Hello everybody! Today I want to talk about Duolingo, the revolutionary service that was founded in 2011 that provides its free online language learning software to millions of users all over the world. It’s become obscenely popular over a short period of time due to its free nature and easy-to-use interface, becoming the most downloaded education app in Google Play in 2013 and 2014. If you mention the name of Duolingo to someone who is currently using the software, you’ll likely hear a cascade of compliments, “I’ve been learning Italian with Duolingo before I go abroad,” “I’ve learned a lot!” “What a godsend!” As the tagline on the website states, “Learn a language for free. Forever.”
Duolingo does a wonderful job of hooking learners in to the software and giving them incentives to keep using it. Learners take a 10 minute diagnostic test and then are placed into a lesson that the software evaluates as being optimal for the learner. Learners receive a subject such as, “animals,” “prepositions,” or “verbs 3,” and they then begin taking short lessons. The lessons are always a relatively simple 20-30 question stroll, involving the construction of short sentences or filling in the blank questions pertaining to the vocabulary. The lessons also include some basic listening exercises with the speaking voice being that of a computer generated bot (although a sexy voice for a bot if I do say so myself!). After completing a lesson, learners are rewarded with little red jewels known as “lingots” that can be redeemed for digital prizes. They then get the viscerally satisfying experience of seeing their XP bar fill up, and are subsequently presented a bar graph of their progress in the program.
Between all the experience points, the bright red lingots, the daily notification reminder emails, and the Green owl mascot, Duolingo can cast a powerful spell on learners, convincing them that they’ve learned more than they actually have. Many users , including myself, have fallen under this spell. “Wow, I’m already level 5! If I reach level 8 before my trip to Spain, I’m sure I’ll be ready!” (LOUD BUZZER). I paid the price hard on my first trip to Spain, and made a fool of myself many a time. After a 10 days in Spain I accepted a weekend trip to the beach with my intercultural exchange partner and his 3 friends (none of them spoke English). What ensued was 2 days and 2 nights of not understanding anyone or having any idea of what the hell was happening. I could scratch my way into a conversation here and there, but for the most part I was lost on the desolate island of my own silly and inane thoughts. The desolation led to me drinking too much and vomiting everywhere at the end of night 2 (this is my cautionary tale!).
All it took was some pixelated rewards and I became strongly convinced of my progress before my trip to Spain, committing the deadly language learning sin of overlooking some of the fundamental skills that the program (by design) can’t possibly provide. Below I’ve listed the necessary skills for language acquisition, and I’ve also included some awesome educational programs that can be of even greater assistance on your language journey (buckle up!).
You need to train your ear:
As everyone knows, Duolingo is spoken by a bot. Not a living breathing human, or even a recording of a living breathing human… it’s a bot! Good Lawd!
Training your ear is one of the most difficult, and also one of the most rewarding parts of learning a language. Between accents, lisps, intonation differences, and different states of emotion, each person communicates uniquely. As you train your ear and learn accents, you’ll begin to be able to pinpoint the commonalities and the differences between the dialects of different people. From urban, to uptown, downtown, old school, new school, north, south, east, west, and other divisions that exist uniquely to that culture; you’ll start to learn and understand personalities that you didn’t even know existed before. To me, this is one of the most amazing and rewarding parts of learning another language, and a damn bot can’t provide that for you! (My apologies to any computer intelligences that are reading this).
Solutions: A great service I found for training your ear is LoMasTv.com. It provides clips of varying difficulty spoken by native speakers from all over the world including Spanish, French, German, Chinese, Italian, and English. It also provides direct subtitles of what the people are saying, including the ‘Uhmsss,’ and pauses. Being able to associate what you’re reading with what you’re hearing (and knowing what country that person is from) is instrumental in developing your ear.
For learners who want to learn Portuguese, I recommend Semantica-Portuguese, which has a webseries and also provides a direct translation of the conversations.
You need to train the muscles of your mouth.
