Learning lingo with Duolingo

Do you speak Spanish? “Si! Dos cervezas!”

Unfortunately, learning to order a beer at your Caribbean all-inclusive doesn’t mean you’re fluent in Spanish. We’d all like to be a little more worldly and speak more than one language. Thankfully, learning new languages is as easy as its ever been. With the introduction of a plethora of online resources, essentially anyone can learn a new language at their own pace with relative ease. And no, I’m not talking about Google Translate. Why? Take a look at the video below:

Source: Youtube

One of those resources is Duolingo, a free platform that provides language lessons in 23 different languages through online tutorials segmented according to skill level. Available online or in app form on most major app stores, it’s one of the most popular “freemium” services in the category (Duolingo).

Image source: Duolingo

To start, one can create an Duolingo account, or use two-factor authentication through Google or Facebook. You’re then asked to set a daily goal on how much content you should be covering. From learning perspective, maintaining a regiment and setting goals is great. From a business perspective, this is the perfect way to keep users on the application. I chose insane. All or nothing, right?:

French isn’t actually isn’t a new language for me — I was actively learning French up until I entered university nearly 4 years ago. Without much of a reason or outlet to practice my skill, French is not something I could confidently say I‘m fluent in. Thankfully, Duolingo provided a placement test to gauge my skill level. This is certainly a pro for any user looking to brush up, as they’ll be able to skip the “simple stuff.” Turns out my French is a little rustier than I thought:

The daily tests focus around content such as verb conjugation, basic language and sentence structure. The skill testing questions were composed of a variety of different types:

Written Translation — French to English

Written Translation — English to French

Listen & Write

One feature I really liked was that in any case I forgot to use those terribly confusing accents in the French language, Duolingo would not mark the question as incorrect, but it would point out the error. Note the correction at the bottom of the page showing the missing accent aigu:

Match the photo to the phrase

(Really … intuitive)

Speak

I really like this speaking practice option, as it is such a crucial way to learn the langauge. Using the microphone (with permissions, of course), you can record yourself saying the phrase and the site can determine if you’re speaking properly. Of course, I had to take the time to mispronounce words and the software was fairly strict on pronunciation.

The Drawbacks

  1. Any questions? You’re out of luck— we learn by asking questions. Unfortunately, there really is no way to ask questions when you’re working with Duolingo. The platform employs the use of a Discussion Board, but its uses are limited and obviously not instantaneous (not to mention that a group of amateur linguists likely aren’t the best teachers).
  2. Why are you learning a new language? Duolingo doesn’t care— Looking to apply to an internship in Belgium this year, or are you hoping to chat with the cute, new exchange student from Nice? Duolingo doesn’t quite identify your need or context for learning a new language. While being a great site for foundational material, learning how to say “The girl is red” doesn’t help someone looking to describe stock trading, for example (unless the market crashes, in which case the girl may indeed be red).
  3. Variety — The boy is red. The girl is red. The dress is red. The red apple. During my basics training, I learned how to describe pretty much everything as red, calm or rich, but that was about it. Also, when I got a question wrong, it would pop up again and again without change. How is that challenging?
  4. It said ‘learn French,’ not ‘learn how to speak French’ — My French mainly rusted out because I had no place nor reason to practice it, and one of the best ways to practice is to speak. The app offers a small section to practice articulation and pronunciation, but no area for conversation. I’d suggest a bot that can have conversations while correcting mistakes in users’ responses. Interesting that you are rated on fluency after each module.
  5. Too easy — take the lesson below, for example. The app uses photos to help out, but that help may be too guided. Chances are you can guess if my answer was correct. Don’t know french? No problem. Isn’t this too intuitive?

My advice to you

Taking away from this experience, my advice to anyone looking to learn the language of love (or any other for that matter) is to immerse yourself in it completely. Take a course where you can practice with other students and ask questions, or travel to a country where it’s the native tongue and challenge yourself.

In terms of other places this technology could be useful, I could really only suggest beginner French classes in grade school if the teacher needs a computer lab exercise. I could potentially see other uses in job training. For example, learning to distinguish between saffiano and pebbled leather before taking the floor at a handbag retailer would be quite helpful (especially with that picture function).

If you simply want to impress your friends with stock phrases or learn the most basic of vocabulary, Duolingo might the platform for you. If you want to learn anything else, take advice from Google Translate’s Elsa and “give up” on Duolingo — take a class, buy a plane ticket. Au revoir!

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