How one start-up is aiming to revolutionize language learning by combining augmented reality with gamification in 5-minute Drops.
In a time when, on average, nearly everyone is too busy to invest time into intensive side projects, is there a place for language learning? Daniel Farkas and Mark Szulyovszky, of Plan B Labs, believe, without question, that there is, and they’ve developed the app to prove it.
Rather than tasking learners with hour-long study sessions, or daily point goals, this app challenges you to learn as much as you can in a limited time.
The Birth of a Language Hero
It was in his final year at university and after one particularly sleepless night that Daniel Farkas had a realization that would set him upon the path to developing one of the most popular language applications. “It just struck me: nobody taught me how to learn.” This epiphany led to Farkas developing a passion for meta-learning, or as defined by theorist Donald B. Maudsley, “the process by which learners become aware of and increasingly in control of habits of perception, inquiry, learning, and growth that they have internalized.” But it wouldn’t be for several more years, after a brief career as a salesman for a luxury bike company, and a collaboration with two trivia app designing friends until he would be able to completely make the leap into a career that would allow him to fully explore his enthusiasm for meta-learning, channeling his hard-earned knowledge into an app designed for specifically for language learners.
At the time, other language apps were becoming wildly popular, but despite their success, Daniel still felt that there was still a key element missing from the available options. “None of the big names were combing cutting-edge technology with the findings of behavioral psychology – things like habit forging, gamification, the psychology of play -, neuroscience, and direct visual association.” In his opinion, most language applications try to do too many things. They offer excessive language choices in an effort to appeal to a wider audience, and in doing so, correctness and quality suffer. In other cases, they attempt to cover too much of the language’s grammar, only scratching the surface when it comes to vocabulary – arguably the most important tool for anyone looking to really dive into a language.
And so, in 2012, Farkas and Szulyovszky set to developing a focused alternative concentrated on the “meat” of language learning – vocabulary acquisition and the building of a rock-solid language learning habit. Kicking off with just three languages and limited features, Drops has rapidly grown in both its offerings and its subscriber base. It is now the powerhouse application behind many language enthusiasts’ consistent study habits. Recognized as one of the Top 5 Language Learning apps by Bloomberg, Drops has also been featured as one of the best educational apps in more than one hundred countries. Today, it is used by millions of learners.
Before There Was Drops – Mnemonic Gaming and Language Learning
Drops’ use of mnemonic association and gaming psychology to teach languages is not by accident. It all started when, back in 2012 the two Drops founders, Daniel Farkas and Mark Szulyovszky, were introduced at a party. Daniel had been working on a book about applying meta-learning techniques to learning vocabulary (meta-learning is basically using cognitive shortcuts to learning anything), and Mark–a longtime gamer–had developed a visual pattern recognition game called Thinkinvisible. Similar to the Rorschach test or the concept of Rubin’s Vase, ThinkInvisible images can be viewed in multiple ways, but in particular, they rely on the cognitive trick negative space to define the image. The lack of full contouring forces an “aha” recognition moment, which is at the root of mnemonics.
Daniel and Mark instantly agreed that a similar mnemonic approach could be used to learn vocabulary. They set about designing and building an app they would later call LearnInvisible. Somewhere along the way, they decided this idea was more than just folly and they applied to the GameFounders–the Estonian gaming accelerator. They were accepted into GameFounders very first cohort of start-ups, received around $15K and were off to the races. They initially incorporated as PlanB Labs and soon after they launched LearnInvisible to some early fanfare, but suddenly soon realized that while people said they loved the app, they used it once or twice and then never came back.
In a post-mortem of LearnInvisble’s failure, Daniel suggested that maybe they had strayed too far from Mark’s gaming background. They had built a great app, but it wasn’t fun. It wasn’t sticky. It wasn’t a game. So they pivoted and redesigned the entire app from scratch with a laser focus on retention. In January of 2015, they launched Drops and never looked back.
While the Drops and Scripts apps appear simple (intentionally), their deep intersection of mnemonics and gaming comes from Daniel and Mark’s unique backgrounds, as well as the painful failure that resulted from neglecting that background the first time around. I, for one, am glad they got it right.
Rising Above the Rest
What makes Drops a stand out language tool? Some might tell you that it’s the simple, yet elegant design and a user-friendly interface. Others are convinced that it’s the interactivity. And then, there are those that fancy the well-thought-out vocabulary lists. For the learners for whom Drops has become a part of their daily regiment, it’s all of the above. And then some.
Drops is a powerful resource for learners because it isn’t time intensive. By restricting users’ study sessions to five minutes, Drops guarantees that even the most occupied user can work a little learning into their routine. Of course, for more serious learners, or what Drops likes to call the ‘genius’ or ‘polyglot’, there’s the option to unlock more time and more languages, respectively, for a sensible fee.
Currently, the app provides around 100 unique vocabulary lists each containing around twenty words for nearly thirty languages including Korean, French, Hebrew, and Chinese. And while they aim to tackle a large selection of languages, they ensure the quality of their product by hiring native speakers, professional translators, and established polyglots to double and triple check the lesson content.
