What is Duolingo?
Duolingo is an innovative site that provides free instruction in several different languages. Interested in learning Spanish, German, Italian, French, Portuguese or English? Well, Duolingo can help – for free. And there will be more languages available in the coming year.
Have I mentioned that it’s free?
Yes, I realize that I’m repeating myself here. But I’m still impressed that this resource is available to anyone interested in learning – no credit card required.
Duolingo uses “gamification” brilliantly, appealing to both language geeks and gamers with opportunities to “level-up” as you work your way through lessons. It uses a very intuitive – and attractive – interface based on a language skill tree. As you work your way through the tree, level by level, you’re awarded with unlocked levels, scores, skills points and other kudos.
The result? A surprisingly addictive and motivating game that will make you eager to work your way through language lessons.
How does Duolingo work?
At its heart, Duolingo uses a very old-school approach to language learning: lots of translations, drills and repetitive exercises. While opinions on this sort of approach are divided, I think that translations and drills have their place in language learning – so long as they’re not the only thing that you’re doing.
Duolingo lessons start with very basic vocabulary and extremely simple sentence structures, adding on more and more as you advance. Everything that you learn is repeatedly reviewed, since each lesson builds on the last one. Lessons get progressively more complicated, moving quickly enough to keep you interested but not so quickly that you get lost.
Leveling-up, skills points and trophies – yes, trophies! – let you measure your progress as you work your way through the lessons.
You have three “lives” – or hearts – in each lesson. Each mistake costs you a life. Mistakes are pointed out and explained in easy-to-understand language. If you need clarification, then you can easily access user forums to discuss the exercise and ask questions.
If you run out of hearts, then you have to repeat the lesson. (Duolingo recently introduced the option to buy extra hearts with virtual currency, but I think that kind of defeats the purpose.)
It’s disappointing to make the owl cry, but a second run-through will help consolidate your learning. The exercises repeat the same words and sentences, but in a different order and using different activities (listening, speaking, writing, reading) so that you’re not repeating exactly the same thing over and over.
Think you already know a lesson without working your way through it? You have multiple opportunities to test out of lessons or to jump ahead – provided that you can prove your knowledge by passing the test.
In addition to constantly reviewing old material in new lessons, Duolingo also provides you with vocabulary practice using spaced repetition. A quick revision activity before your daily lesson will allow you to practice older words and structures so that you don’t forget what you’ve already learned.
And as an added bonus, vocabulary practice will help you earn even more skill points!
How can Duolingo be free?
Duolingo relies on the power of crowdsourcing to keep its extensive resources free to all users. As you advance through your lessons, you’ll be invited to translate excerpts of text. These translations pay to keep the site running. Translations are optional – you don’t need to do them to keep using the site.
What are the cons?
- Some of the sentences are really strange. Think: “The duck drinks milk.” and “These potatoes belong to others.”
- Some of the translations are a bit awkward. If you come across an awkward sentence, flag it – the site’s managers do keep track and make changes based on user suggestions.
- The computer-generated voice can be grating at times.
- There is no direct instruction in Duolingo. To learn more about grammar points, you’ll have to check out the discussions linked to each exercise. Some people might find this frustrating – although I found that the approach worked well for me.
- The app is only available for Android and iPhone. Those of us with Windows phones are out of luck. (grumble, mutter)
- It relies on translation to the exclusion of other approaches. While this isn’t a problem if you use a variety of resources, it will be a problem if Duolingo is your only learning tool.
- The more advanced lessons are far too brief. In three lessons and 14 minutes, I earned a trophy for subjunctive and imperative! Go, me! (Cue wild laughter at the absurdity of mastering the whole subjunctive mood in 14 minutes.) I think that as it stands, Duolingo is far better for beginners than for intermediate or advanced learners. I used it several times a week when I first started. Now that I’m close to the end of the skill tree, I only log on once or twice a week.
Will Duolingo make me fluent?
No, it will not.
As both a language learner and a language teacher, I can’t stress this point enough:
The only way to become fluent in a language is to speak it, speak it and speak it some more.
While Duolingo can provide you with the building blocks of language – nouns, verbs, prepositions – a computer program can’t teach you to speak. Communicating is messy, creative work, and it can only be done with another person.
Duolingo is best used in conjunction with oral language practice. Hire a tutor, join a conversation club, find a face-to-face conversation partner, join a class, find a Skype language partner – but you have to talk to a real, live person if you ever want to become fluent in a language.
Is Duolingo worth doing?
I say yes!
Duolingo is a beautifully designed and highly motivating language learning program, especially for beginners. On its own, it’s definitely not enough to learn a language, but it complements other resources perfectly.
As I worked my way through the lessons, particularly at the beginning, I found myself really grasping sentence structure. It was very motivating to see my progress and to see how what I was learning fit together. And – in the end – that’s what will really help you move forward in language learning: the intrinsic motivation of actually getting it, not the external motivation of coins or trophies or leveling-up*.
* although I really do like coins and trophies and leveling-up.