At the beginning of the summer I signed up for a Duolingo account. I know, I know – I’m late to the party, but better late than never.
Not long after I started, I read an article about why apps are no good for learning language. The article listed dozens of reasons why you can never learn from an app, why learning from an app is detrimental to your language learning experience, and why the only possible way to learn a language is from a language tutor, and it was written by… a language tutor!
I suppose as a language tutor myself, I should back this article 100% and agree with everything it said, but I’m not going to. While I agree that for many people having a language tutor is beneficial, I think an app such as Duolingo definitely has a place in learning a language. My husband, a fluent German speaker, has commented that my German has improved more in the few weeks since I’ve been using Duolingo than in the previous few years of off-and-on German learning, so I’m going to look at the reasons for this.
Firstly, each of the Duolingo lessons are only five minutes which means it’s easy to fit them into your day. Waiting for a bus or for the kettle to boil? Do a Duolingo lesson while you’re waiting. I’ve found that with a few five-minute bursts I can easily do 15-20 minutes every day, and this little but often approach helps me to retain what I’ve learnt. I tend to do two or three revision lessons and one new one each day, but you can set the pace yourself. As you progress you earn points, called Lingots, which you can use in the Lingot shop to buy bonus lessons, tests and various other things.
The words are learnt in the context of a sentence, which really suits my learning style. I’ve tried to learn the different case endings for articles and nouns before, but when presented with them all in a table my eyes start to swim, my head starts to hurt and I can’t make any sense of it at all. One of the first sentences I learnt with Duolingo was “Die Fliege isst das Fleisch” (the fly eats the meat) which allowed me to store a sentence in my head as a point of reference – so now I always remember that “das” remains “das” in the accusative case. After only a few days I had built up a store of reference sentences for masculine, feminine and neuter nouns in nominative, accusative and dative cases, and was able to independently substitute other words to make simple, grammatically correct sentences.
There is a lot of built in repetition which helps the words and structure enter my long-term memory, and you see and hear the words several times before you are asked to write them yourself. If you make a mistake, you get a message telling you which bit of the sentence is wrong, and how to put it right, and there are several opportunities throughout the lesson to correct a mistake made earlier on.
Many of the sentences are nonsense. They all make grammatical sense, but not necessarily semantic sense. I’ve seen this as a criticism from some people, but for me personally this works well because it means that I focus more carefully on the grammatical structures. If you want to just memorise and repeat some useful phrases, then this app probably isn’t for you, but memorising and repeating set phrases isn’t the same as speaking a language. Because I know that the sentence isn’t necessarily going to make sense I can’t just pick out a couple of words I recognise and guess the rest, I have to look closely at the sentence and pick out the grammatical structures. This enforced close examination then makes it easier when I have to produce sentences in German, because I have already taken note of the correct word order, case endings needed, accented characters, etc.
Of course, it’s always easy to get carried away with learning new words and phrases, and all too easy to forget to go over what you already know. This means that although you may feel as though you are making progress because you are completing lessons and moving up the levels, in fact you’re not learning the language because you are forgetting so much. Duolingo has built in reminders that you need to go back and revise. Each skill is represented by a colourful circle, and when you have completed all the lessons for that particular skill the circle turns gold. After a while the circle changes back to its original colour, and this is a visual reminder that you need to redo some of those lessons as a refresher. As the lessons are so short, revision doesn’t seem like a chore, and redoing lessons still earns you points towards Lingots to spend in the shop.
Could anybody learn a language with Duolingo? Possibly, possibly not. I’m a linguist, so I’m used to thinking about language structure, and the context-based style of Duolingo really suits my way of learning. Plus I have the added bonus that I can practise with my husband as often as I want, so I’m constantly reinforcing what I have just learnt.
If you’re thinking about learning a language I’d suggest giving Duolingo a go. It’s free, so what have you got to lose? If you find it doesn’t work for you, or if you feel you need a real teacher as well, then you could have a look at adult education classes or a language tutor. If you live in north Birmingham and you need a French or Spanish tutor then get in touch to see how I can help you.