Duolingo: Learn a New Language Your Way

The idea of learning a new language may bring back horrible memories of chanting aloud amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant, and discussing whether the vocative form is indeed a case — but there is a better way to learn. If you’ve always loved the idea of picking up a second — or third, or fourth — language, your phone and tablet could help you out.

Having an Italian girlfriend spurred me into attempting to learn the lingo. I am essentially monolingual — I know enough French to get by, a smattering of German, and sufficient Latin to satisfy my love of etymology. I needed something to help me become fluent in Italian. Duolingo seemed to fit the bill.


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Having discovered Duolingo, I think it could be the way ahead. I’ve tried various PC-based teaching tools in the past, but I have always ended up giving up on them either because they weren’t very good, or their inflexibility (having to be run on a PC). The idea of an Android app appealed to me because it was more likely to fit into my (usually chaotic and disorganized) schedule. But I’ll return to this in a moment; let’s get on and take a look at what the app has to offer.

Speaking My Language

Language is what brings us all together. The ability to communicate is what makes us human and helps enhance life. Virtually everyone in the world can speak one language, but the ability to speak two or more is becoming worryingly rare in many parts of the world. With Duolingo you can learn one of six languages completely free of charge.

Duolingo has several languages to choose from, and there are numerous combinations available.

Duolingo has several languages to choose from, and there are numerous combinations available.

And free of charge means free of charge. The app is free, there are no hidden fees, no subscriptions and — wonderfully — no ads. Duolingo takes an approach to learning that will be welcomed by anyone who is time-poor.

Your chosen language course — Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Italian, or English — is dealt up in bite-sized lessons which you can rattle through in five to ten minutes each. This means you don’t feel as though you’re committing a huge chunk of your day to something, which in turn means you’re more likely to pick it up here and there when you have a few minutes to spare.

Spare five minutes on the train? Get your phone out and pick up from here you left off.

Spare five minutes on the train? Get your phone out and pick up from here you left off.

Something else that I found delightfully pleasing is that you are not required to take a linear route through the various lessons. If you feel like focusing on words and phrases relating to food before those about travel, you can do so. You can’t jump from level 2 to level 5 without working through the lessons, but it’s nice to have a degree of freedom.

Lessons take a variety of forms — in some you are using simple picture cards to work out foreign words for yourself, in some you have to translate sentences by building them up word by word, and in others you are required to type out translations. You have three lives to play with. Get something wrong and you’ll lose a life. Lose all three and you’ll have to start the lesson from scratch.

Lessons take various forms in Duolingo, helping to keep things interesting.

Lessons take various forms in Duolingo, helping keep things interesting.

The tablet and phone versions of the app are all but identical, but when taking part in a lesson that involves selecting the correct word from a series of options there is one odd difference. As if in a bid to fill up the larger screen, tablet users will find that they have more words to choose from — arguably making things harder!

No Comprende

What Duolingo lacks is accurate pronunciation. The vocals used in the app make little attempt at mimicking an Italian accent, sounding part like a generic computer voice, and part like an American trying to sound Italian. Were it not for my girlfriend, I think my pronunciation would be quite wide of the mark, and she was at turns amused and confused by how some of the words are pronounced.

Duolingo's pronunciation isn’t necessarily 100% accurate and can be hard to understand.

Duolingo’s pronunciation isn’t necessarily 100% accurate and can be hard to understand.

Having words and phrases in an authentic accent is a big help — this is one of the benefits of working with a real-life tutor. In Duolingo you have the ability to slow down the vocal sections, but this can still result in some strange sounding words.

If you're feeling competitive, pit your wits against your language-learning friends.

If you’re feeling competitive, pit your wits against your language-learning friends.

If you need to be incentivised into learning, there’s scope for competing against friends in a leaderboard, or you can just ‘play’ against yourself and see how many days in a row you can stick to your learning schedule — email and push notifications can be sent out to give you a gentle nudge each day. There’s also potential to link your learning to the motivational tool Beeminder if you want to be strict with sticking to a regular timetable.

Link Duolingo to Beeminder if you're keen on sticking to our goal of learning a language.

Link Duolingo to Beeminder if you’re keen on sticking to our goal of learning a language.

In Summary

What I particularly like about Duolingo is the very fact that it is an Android app. The website is great; it could even be argued that it is better than the app as there are lots of unique features. The online discussion board is a great resource and the Immersion section, in which you are invited to translate real-world articles, is a great touch.

Where the website proves really useful is in its ability to sync with the app. This means I can take a lesson at my computer during my lunch break, and I can pick up from where I left off on my phone or tablet in bed before falling asleep — and I can even have a lesson before I get up, without the need to turn on my computer.

Being able to pick up from where you left off online means you're never far from your next Duolingo lesson.

Being able to pick up from where you left off online means you’re never far from your next Duolingo lesson.

Duolingo is a great alternative to staid text books, and is accessible to a wider audience than an expensive tutor. It’s not going to be for everyone, but it works for me and it might just work for you; test it out to see if it suits your learning methods.

Ciao!


Summary

Choosing an app to help learn a language is a very personal thing -- what works for one person may not work as well for another. But Duolingo suits my style. It's easy to pick up for a few minutes, but equally comfortable to use for extended periods of time. Take it for a spin... you won't regret it.

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