in context. It is really nice to see how a word may be used in context. For instance, in English one says blue sky, while in Spanish the word order is sky blue. Gengo WordPower provides two levels of words in context: a very simple level, as well as words used in more advanced settings. For both, it nicely provides the English translation as well as the Spanish. Byki uses a Twitter search engine to see how the word was used within a few minutes of your search in day-to-day usage. Search word in context: AccelaStudy * Byki **** Gengo WordPower ***** 11. No hands mode. Another way to study is to turn on the app and have it go through the vocabulary. This feature is only available in AccelaStudy and Byki. However, in AccelaStudy one is able to turn off the screen through the top button (forced sleep mode)-or when it naturally goes on sleep mode-and it continues to function (Audio Auto Advance). Byki-and I suspect this can be easily fixed-turns completely off when the iPhone goes on sleep mode. You can change the settings on your phone so it never goes to sleep, but then the battery is used up pretty quickly. The no hands mode is extremely useful when you want to listen and learn but are also engaged in exercise or other activity that requires low concentration. No hands: AccelaStudy ***** Byki ** Gengo WordPower * 12. Combining study lists. Another very important feature is the ability to combine lists you have learned for practice or testing purposes. This is a great way of keeping all the vocabulary words active in your brain. For instance, when I finished colors and questions (what, how, when, etc.), I was able to combine both of these lists and it randomly tests me on the colors and the questions. I plan to keep adding more and more lists as I learn them. At this moment only AccelaStudy offers this feature. Combine study lists: AccelaStudy ***** Byki * Gengo WordPower * 13. Cost. All three programs are reasonably priced. At the time this article was written, under $10 each. AccelaStudy price: $9.99 Light version available Byki price: $7.99 Light version not available Gengo WordPower price: $9.99 Light version available Concluding comments: I find it useful to switch between my apps as I study. The slightly different intonations for words help in language learning. Some of these apps, as well as others you may find, provide a free light version. Before purchasing, it makes sense to see which app seems more compatible with your needs. Gregorio Billikopf is a labor management farm advisor for the University of California. He may be reached at 09.21.2011