Language

Learning a New Language With the Duolingo App

Just about everyone I know has “learning a new language” on their bucket list. Especially being an American, I feel a bit uncultured that I have not taken the time to learn another language. Most Europeans I meet speak several languages, including English, which they usually speak better than me. I’d love to be able to meet people from other countries and converse with them because it means I’m not just an ignorant American who expects everything is catered to me everywhere I go. I want to be challenged, I want to be the man of the world.

In seeking ways to learn a language, there is no shortage of offerings that will gladly take your money, including a multitude of new apps. These apps became increasingly popular due to the pandemic, where people were stuck inside, feeling disconnected, and bought into the dream that’d they come out of quarantine bilingual.

I have tried several apps but my favorite has to be Duolingo. Like anything else, there are upsides and downsides but overall it has been the best experience. I will break down the components below and provide reasons why you may want to give it a try.

What is Duolingo?

Duolingo is a phone app that uses a gamification aspect to language learning.

Selection

Currently, Duolingo provides 38 different languages. They have a lot of the most popular ones and are increasingly growing to include some of the lesser-known ones. I was kind of shocked to even see “High Valyrian” on there, is that really a thing?

Cost

Duolingo has two versions. Free and paid subscription.

Free: This is great if you just want to dabble, pick up a few phrases for when you travel abroad, but it will be really difficult to learn a language fast. There are not too many ads, but enough to slow you down. You only have so many hearts going into each level and if you run out, you’ll need to watch ads to get more or wait. But again, free in the general sense.

Paid Subscription: When my commitment grew to learn Italian, I went ahead and splurged on a paid subscription. The reason is that I started to use the app a lot and the ads were driving me nuts. With the paid version, you get unlimited hearts and no ads, so it saved me so much time by just playing the game uninterrupted. It is $6.67 a month $80/year) if you commit to a year, double that if you go month-to-month.

Exercises

Main part: There are lessons shaped like an egg, and they will center around one central theme — Travel, past tense verb, business, etc. You start out with simple ones and as you complete the first lesson of that egg, new ones will become available for you to try.

Each lesson has 15 questions, and there are 1–9 lessons in each egg for you to complete. Each lesson tends to get a bit more difficult and complex. If you miss the question, it will be moved to the back of the lesson for you to try it again. Once you complete each egg, it may crack after a few weeks at which point, you need to complete a refresher lesson.

The exercises come in a variety of formats to keep things interesting:

Translate a phrase or sentence from the new language into your home language by typing the words or selecting words from a word bank below the phrase. You need to type it correctly or choose the correct words in the correct order to get it right.

Duolingo will also ask the reverse, stating a phrase in your home language and asking you to write it in the new language or select words from a word bank.

Hearing and seeing a foreign phrase, and then speaking into your phone's microphone. The app's technology will make sure you are saying each word correctly.

Other exercises: Duolingo “Stories” bring you through a dialogue between two people, where you will occasionally be asked a question or need to answer something. Simple but effective reading and conversational practice.

Duolingo also provides a lot of additional study materials which are downloadable to assist you when you are not using the app.

Upsides

I love the gamification aspect of Duolingo for several reasons:

It makes it fun. Other ways to learn a language through workbooks, flashcards, and video lessons can be a lot more boring. Duolingo takes language learning and makes it addicting, tapping furiously to get to the next level, which will learn a lot more than you originally intended.

Being competitive, the gamification really works for me. Each lesson earns you points and those points go to your current standing within the ranks of other Duolingo members. If you rank high in the week, you will be pushed to the next league. If you don’t, you will move down to the league down. Even after you do reach the illustrious “Diamond League”, you still need to rank high to stay each week to remain there. It keeps you accountable.

Other considerations:

I can do it anywhere and anytime, and I can leave off from where I was.

Variety in vocabulary and phrases is maintained to reduce boredom.

You can turn off the voice exercises and just focus on the other ones if you’re in a public place.

Positive feedback — The sounds, badges, prizes, leagues, animations, streak feature all make you believe you are doing great and should continue.

Mistakes- The questions you get wrong also get moved to a “Mistakes” section in the app, where you can go in and have another try for points.

Mastery Quiz- Occasionally, you will be prompted to complete a Mastery quiz which tests your knowledge of everything and offers you a percentage of mastery to track your progress

Downsides

Given how much I enjoy Duolingo, I still think it will be pretty hard to become fluent with it alone. Even though Duolingo uses a staunch variety of exercises and vocabulary, it still only resembles a portion of the entire language and is not going to give you everything you need. I primarily use Duolingo, but I also read Italian books, watch Italian movies, google translate furiously, practice in my notebook, and have several workbooks and flashcards. If you use Duolingo alone, it may take a lot longer to learn or may never happen at all.

While Duolingo does offer effective dialogue practice and key phrases needed to communicate, it may be lacking a bit in the conversational sphere. A lot of the statements and phrases in Duolingo can odd or unconventional. If you want to go to a restaurant in Italy or ask for the time, it’s more than pressing buttons and fringe vocabulary. Practicing with another person or getting a tutor is effective here where Duolingo is not.

Duolingo works like a game, and sometimes I get caught up playing the game rather than learning a language. I work to get through the level to maximize points and keep rank, but it’s important to slow down and actually read the sentence out loud, write down keywords, and practice. The factor that makes Duolingo fun and addictive is also the factor that may take you away from the central goal.

Suggestions

Duolingo, if you’re reading this I think that the gems that you accumulate should be able to redeem for gift cards like Amazon, Starbucks, Home Depot, etc. I have earned so many gems and have already bought every extra lesson, costume, and every other thing I can buy on this app. It would even be more motivating to get cash out for a $5 gift card once in a while.

To improve more on conversational skills, I am thinking that conversing with other Duolingo members may be helpful? Also, perhaps some lessons should be less general and be honed in on specific scenarios. Rather than having a “Travel” lesson, maybe a lesson about being at the airport checking in rather than just generalized travel phrases and vocabulary.

Writer and guinea pig behind the Worst Runner. Experimenting with running and life.

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