Every couple of weeks we hear about a new software, platform or community that claims to be the silver bullet for language learning. Most of these tools are interesting; many are promising, but few actually convince me to dive in and learn. For me Duolingo is one of the good ones.
The past month I’ve been learning Portuguese via the Duolingo app and online learning platform. Launched in June 2012 and free to the public, Duolingo has gained positive reviews for its simple but very well executed approach: language acquisition by translation. It now counts more than 300,000 members in its translation army.
The model is ingenious. Duolingo actually earns money through the crowdsourced translations assigned by various companies and third parties, but completed by Duolingo online community members, who in exchange are either learning or perfecting their language skills on the platform: everybody wins. Anecdotally, Duolingo’s popularity seems to have reached the tipping point; most of the Diskutizens I talk to are either using it or have tried it.
Duolingo’s appeal lies in its ‘gamification’. Learning takes the form of brief but stimulating exercises which earn you points. If special challenges are met, you earn Duolingo currency, called ‘lingots’, which give you access to special ‘powers’, the ability to make bets (where you can ‘double down’ on your lingots) and even the chance to get a certificate of language proficiency. It’s genuinely fun to perform the rapid-fire tests, get immediate feedback, advance through the levels, and pick the next exercises to increase your standing in the Duolingo community. Indeed, the extensive support community and forums allow users to ask and answer deeper questions about language and offer a sounding board and suggestion box to improve the platform.
The main platform currently focuses on Euro languages: French, Italian, Spanish, German, Portuguese, and of course English—but only for speakers of any of those languages. However, the new Duolingo Incubator allows volunteers to create course materials to translate all the above language courses into other world languages, so that there soon will be a ‘German for Indonesian speakers’, and ‘Portuguese for Czech speakers’ and so on.
If you are a Duolingo beginner you can start with simple translation exercises, which teach you the various aspects of the language grammar and quite a bit of vocabulary—about 1800 words per language for the entire course. With the mantra that ‘without exercise, the language dies’, Duolingo makes you go back and work on vocab knowledge again and again. If you haven’t used a word within a week or so, your ‘skill meters’ start to slip! This forces you to go back and practise what you learned before, which I appreciate as it has helped me hammer down much stray Portuguese vocabulary.
If you already are more advanced in a language, then take the placement test to put you at the right level. I started from scratch at level 1 for Portuguese; but took placement tests for French, Spanish, Italian and German, and was ranked a level 8, 7, 7, and 5 respectively. Sounds impressive? Not really—there are dozens of levels. In my defence, I took all four placement tests within 15 minutes and I make a lot of typing mistakes when switching between languages; my assessed written language skills are a lot lower than my spoken skills. I’m now ‘level 10’ in Portuguese—but in no way can I speak it well (even after a few Diskuto Portuguese corners).
Once you reach a level of proficiency, you may begin to work on translating actual texts, from poetry to prose to technical manuals. It’s ok if you get the translations wrong, but more important is that you contribute a translation that no one else has tried before—thus the crowdsourcing aspect.
Disclaimer: you will not speak much Portuguese!
For those looking for a well-rounded language solution, the strong focus on translation is also the main shortcoming of Duolingo. The platform does a good job training users in writing and grammar, but offers little spoken language engagement. This may be understandable, given that it’s an online course, but by level 10 in Portuguese I’ve begun feel ‘linguistically lopsided’: according to Duolingo I can begin to translate 95% of all Portuguese articles, yet I know I can scarcely pronounce any of the words properly. I can’t help realize how much more benefit I’d get from some actual spoken conversation with real people; to put the formal knowledge to work.
In addition, Duolingo seems to deploy randomly generated vocabulary for any given lesson. This contrasts it from methods such as Pimsleur or Mango which instil carefully chosen ‘useful’ tourist-oriented vocabulary and phrases. The sample sentences Duolingo uses are often trivial, repetitive and inane, which can lead to discouragement. This is particularly unhelpful when the grammar gets difficult (like, around level 10!). If the lesson is going to be hard, at least give me some useful material!
These problems aside, Duolingo certainly deserves a spot in your online learning toolkit—it is free, after all—and I look forward to what new language games come out of the Incubator.
Review: 4.5 out of 5 Diskuto bubbles.