Duolingo does not effectively train the muscles in your mouth for rapidly communicating information. When speaking another language, you’re going to be put on the spot, and you’re going to have to spit out information as fast as you can. Many times the greatest limiting factor isn’t your knowledge of what to say, it’s being able to fluidly say it.
Duolingo does a decent job of passing the words into your explicit or “Declarative Memory.” This means that you can declare the facts of the language such as ‘Oso’ means Bear. You might also know how to say, “Él esta grande!” (He is big!). But when there’s a giant bear in front of you and the time comes for you to alert your friend, you might struggle to say “El oso está grande!” This is because contorting the muscles of your mouth to fluidly say that phrase has not yet become automatic.
You will need to make the task of speaking another language become part of your implicit or “procedural memory.” Procedural memory is your brain’s ability to do things automatically such as tying your shoe or chomping on some Big League Chew.
Solutions: This is an unpopular answer, because this service most likely isn’t free (unless your girlfriend speaks the language), but you need to have a tutor. Make sure that your tutor forces you to speak as much as possible in that language. When you start speaking a phrase that feels like a tongue twister, that’s awesome!! Keep speaking it until it no longer feels so goofy, and you’re speech fluidity will have just leveled up (sorry, no lingots this time).
It’s also important to stop yourself as often as possible and describe your surroundings in your target language. Describe your bench, the field in front of you, the Philly Fanatic, whatever. Speaking as often as possible will certainly help you. Grab a dictionary for translations to help you out. The best one I’ve found is at wordreference.com.
Duolingo doesn’t provide you with any culture and/or unique perspectives that you will encounter abroad:
Duolingo is structurally designed to be a template to introduce basic grammar structures for as many languages as possible. This means that it isn’t designed to teach any culture at all— besides the owl and the “lingots,” the app is about as sterile as a doctor’s office, or the walls of the post 9/11 American high school I attended.
As a learner of a language, it’s important to seek culture, because:
1. It’s fascinating, surprising, and in many ways studying another culture can help you learn more about the one you grew up in. I didn’t realize this until I travelled abroad, but America has an awesome diversity of sports for people to choose from. You can play racquetball, soccer, hockey, rugby, football, cricket, two-hand-touch, Frisbee, basketball, lacross, and there’s even a handful of wacky sports like dodgeball, and street basketball that have become nationally popular for periods of time. In my experiences in Spain and Chile the choices are much slimmer, usually boiling down to soccer, basketball, and rugby.
Americans and their absolutely crazy sports. I’ve spent many a afternoon watching Slam Ball on Spike TV.
2. The words that people use are very often intimately tied to other parts of their culture. In Portuguese, there are a myriad of terms to say you’re good or bad at playing soccer. In Spanish, people sweet talk to each other with terms that would seem utterly cheesy in English… but work brilliantly in Spanish. In English, Americans’ strongly digital lifestyles are reflected in online lingo. An example of this is that my brother has bluntly said to me the letters STFW in response to one of my questions. STFW is short for “search the fucking web.”
Different cultures also have many unique styles of music, dance, television programs, sensibilities, types of humor…. it’s a lot of fun to see what is consistent across cultures and what changes.
Solutions: Movies, newspapers, and television shows straight from another country. Thankfully, all this stuff is online now and you can find it for free.
For being free, Duolingo is an incredible program that’s surprisingly fleshed out. Still, when it comes to improving your fluency in another language, no single program or study strategy can jump through hoops for you. For as fun and flashy as Duolingo is, the best it can do is provide lessons in basic words and grammatical structure. Relying solely on Duolingo before a trip abroad is all but guaranteed to be disastrous (unless you’re an absolute savant). Stay committed and keep your learning regimen varied. Media directly from the country, and a tutor who has lived in that country will both be invaluable.
I hope this got you thinking and that it made you laugh. If you have any thoughts on the post or second language learning let me know! I’d love to talk, hablar, or falar about it.