It has long been my ambition to learn foreign languages, but to do so using the wrong accent. For instance, I’ve always wanted to learn Spanish with an Australian accent:
Along comes Duolingo to help make my dreams come true. Duolingo promises free language education for the world and has some really great tactics for delivering on that promise.
It’s Recursively Additive
One of the great features of this app is that it starts you out with a level of language that you’ve probably already heard. You may not know what the words mean, but if you’ve spent any time around natural speakers of the language, you will recognize the words. As you progress, it builds on the previous lessons. You always feel like you’ve mastered some small piece of the language before you move on to the next lesson.
As you progress farther, it will check on your usage of previously mastered terms and usage and suggest that you bone up on an area where you’ve made a few mistakes. The few times I’ve felt like I’ve gotten in over my head, backing up and strengthening my hold on previous sections made me feel better.
Duolingo uses a number of different interaction models to get you to approach the content from different angles. One question may ask you to listen to a passage being read in the language and type it out as you hear it. The next might be drag-and-drop to translate the passage. You will be asked to repeat the passage in the language you are learning to get you to vocalize it in that language (and using an Australian accent works). You also may be asked to do a straight translation of a passage by typing it in your native tongue.
By engaging with the content in different ways, you are forced to internalize the content and not just spit back answers. Different tasks will be more difficult for different users, but the challenge of answering in different ways will force you to really know the content.
The lessons are perfect for while you’re on hold, or waiting in line, or killing a few minutes between calls. It makes it easy to commit to enough learning to continue progressing without being forced to set aside time to study. You will feel like you’re filling the gaps between every day activity with something more productive than Angry Birds.
It’s A Game
Duolingo uses gamification techniques to full advantage. There is a sense of accomplishment with each completion of a section. There is even more when you progress through levels. You earn “Lingots” to buy meaningless but fun enhancements to the experience. The dopamine payoff is enhanced by the bite-sized nature of interacting with the app, since progression happens quickly. The app also reminds you to keep using it, so you won’t forget to take your next bite-sized step forward.
While I feel I have really progressed in my ability to comprehend Spanish, I feel less accomplished in my ability to speak it. Some of the issues arise in the fact that verb conjugation in Romance Languages is fairly complex for an English speaker. In Duolingo, you are expected to pick up these rules in context. While this works pretty well for noun gender, it is a bit more nebulous understanding which is the appropriate verb to use.
As a result, I can read Spanish much better than I could before, but my ability to speak the language is lagging. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve progressed in that regard as well, just not as quickly.
I would recommend this app to anyone wanting to learn a different language. They continue to add new language options all the time. I wonder what it would be like to learn Russian as a Spanish speaker once I get far enough. And if I could learn Spanish-based Russian with an Indian accent, I’d be in heaven.