One of my favorite free-time pursuits is studying Chinese, but I have a crush on linguistics in general and I’m always interested in the quirks that make each language exasperating in its own special way. But being on a tight budget as I work to get out of debt has restricted me to finding cheap or free language learning resources online, and that search has turned into a hobby in itself. My latest toy is Duolingo.
Brought to you by Luis von Ahn, the man who gave us Captcha, Duolingo is not just for language learning: the goal of the program is crowd-sourcing translation. Google Translate and Bing are pretty powerful tools, but so far, no one’s found a way to avoid translations that don’t make any goddamn sense in the target language (if you’ve ever traveled in a foreign country and tried to read machine-translated menu , you know what I mean). But imagine an army of human translators working through web content one word, chunk, sentence and paragraph at a time in an effort to improve their own language skills and in a spirit of friendly competition with other participants…
Luis von Ahn, we salute you.
I submitted a request for a Duolingo invite to study Mandarin a couple of months ago, but I didn’t get the invitation until late Thursday night. Unfortunately, Chinese isn’t one of the languages available right now, but Spanish was a good second choice for me. After playing with the product a couple of hours on Friday morning, I can see why Chinese isn’t available already and I’m curious about how they might finally provide it. (It might be prohibitively complicated to learn how to type in Chinese on top of learning the language, or it might just be difficult to develop a product for languages with non-Western scripts.)
The UI is pretty adorable. “Duo”, a friendly green owl, introduces you to the program. You can track your progress on a giant flowchart with symbols representing the themed units you will work through. You have to complete a number of themes before you move to the next level.
The layout of the lessons themselves isn’t particularly engaging, but I found that I was moving so rapidly through each lesson that my perception of my progress was exciting enough to keep me going.
New vocabulary is introduced with an unglamorous “Remember this word” and four pictures of the same noun:
There’s no interaction at this point, so I move to the next slide, where I am told to memorize more words. Then I get some translation exercises where I have to respond either in English or Spanish. Function words are translated in English below the Spanish word, with drop-down menus showing additional translations. I know a thimbleful of Spanish, so it wasn’t too scary to see words that hadn’t been introduced on their own, but I could see that being confusing for completely new learners.
As I progressed through the lesson, I was tested on my grasp of the vocabulary, verb agreement, and the gender of articles in many different ways. I never really knew what to expect next, which is an easy way to keep language learning interesting. The questions were in both English and Spanish and were either multiple choice or translation of a short phrase.
After entering each response, I used buttons to check my answer and proceed. If I got the answer right, I got a message saying “That is correct”. If I got a wrong answer, I got a message explaining what the right answer was and I also lost one of the “hearts” at the top of the screen. It wasn’t immediately obvious, but I eventually figured out that losing all my hearts meant I would have to redo the lesson, which only happened when I tried to “test out” of my current level and skip ahead. What was really frustrating was that I had no way to go back and fix an incorrect answer, even if it was just a typo like typing “you” instead of “yo”. Other learners have already brought this up in the forums, where it seems like lots of new users are discussing the product.
I was also asked to do dictations in Spanish, which required me to record myself repeating a phrase. I could then play back the recording and contrast that with the recording of the native speaker. However, I’m not sure why I got any feedback from these exercises. I tried to trick it by saying “She is eating an apple” when I supposed to produce “She is a woman”, but I still got a cheery “That is correct!” message. But then, when asked to produce “We are women”, I did my best, and got a message that it hadn’t understood me. So I would have assumed that it isn’t assessing my speech by comparing it to data collected from native speakers, but then it accepted my completely off-base answers with positive feedback.
Not being able to review the series of exercises that I had just completed was also frustrating, but that’s well compensated for by the length and repetitiveness of the lessons. However, I am not really sure how to make progress to different levels: I learned 50 of the 120 words I was told I needed to learn, so I tried to do more, but then it was just reviewing the material I’d already learned.
But all of that isn’t even the fun hive-mind part. You don’t need to go through the lessons to get started translating short phrases in your target language. One of the first phrases given to me for translation was “Es un mediocampista defensivo.” I know what “es un” meant from my lessons, but I was still taken to a quick review session for “un” before I was allowed to translate. I figured “defensivo” had something to do with “defensive”, but I had no idea what “mediocampista” meant: it sounded like some kind of guerilla warrior or drag queen. But, ta-da, there is a drop-down menu with translations, and I know that the adjective comes before the noun in English, so I translated it as “He’s a defensive mid-field player” and got myself some skill points for generating a translation that was in 100% agreement with 55 other users.
Now imagine that my language skills improve with practice both in lessons and translation, and imagine that the results of a translation are the fruit of the work of thousands of users, and you can finally see just how Duolingo will be pretty revolutionary once we all start putting in a couple hours of week.
Overall, I think the buzz around Duolingo is justified. The lessons are engaging, you’ll be constantly learning and getting assessed, and therefore getting constant feedback. And there’s nothing like being able to take what you learned and instantly have a practical application for it, which is what happens when you move from the exercises to the translations. And from what I saw, the Duolingo community is more than 10,000 strong and very chatty, so there’s a lot of potential for interacting with other learners, providing guidance and support, and even making friends.
I’ll post back with my progress. Let me know how it goes with you!