8 May 2012

Duolingo the free language course

Learn a language for free. I’ve been waiting since December to get involved with this Project and finally I got my invitation. Duolingo is the brainchild of Luis von Ahn you can see his TED presentation where he explains what it is all about. The idea is that you study a language and it costs you nothing except for your time and effort. In return you contribute to the task of translating the Web from Spanish or French or German, into English.

The process has been made fun by using clever images and points reward systems and I find it quite addictive. If you already know a little or a lot of your target language you can fast-track by taking tests. At any stage you can review lessons and do a sentence or two of translation, it all accumulates points.

The system is described as beta, because it is still being worked on and tweaked. The interface is clean and doesn’t require too much scrolling. There are no distracting images just a friendly cartoon owl that looks sad when you fail a test and happy when you do well.

Duolingo

Here is a screenshot of the home page. You can see some of the stepping stones that you work through on the main screen, at the top there is a menu bar that offers “translations” (see pic 02), “questions” and “follow people”. On the top right you are shown your current level of progress along with “skill points” and “sentences translated”. There is a suggested order for tackling the lessons but it is quite flexible.

Duolingo

Once you are in the lesson there are options to study, translate and if you feel you already know the material you can take a test. Within the test there are no helpful hints. Very occasionally I was marked wrong for an answer that I believed to be correct or a valid alternative, when this happens it is easy to report (although you don’t get the mark awarded). You are tested on translation both ways and various grammar points, it is very unforgiving on typos. You might get away with the odd missed accent but that’s about all. I particularly like the option on the listening exercise where you can slow down the speech; it makes it easier to catch the endings eg nuestra vs nuestro.

There is an option of using a microphone that I haven’t tried.

Duolingo

Here is a screen shot of a typical translation exercise. At the moment the degree of difficulty seems random but that could change as the program develops. One nice feature is that you can hover over a word to get an instant (robot) translation. Some users complain about the small choice of subject matter but I haven’t found that to be a major issue. I will read just about anything!

If you have a competitive streak you can follow your fellow students on Twitter (it makes it easy to do this) and your progress is automatically displayed for your friends to see. I am not sure whether this is a help or a distraction in my case, too early to be sure.

A limited review, I know but I am only three days into it and so far only Spanish. I will probably try French next, time permitting. Overall: very impressed and I would recommend Duolingo to any keen language learner. The sooner you get on the waiting list the better.

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Author

Bill Ferguson
Bill Ferguson

Spanish Teaching Resources

Getting good quality teaching and resources

The information I am going to share is an honest account of what I have tried over the past year and my opinions are just that, opinions. I will share my likes and dislikes, what works for me and what doesn't. This is a personal experience, I am not an expert but if you share my ambition of learning to communicate in a third, foreign language, then maybe we can help each other along the way.

According to Friedrich Nietzsche: "One who speaks a foreign language just a little takes more pleasure in it than one who speaks it well. Enjoyment belongs to those who know things halfway."

I think he is right. Its hard to define halfway but I think the fun starts when you know enough of a language to be able to make yourself understood, given sufficient time to think. At this stage you are not merely tolerated but treated as an honoured guest in a foreign country. People see you bravely struggling to speak and understand, and give you credit for trying. They are nearly always kind and supportive.

Go beyond this to fluency and its like a toddler growing up, you are no longer cute and vulnerable. You are competing for resources, in the adolescence of language acquisition unless you have a definite role you are treated with suspicion. Maybe that is the stage to consider moving on to another new language ...

Getting good quality teaching and resources is vital to success: encouraged by an influential book by Harry Ferber I now view language acquisition as a military campaign, I need to use my resources efficiently to overcome all resistance, I need to capture vocabulary and not let it escape. I need to wear down the opposition by attacking daily and not allowing it time to regroup. I need to learn the predictable tricks that the new language will play on me and be ready for them (this means learning grammar). Like any military campaign good quality intelligence is vital.

Learning a Third Language

My current ambition is to be able to communicate comfortably in English, French and Spanish. I began to study Spanish in 2008. I have been a student of French, on and off, for about 30 years and up to last year ....read more

Strategic Planning

When I started to think about taking on a third language I realised I had two main worries: firstly I didn't want to lose my second language ...read more

Fear of Losing French

As I see it there is a simple choice ....read more