I’ve been hearing a lot about this new app Drops lately. It sounded a lot like Memrise with a different business model, but my podcaster friends seemed excited about it, so I decided to check it out. After all, its premise is to spend just 5 minutes a day (hence the name), so what’s the harm?
When I first opened up the app, I noticed how beautiful it looks. I don’t judge book by their cover, but I do appreciate the importance of visual design—it helps encourage users to open them.
The basic premise of the app is its laser-sharp focus on vocabulary and nothing else. It divides all the words (which is a LOT) into 13 general categories like “food and drinks” and “travel and vehicles”, which are further broken down into finer topics.
For beginners, you have to start each general category with the first topic under it. Intermediate users have access to more topics right from the get go.
For this review, I’ve been using the app to learn Polish vocabulary. I have a good foundation in the language, so I skipped into the intermediate level (which is an option that thankfully the app has). A few of my comments will be specific to Polish, but I believe the features are identical for other languages. I can safely assume that the vocabulary is the same across languages too: I noticed this from certain duplicate words in Polish, not unlike years ago in Glossika.
Another principle of the app is that it limits you to 5 minutes per day. This corresponds to the philosophy of learning bit by bit and not stressing yourself out. I usually do it after I wake up or on my commutes. It does allow paid users to bypass the limit though, so it’s up to them to decide whether to stick to this principle. Hint: it’s actually 5 minutes every 10 hours, so if you time it right, you can actually use it for 10 minutes a day without paying. Besides, as long as I keep my streak, it basically offers me a random amount of extra time every single day.
Drops first shows you individual words with a picture and an English translation. The translation never shows up again until you tap an image later to bring it up. I like this focus on pictures, as it encourages you to associate the word directly with its meaning, instead of a translation in your head.
The reliance on images can sometimes be detrimental, however, when certain concepts are harder to express in one image, especially across different cultures. To me, for example, the taxi driver and police officer look pretty much the same: just a dude in a uniform. I’ve never seen a taxi driver in a uniform. Nevertheless, most of the pictures are of very high quality and clear enough to recognise. Actions are even expressed in moving images.
Sometimes I feel like the order that the words are taught can be a bit weird. I remember learning lorry and tram before car and bus, even though the latter are probably more widely and frequently used.
You are then tested in various ways ranging from multiple choice (connecting the picture to the correct word), true or false, spelling, matching, etc. It felt like school again, but way more fun. The tests follow a spaced repetition pattern, so they are kind of like Memrise, but more structured and minimalist. Unlike Memrise, you obviously have to create your own mnemonics, which I highly recommend.
These tests in Drops involve a lot of dragging and tapping, so you know that it is designed to be used on a phone. Sadly, there are some problems I had with the implementation of these tests, specifically in Polish. The spelling tests usually break down the words into chunks of two to three letters, rather than syllables, and a lot of times, letter combinations like sz and cz get broken up (I imagine this happens to certain other languages too). This goes against the natural way I recall a word—by its sound. For instance, if I were to break down the word ‘languages’ to test a learner, I’d go ‘lan’, ‘gua’, ‘ges’. If the ‘ua’ got broken, my brain would be pretty confused. It forces me to spell out the whole thing in my head before typing it out, and personally I think this does not aid the learner in learning to recall words and use them in real time.
(While we’re at it, there’s a bug that sometimes mess up diacritics in words. zęby kept turning into żeby, and this can get confusing to beginners. I’m sure it’ll be fixed, but I felt the need to raise the problem in case the developers aren’t aware.)
Unlike some language learning apps, Drops really takes you through the topics one by one. There is a meter showing how many words within the topic you’ve seen, and after it’s full, another meter shows you how much you’ve mastered them. It has to go to 100% before you can wrap up the topic and move on. Consequently, you don’t get to learn new words every session. On quite a number of days, I just keep drilling the same 15 words over and over again. I know this is a matter of personal taste, but I’d love to have at least one new word every 5-minute session.
Overall, I really like how Drops gives me an urge to use it consistently twice a day, and to make the most out of the 5-minute session. There is no grammatical information or context whatsoever, so please do remember to supplement the learning with other resources to see the words in action. There is almost never a direct one-to-one correspondence between words in your native language, target language, and pictures. The app also teaches me verbs in first-person conjugation, which is actually pretty clever—because we usually speak about ourselves—but again, remember to supplement it with grammatical lessons elsewhere.
Despite the problems I mentioned in this review, I think Drops is a really well-designed and functional app for what it’s designed to do. The gamified experience is a good incentive, not unlike Duolingo, and the design is just so captivating and relaxing. As long as you don’t depend wholly on one app, I definitely recommend trying out Drops. Note that a few days after you start using it, it will constantly give you ‘surprise’ offers for its subscriptions. Take it from me that the offer will be there for quite a while, so take your time to try the app for longer before deciding whether bypassing the time limit and the app’s extra features (focused training on just your weakest words, and managing all the words you’ve learnt) are necessary.