Rebooting my language learning with Duolingo

duolingo-bannerWhat happened when I went on holiday to France for the first time in about 3 years? Obviously I had a very nice time visiting interesting places, enjoying the local cafes and generally relaxing – but I’ll tell you more about that over the next few days. I also discovered that I had forgotten a lot of very basic words and phrases. Not good – and entirely down to a lack of practice. It seems I need to do a little more than read the odd article in l’Equipe from time to time in order to maintain my limited language skills.

Since I’ve finally finished my M.Ed course (huzzah!) I’ve got some time available for languages again, so I decided to give Duolingo a try. I’ve been impressed so far.

What is it?

Duolingo is a website that allows you to learn a language for free. The activities that I have used are a mixture of simple tasks to practise reading, writing, speaking and listening. The activities are straightforward, but they are sufficiently varied and introduce enough new material each time to keep me interested.

What’s so good about it?

It’s free and easy to use. I find the Duolingo lessons are most effective on my laptop, where I have a keyboard, but there is also an app, which works quite well on my iPod. I’ve not tried the Android version, because nothing works well on my phone!

Regular practice is encouraged. The lessons are short, varied and can be completed at any time. Duolingo also sends very polite (and very optional) daily reminder emails to encourage me to keep going. Finally there are virtual rewards available for regular daily practice.

French skill treeProgress is recognised and rewarded. The lessons and practice drills for each language are arranged in a ‘skill tree’, which unlocks gradually as each level is completed. Duolingo also awards points and a virtual currency called ‘lingots’ for successful completion of lessons, levels and so on. I was a little surprised at how much this kind of gamified scoring appealed to me once I got started.

Regular reviews of earlier work are encouraged. Each block of activities has a bar indicating progress, but this progress bar doesn’t stay at the maximum level unless you practise the skills regularly. After a week, I discovered that some of the bars on my skill tree had started to drop down. Redoing some lessons or completing a practice session topped them back up.

There are flexible start points. In German, I simply started at beginner level. I have studied German before, but I had forgotten almost everything. However in French I was rusty, but not a total beginner, so I opted to do an assessment test. This immediately ‘unlocked’ a large section of the skill tree and assigned me a starting level. The level was obviously about right – I’ve been able to complete the tasks, but I made a few errors and needed to learn a few new words. There are also options to take tests that unlock all activities up to certain key points, so if I did find the work too easy, I could move on.

After 10 days, I’m already seeing an improvement in my vocabulary, which is exactly what I’d hoped for.

What’s the catch?

Well, Duolingo is free with no ads, which made me wonder how it is being funded. According to their site, Duolingo has received some capital from investors and it makes money from what appears to be crowd-sourced translations. I’m not sure how viable that is as a business model, but I really hope they succeed. It’s a great site – I’d happily pay a subscription or donate to keep it going.

 

 

Picture: Duolingo banner © Duolingo, Inc.

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