Like pretty much everybody else on the planet, I’ve wanted to eventually learn another language. It got to the point that I was on the verge of
finding a way to pirate pricing out Rosetta Stone to try my hand at seriously doing some Spanish. (I picked Spanish because it shows up a lot in the clinic – I figure it’ll give me the edge later on in my medical career.) Fortunately, before I took the dive, I found out about Duolingo, which promised to provide language learning for free. I figured I’d give it a shot. Without trying to sound like too much of a shill, I’ll give you a rundown of my experiences and the pros and cons as I see them. First, for all of you skeptics wondering if they’re going to go for-pay when you’re in the middle of learning to conjugate the future sub-perfect-junctive tense, let me assure you that this is highly unlikely. I’ll quote a saying that’s been floating around the internet (I’ve traced it to the user blue_beetle on metafilter, let me know if that’s not the original usage: “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” Because Duolingo offers the “opportunity” to translate sites on the web, you’re essentially giving them your labor in exchange for your training. Because there’s no requirement to participate in the translating – you can just do the lessons if you prefer – I’m willing to buy into their cunning plan if it means yo puedo hablar espanol.
With that in mind, I fired up their service back in March and set off down their skill tree, finally finishing it earlier today. Here are my impressions:
- The game-like elements are extremely addictive. I found myself swallowed up by the program and kept coming back to get a few more points whenever I had some free time.
- The word knowledge mechanic features a spaced-forgetting algorithm. This concept, developed by neuroscientists, causes your “word strength” to deteriorate over time. This means that the skill ratings more accurately reflect reality – you can’t master a concept once and then come back two years later expecting it to be rock solid.
- The skill tree offers at least the illusion of a self-contained teaching path. It shares this feature with Khan Academy and Codecademy, both of which are similarly great examples of gamified learning that I’ll cover at some point if there’s interest.
- The visual interface is really appealing. The owl mascot, colorful visuals, and cheerful sound effects do a pretty good job of making it feel like fun, even if it is just a dressed up language quiz at its core.
- Through its use of hover-hints, you can get right into the meat of most lessons without having to do a lot of preliminary reading. This makes the process rewarding and hands-on, but it has its pitfalls (see below).
- Perhaps in part because of the need to train you as a translator, there is more emphasis on being able to recognize and interpret the language compared to being able to speak it. At the end of the lessons I feel capable of extracting a meaning from a large fraction of spanish texts, but I’d be pretty hopeless to carry out a conversation or convey an original thought.
- It’s quite possible and tempting to lean heavily on the hover hints. I think it’ll be really important to review periodically using the timed practice to improve retrieval skills and get things into long term storage.
- The emphasis on diving into exercises means that precious little time is spent on concepts. I don’t claim to have any real expertise in identifying one tense over the other, and I’m far from capable of being able to discuss the language with any scholarly authority. I’m not so bothered by this because I only really care about using the language in real world situations, but it’s probably worth considering.
- I was not as impressed with the later sections as I was with the earlier ones. It seems like the programmers are adapting the lessons based on feedback, and I’m guessing that there’s just not as much feedback toward the end due to user dropout. There were a few lessons there where it would reject answers that were virtually identical to the correct ones, and I had to redo the lesson a half dozen times until I was passing most of the phrases by rote memorization rather than any kind of understanding.
Where am I after taking all the lessons? I’m definitely going to need more practice on Duolingo and using some other resources before I would dare call myself fluent, but I would be much more comfortable surviving if I was airdropped into Latin America or Spain. I’ve taken 4 years of French in high school and I would bet my Spanish skills rival my French ones, especially accounting for all the atrophy to the latter skill set. All in all, I think it’s a great resource, and it’s really fed my interest in gamified learning methods. I don’t think it should be used in isolation, but it has the potential to be a central pillar in a self-taught language learning system.
If you’ve tried Duolingo or have other language learning tools that you’ve found useful, drop me a comment and let’s talk!
Some related links:
Study Spanish – one of the better “online textbook” sorts of pages
Forvo – users can upload the correct pronunciation of words in their native language
A Research Study Evaluating Duolingo – might admittedly be biased since it’s now hosted at the Duolingo site, but it claims that Duolingo is comparable to college coursework and in some cases more effective than a lot of the tools out there.
Babbel – an alternative language learning software (not free)
Mango Languages – another alternative language learning software. I haven’t used it in a long time but their mandarin lessons were pretty solid on the trial version. This is also not free but they appear to be trying to bill libraries to foster free access for patrons.
Rosetta Stone – the 800 lb gorilla of language learning. If you have the money, or someone else is paying for it, this might be worth looking into. I’ve not tried it myself but it seems to be the gold standard in the field.