Learn a language with DuoLingo


According to language researcher David Graddol “Monolingual speakers of any variety of English — American or British — will experience increasing difficulty in employment and political life, and are likely to become bewildered by many aspects of society and culture around them.” I know that I am eternally grateful that the South African Christian National Education of the 1970s forced me to learn Afrikaans, whatever its dubious political affiliations. Learning another language gave me insight into just how different languages are, and how the world is constructed from the limits and expressiveness of one’s native language. Learning a new language can ease the transition into a new community, facilitate better communication and give insights into another culture.

I have been making more frequent visits to Switzerland (my partner is Swiss) and have been keen to learn one of the Swiss languages. I’ve decided to start with German because I did a year of German back in my university days and there are similarities between Afrikaans vocabulary and German, so I have something to build on. I looked at a number of tools to learn German, including lessons at the local Goethe Institute, and the text books that I still have, but DuoLingo wins hands down.

DuoLingo turns learning a language into a game. You select how much you want to do each day and then you get a reminder towards the afternoon if you have not yet “done your Duo”. I have elected to complete 20 points per day, which amounts to two short sets of exercises. Actually, I often do four or five of these; that’s how compelling the gamification is. It takes me from five to fifteen minutes a day, depending on whether I am revising something I know well or learning a new section. The great thing is that I can fit these short exercises in while waiting in a supermarket queue, waiting for a meeting to start, or waiting for the rice to boil for dinner.

I started this process with my partner about six months ago. We can track each other’s progress and since he is retired and has more time on his hands, he always puts in more time than me, which is an incentive not to fall behind.

DuoLingo makes use of pictures to introduce vocabulary, as well as written text. Sometimes you select words from a set displayed on the screen, and sometimes you have to type words in and actually pay attention to the detail of the spelling. I have had to add a German spellcheck to my keyboard on all my devices so that when I am asked to enter text I get some help. There are word matching exercises, spoken exercises where you learn to pronounce the German words and listening exercise where you get to understand the spoken language. There are also lots of translation exercises. This variety means that it is not boring.

There is instant feedback to tell you if you are right and if not, what the correct answer is. There is a lot of repetition, which is great because the words just sink into your brain without much effort and the more mistakes you make the more repetition there is.

I think it is important to treat it as a game and not to get too hung up on getting every answer right. You learn from your mistakes. So I have taken the attitude of diving in and giving it my best guess when I don’t know the answer. I often get things wrong, but then those things get emphasised and repeated and I end up learning them. If you are too hard on yourself and get upset when you get things wrong, some of the fun goes out of it and I think it becomes harder to learn.

The apps have had some odd quirks, like when a spoken exercise takes a bit long to load over a slow connection and then misses the beginning of your answer, but in the six months I have been using it, these have improved, so there seems to be on-going work on these flaws. There is also a feedback option on each item so you can see where others have had problems and add your comments to improve the tool. But on the whole I think that the design is really good and the tools are easy to use. I use it on an android tablet and phone, and my partner on Apple devices and we have noticed some differences between them, but often these disappear with the next update.

There is independent research into the effectiveness of DuoLingo that you can read about here and here which supports that it is effective. From my experience, about half-way through the English/German course, I am able to hold short conversations in German, I can read German children’s stories and am following a far greater proportion of the text in magazine articles. It definitely helps that I am learning it with someone else because we practice talking to each other in German almost daily. The best part is that it has been almost totally effortless. It won’t make you an expert in the language, but it will get you to a level of being able to use the language, which is what most people want.

Of course the biggest limitation of DuoLingo is that there is not a course for every combination of languages. There are 81 courses in total (as I write this) and most are between English and another language. So it works fine for the most common languages, but there are many that are not covered.

Despite that limitation, I think that DuoLingo counts as a Fine Learning Tool, by all my criteria (summarised below). I can’t think of a better way to learn the basics of a language.

Criterion Comment
Short description Web or mobile application to learn a new language
Subject A wide range of languages (https://www.duolingo.com/courses/all)
Location Anywhere, depending on internet access and an appropriate device (computer, tablet or smartphone)
Appropriate for Beginner learners or those with some language skills who want to gain a practical working use of a language
Usability Easy interface, intuitive to the technology literate
Craftsmanship The apps and web site are well made and gamified, with thought given to learning processes and how the learning is “scaffolded”
Effectiveness There is independent research that asserts that these courses are effective
Cost Free