There’s a lot of thought and care that goes into creating the wordlists and you’ll find plenty of vocabulary that isn’t readily available on other platforms. Whether you’re interested in discussing business-related topics, the birth of a new baby and an introduction to your family, figuring out what you’ll need to know to get around town on an upcoming vacation, or just learn the basics, you’re covered.
The app experience is an exciting whirlwind of swiping, matching, and competing with a timer to get through as much new material as possible. The minimalist illustrations and color changes provide a backdrop that keeps your attention on the task at hand. It’s addicting insofar as it is educational, and although it feels like you’re merely playing a game, you’re building a useful life skill.
Drops’ functionality is, in part, based on Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csikszentmihályi’s studies of ‘flow’, that feeling you get when you’re so immersed in an activity that you lose track of time. It’s something you experience when you go out dancing, bury yourself in an excellent book, or get into the rhythm with a task at work. The execution of this element in Drops is flawless. As you compete against the timer, blazing through as much material as possible, you become hyper-focused. The message you receive when the time is up is the only indicator that you’re due to return to reality.
The platform combines a series of exercises so that you’re doing far more than flipping over a flashcard to learn more vocabulary. You do everything from matching to fill in the blank, true or false to a Boggle-like word search as a part of its spaced-repetition based system. It seems like the only thing you don’t do is type. The variety of exercises is an effective way to give the new words you’re learning more than one context – a way to improve retention. With the swipe-based functionality, you can work through the material seamlessly and as you progress, the difficulty of the exercises progresses with you.
A premium account also offers the opportunity to focus on tough words in its Tough Word Dojo once you study your first fifty words. Using the data collected on how many times you’ve answered questions incorrectly during the normal exercise section, the Dojo rounds up the words that you’ve struggled with most and offers you the opportunity to focus on them. This focus allows you to concentrate on your weaknesses and review a mix of vocabulary (this feature doesn’t focus on a specific theme).
The vocabulary in Drops is very much noun-focused, but a few relevant verbs are included as a part of each lesson. You don’t learn how to conjugate them or get the chance to give them context, but it’s still a valuable resource. Particularly because it does what it does extremely well.
For users with a free account, you’re given five minutes of study time every ten hours. It may not seem like much, but for those struggling to make language learning a part of their routine, it’s an excellent start. You get to spend that daily study with a crucial element of language learning success – vocabulary – and you get to have fun while doing it. The result? Developing a love for languages, a desire to learn more in other places and an opportunity to take things further. It’s all about building a strong foundation.
Drops uses minimalist design features and detailed illustrations as a part of their functionality to help the learner eliminate the need to use their native language as much as possible. This means that rather than asking you to translate, you’re shown an image and asked to connect it directly to the language that you’re learning. This feature is one of the big characteristics that sets Drops apart from the other leading language learning apps which still, in large part, rely on translation. Using the app gives you five minutes of total immersion, though if needed, pressing and holding your finger over a word or image will give you the translation.
Boost in Motivation
When creating a language study habit is as easy as ‘playing‘ with vocabulary for five minutes, twice a day, feeling motivated to learn is a natural outcome. According to one user, “It’s so simple. Instead of playing Candy Crush or Tweeting during my breaks during the day, I play Drops. It’s easy, fun, and my vocabulary is expanding rapidly.” When you enjoy something, you’re more motivated to continue doing it. And Drops undoubtedly makes language learning enjoyable for many learners.
Visual Progress Tracking
As you progress through the vocabulary sets, you can track your advancement with a small progress bar that appears beneath the title of each vocabulary section. It’s motivating to see the bar creep towards the 100% mark and to watch all of the bars add up as you work through the various word lists.
Audio from Native Speakers
One of the biggest complaints when it comes to language learning apps are that they use poor quality audio or computer-generated voices. Paying voice actors who are native speakers of the language can be pricey – especially when you’re developing an app that offers a large number of languages. When it came to this feature, however, Drops spared no expense. Each of the courses includes high-quality audio recordings of every word read by a native speaker.
For those who speak more than one language, Drops offers the ability to practice language laddering. Laddering is where you study one language through another. So, for instance, if you’re an intermediate French speaker and beginning German learner, you can learn German through French. This means that, rather than seeing the translations in English, you’ll see them in French (if you opt to turn them on).
For learners looking for a more personalized flashcard experience, Drops has several settings that enable you to tailor the app’s functionalities to your level and preferences. Learning Japanese but you still don’t have the writing system figured out? No problem, you can take it a step at a time starting out with the romanization turned on while using Hiragana only, then transition to no romanization and then Kana + Kanji whenever you’re ready. If you’re learning Chinese, you can modify the writing system so that it uses either simplified or traditional characters. You can also turn English translations on or off.
Additionally, you can change the following features to get the best experience using Drops:
- Select your learning style. The options are business, romantic, traveler or enthusiast. Changing this setting arranges the words lists so that they appear in an order most relevant to your goals. In this section, you can also select your gender so that the vocabulary you learn is tailored to you (in different languages word choice and word forms change according to gender). Most resources are targeted towards male learners, so it’s nice to see an app that tailors vocabulary to a wider audience.
