In an effort to prevent brain rot over the long summer, I’ve given myself a project: to return to learning French, a language I had started learning after I graduated high school but which fell by the wayside during my first year of college. After deciding I wasn’t going to fork out hundreds of dollars for Rosetta Stone or a similar program, I decided to go for another online learning option: Duolingo.
Duolingo is a free online language program developed by the creators of the online (re)captcha system used by many websites to test the humanity of users. The websites are the subject of an amazing TedTalk by Luis von Ahn (which is three years out of date, so the project is live.) If you have seventeen minutes, I recommend it highly:
The concept behind Duolingo is this: people want to learn languages, but languages are expensive to learn (see: Rosetta Stone.) People also want to translate chunks of the internet that exist in other languages and facilitate the spread of knowledge over language barriers, but it is expensive to pay a professional translator. So, what if you got people to learn languages by teaching them enough basic vocabulary and grammar to get started and then letting them practice on actual articles, web pages, etc. in other languages? Once enough people agree on a translation, it is then archived. Boom, professional-level translation for free and people learning a new language for free.
Unsurprisingly, people are incredibly fond of the project. At the present time over 16 million people use Duolingo to learn Spanish, over 10 million are using it to learn French, and over 6 million are using it to learn German. Other languages are steadily being added, including Russian, Turkish, Polish, and more.
Once you start Duolingo, you begin translating sentences and words to build up your vocabulary and basic understanding of grammar. Rather than giving you a chart to learn verb endings by, like you do in many language classrooms, you just pick it up as you go along, rather like a native speaker would.
Consequently, you will make mistakes. The lives system dictates that you are allowed four mistakes before you’re asked to restart your lesson, so be sure that you’ll get a lot of repetition under your belt. Duolingo even helpfully tracks which words you haven’t reviewed recently, and gives you an option to practice the words you’re getting weak in.
When you practice your skills and learn new sets of vocabulary you learn lingots, which are Duolingo’s in-game currency. They can be used to buy bonuses such as extra lives for your lessons, to maintain a streak if you know you’re going to miss a day of practice, or to unlock bonus vocabulary packs such as flirting or idioms.
Duolingo is also an easy-to-customize experience. If you’re learning French, for example, but you aren’t interested in hearing or speaking it, you can turn off the audio settings and only translate on screen. (I found this personally convenient because reading French is fairly easy but listening to it is like trying to understand an excitable child while having hydrochloric acid dripped down your ear.) Also, if you’ve learned a language in the past but want to catch up and review, you can test out of levels to get to closer to your current skill level.
Of course, would it be an online experience if you didn’t do it with friends? Probably, but Duolingo allows you to send friend requests to other people who are practicing languages so that you can compete (or just share, if you’re a more zen person than I am) with other players.
Anyway, this whole Duolingo experience has given me a lot of time to think about independent learning and how it differs from the usual educational model. I have two brothers close to my age (17 and 21) who are both very critical of America’s educational system. While I don’t think it’s a perfect system, there’s no denying that I’m very lucky to be one of the people for which structured, authoritative education works incredibly well (I’d rather have a lecture than a seminar, for example.)
New trends come and go in education like rainstorms in a Maryland summer. There is no doubt that many people need the structure of a traditional educational model to keep themselves motivated (nothing like an old-fashioned letter grade dangling over your head) but it’s clear that the traditional methods are lacking. Duolingo ascribes to the “education as a game” model, which works for me personally. There are still clear, authoritative rules which I find helpful, but it’s interactive enough to keep things interesting.
The optimum window for learning a language seems to be as young children when you are sucking in new information like a sponge, but most formal language learning (at least where I come from) begins around age 12. As I mentioned above, the usual method of teaching conjugations, for example, is a chart and rote memorization.
Nothing could be further from the method that we all learn our first languages by, so maybe it’s worth shaking up the formula. I always considered myself not great at learning languages (I used to think it was just not being good at memorization, but then I realized I could rattle off Art History identifications without faltering so apparently that’s not it), which is a shame since most of the Art History graduate schools I’ve been looking into require at least two languages to get going. Maybe Duolingo isn’t perfect (I could do with a nice sit-down lesson about sentence structure, personally) but if it is helping me to get the basics down in a new and interesting way and getting me excited to learn this new language, that might be enough. For what it’s worth, once I get solid in my French I’m starting German using the same system.
My brothers and I are all learning languages at the moment after having taken structured languages at school. The older one is now learning Russian through Pimsleur (audio conversations), the younger is learning Portuguese through Rosetta Stone (the big one) and I have Duolingo. Of course, it’s recommended to learn a language through different methods and to immerse yourself as much as possible, but for now it’s interesting to see how different programs work for different people.
So, a long post that reads as an advertisement for Duolingo ends thus: languages are complex things and not easy for everyone to learn, but rethinking the way we learn them can help not only one person, but an entire society as the web is translated and the number of bilinguals rises.
Now, back to practicing.