Duolingo Felix Wong

I have to admit that when my friend Susie first told me about Duolingo, I was skeptical. I have tried numerous methods to learn a foreign language—for example, high school classes, continuing education courses, two-week study abroad schools, Pimsleur, Michel Thomas, Rocket Languages, Living Languages, Destinos, and French in Action—and it seemed to me I didn’t need yet another one.

But Susie sent me a link to Duolingo along with a TED Talk explaining how it was created, so I took a look. I’m glad I did. I can honestly say now that Duolingo has changed my life.

First off, the TED Talk (below). I could summarize it in a sentence or two here, but it would be better if you watch it. Considering that it’s 17 minutes long and I am known to read Wikipedia articles for books and films instead of reading or viewing the original materials, consider this a big endorsement.

By watching the TED Talk, you will learn a bit not only about Duolingo, but also those “annoying” CAPTCHAs and re-CAPTCHAs you have surely encountered on the bottom of online forms. The presentation not only is amusing and entertaining, but wholly inspiring. Luis von Ahn, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, is a bona fide genius.

Now more about Duolingo. I do it via the website, but there are also free iOS and Android apps for it. (In fact, Duolingo was the 2013 iPhone App of the Year.) This is why I believe it is super effective:

  • You have to type your answers. (Of course, you should be verbalizing the foreign language material while you do so for greatest efficacy.) This forces you to learn how to spell and know where to put accent marks—something audio-only courses do not teach you.
  • There are three type of exercises: translating from your native language to the foreign one, translating from the foreign language to your native one, and transcribing foreign language audio. Most audio courses only have you do the first of these exercises.
  • It is constantly quizzing you (much like the Pimsleur courses), but with immediate grading and feedback. Constant quizzing is the most effective way to learn as it forces you not to be passive.
  • Each language has a skills tree. You have to complete an upper branch before you can get to a lower (harder) branch. You can test out of any branch too so that you are only learning new stuff.
  • It is like a game, and you get points. I find it wholly addictive.
  • It keeps track of your daily streaks to encourage you to do Duolingo every single day.
  • Social media: By “friending” others (e.g., Facebook friends on Duolingo or those that you invite by e-mail), you can use them for support, peer pressure, or competition—whatever motivates you.
  • In addition to points, other rewards are offered for the more lessons you do. These rewards are offered in the form of lingots, a type of Duolingo currency. (A lingot, per the Farlex Dictionary, is “a linget, or a small mass of metal,” but sharp-eyed readers will also noticed that the first five letters of “lingot” are the last five letters of “Duolingo.”) You can use these lingots to purchase from the Duolingo Store, such as a Streak Freeze, the ability to do Timed Practices, take a 20-minute test to get a certificate, etc.
  • Each question has a discussion thread where you can post a question about the translation. Most of the time someone already asked a question you already had, and others had already responded. This is like having a private tutor on hand.
  • As with any online course, you can pause, review, and repeat as often as you like. This is a major reason why I am starting to much prefer online courses to in-person ones.
  • Unlike a traditional classroom setting, Duolingo doesn’t require a huge time commitment. Not only can you do it whenever you have a computing device (which, nowadays, is just about anywhere and anytime), but each lesson only takes about 5-8 minutes. Some Duolingo enthusiasts, according to this amusing thread, even do it in the bathroom at work!
  • Your pronunciation is not corrupted by other students who mangle the language by either mispronouncing words or speaking with a non-native accent. The computer-generated pronunciations on Duolingo sound very authentic and will invariably be better than the students around you.

Furthermore, Duolingo is 100% free (no ads) and helps translate the web (e.g., Wikipedia articles from one language to another). This “second purpose” is why Duolingo was conceived in the first place—as explained by the TED Talk above.

One downside of Duolingo is that once in a while (say, one out of every fifty answers) seem a little odd. For example, the correct answer for classique et efficace in French translated to English was given as “classical and efficacious,” although hardly any English-speaking person would say “efficacious.” (Although I think “classic and effective” might also be accepted.)

Also, once in a while the audio is poor or unclear. Most of the time, however, I find Spanish to be extremely clear and French (which, by nature, is harder to understand due to so many unspoken letters and run-on syllables) decent. The Duolingo community seems to agree, however, that Italian on Duolingo is spoken pretty poorly.

I’ve been doing both Spanish and French and have already completed the Spanish tree! I even took the 20-minute certificate test and achieved a score of 5/5.0:

Duolingo also said that I can now read ~96% of all Spanish articles, so I suppose this puts me at the “advanced” level for Spanish. However, as evidenced by my weekly Spanish Conversation group, there is still plenty of vocabulary I could stand to learn. I will keep on doing Duolingo exercises for practice and maybe do some of the activities in the Immersion section (which entail translating Wikipedia entries), but am now focusing more on finishing the French skills tree.

For French, Duolingo also says I should be able to read 96% of all French articles, which is something I achieved after reaching Level 10! However, the French skills tree is much longer than the Spanish one, and considering how I frequently I fail some of the French lessons, I still have a ways to go.

But I would say that with Duolingo, I have already made more progress in six weeks than I had in several years with the other methods, and am speaking foreign languages with much greater confidence than ever before. All for free. And this is how Duolingo has changed my life.

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