- Premium subscribers can change the session length. While free users are limited to five-minute study sessions, premium users are able to set their study sessions to five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes, or unlimited.
- You can turn the audio on or off. Want to enjoy the dings and fanfare effects without the pronunciation? Or perhaps you just want to test your ability to read in a new writing system without hearing the word first. With Drops, you can turn the pronunciation on or off.
- You can also turn the sound effects on or off. Perhaps the celebratory noises produced by the app are more distracting than motivating for you. If this is the case, you can mute them while still getting to hear the pronunciation.
- You can set the phone to vibrate when you get answers right or wrong. It’s extra confirmation that you’re making connections as you study new words – especially since everything is swipe-based. But if you prefer not to use this feature, it too can be deactivated.
- Choose your skill level. If you already know some of the language, you can choose to start at the ‘intermediate’ level. When doing this, Drops drops you into the more advanced vocabulary and automatically turns off some of the aids like ‘show English’ and ‘Romanization’. For languages like Japanese, this means it defaults to Kana + Kanji rather than Hiragana. If this seems a little too advanced for you, you can also use the default settings for a beginning learner.
Room to Grow
Even with its gorgeous interface and useful word lists, Drops has room for improvement. To start, there isn’t a way to monitor your consistency as a premium user. A short time back, Drops featured a table that showed your daily progress. It included how many words you learned, how many days in a row you had studied, and it was a great way to stay both accountable and motivated. The app still includes several statistics, but because one of its biggest selling points is that it helps you build a language learning habit, having some way to track that habit is important. More varied and detailed statistics on your learning would definitely add to the experience of using the app.
For those interested in multiple languages, it’s not always clear which dashboard you’re in. Are you in the French vocabulary list or Hebrew? Without going into your settings or actually starting a lesson, you have no idea which language you’re logged into. And once you open a vocabulary list, the timer commences counting down and you start to lose precious time. With Drops, what you do during those five minutes really counts. There’s no room for error.
Second, for the time being, you’re not given the option to create or import your own personalized word lists. While having vocabulary selected for you is a nice way to take a major task off your plate, this is a desirable feature for many language learners. When it comes to picking up a new language, learning “you-specific” vocabulary is important. In order to get the most out of your language studies, you want to spend time with the words and grammar you’re most likely to use. And the best way to ensure you do this is by curating your word lists. A feature that Drops does not yet include.
Finally, you aren’t able to preview the words included in each vocabulary list and knowing how to mute words that aren’t relevant takes a little detective work. Again, having the power to decide which vocabulary you spend time learning is conducive to getting the most out of the hours you put in. With Drops, if you forget (or don’t realize that you need) to drop the word onto the ‘x’ when it is first introduced, it isn’t until you scroll through your learned word list that you can swipe right to “hide” or “unhide” words that you don’t really need or those you already know really well (so they don’t come up for review).
These, of course, are features the developers are currently at work improving, along with a whole slew of recently and soon-to-be-released options. Teaching learners vocabulary on a beautifully designed and well-curated platform is only a part of what Drops offers.
From here, they have plans to continue to make vocabulary learning even more immersive and fun through a combination of augmented reality and other features.
Can Five Minutes of Language Study a Day Work?
One of the biggest criticisms of Drops is that five minutes a day just isn’t enough. It’s a fair assessment. If you’re looking to go deep with a language, or to learn fairly quickly, Drops alone isn’t a complete solution. But it isn’t trying to be.
Drops aims to do one important thing well – provide an interactive and enjoyable method for acquiring vocabulary. They are extremely successful at accomplishing this.
There are people who would argue that you won’t get far with a vocabulary-only language learning app, but you can’t get far without a strong foundation either. Focusing on building a strong vocabulary gives you that foundation, something to build grammar rules and speaking or comprehension skills on, and a ton of confidence, too. In short, Drops is the perfect place to start when learning a language. It will not only set you up for greater successes in the future, but it will make learning a new language an enjoyable activity and thus, a habit.
Making language learning routine aside, does the app actually help you learn the language? Short answer: yes.
There are countless reasons why studying a language has the reputation of being boring or difficult. Traditional learning methods are often laborious and tedious, and other resources on the market promise ‘quick’ and ‘easy’ learning without delivering. Drops is an exception to the rule, offering an experience that supports quickly building a strong vocabulary in a new language in a way that is entertaining, engaging, and effective. Highly recommended.
Drops is currently available for iOS mobile devices through the App Store as well as on Android through Google Play.
After writing this review, I spent a lot of time trying out Drops and I loved it so much I decided to join the Drops family. I am excited to announce that I am now working with them as their Resident Polyglot. If you’d like to see how my learning with the app went, you can see how I used Drops to learn Hungarian.
What about you?
Have you tried Drops? What did you think?
I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below.
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My name is Shannon Kennedy and I'm the language lover, traveler, and foodie behind Eurolinguiste. I'm also the Resident Polyglot at Drops and the Head Coach of the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge.