I had heard about Duolingo a while ago, but until recently I hadn’t paid too much attention to it. I had tried several other online language learning platforms and hadn’t been too impressed with them, so I wasn’t expecting much this time.
Well, I was wrong. Duolingo is a great language learning tool. A fantastic learning tool.
(Before I go any further, I’d like to mention–as I usually do with my reviews–that I am not in any way affiliated with Duolingo and I don’t get any kind of compensation. These are my honest opinions.)
If you’re not familiar with Duolingo, it’s a language learning website and app. It offers courses (as of this writing) in Spanish, French, German, Brazilian Portuguese, and Italian.With whichever language you choose, you progress through a series of lessons in your “skill tree.” The lessons are set up kind of like mini-quizzes, in which you rotate through the following kinds of activities:
- Transcribe a chunk of spoken text
- Translate a chunk of spoken and written speech into English
- Translate a chunk of written text into English
- Identify all correct translations of a chunk of spoken or written text
- Identify the English meaning of a vocabulary word
- Repeat a chunk of spoken text into a microphone
- Interpret (i.e., verbally translate) a chunk of spoken text into a microphone
The lessons seem to be designed to be academic. What I mean is, the grammar and sentence constructions become progressively difficult as you go along. As is the case with Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur, you’re not explicitly taught any concepts, but the information is arranged in a way that makes it pretty easy to spot patterns and to understand what you’re supposed to be getting out of each lesson
In addition to providing you lessons, Duolingo lets you translate authentic written texts, line by line. You’ll be doing “crowdsourced” translation, in which you view others’ translations and vote on whether they’re accurate, and also provide revisions or original translations of your own.
You can jump in and get started on your own, but I discovered that it’s best to go in with a certain mindset and to make sure you do a couple things in the program that I think are essential. So here are six ways you can get the most out of Duolingo.
1. Try to win the game.
I recommend against treating Duolingo like a textbook that needs to be studied, even though its actual content covers the same content you’d get in a college foreign language course.
The developers made sure to structure the lessons as “games.” On paper, they don’t sound like very fun games, since they’re simply different forms of translation activities. But I found them fun, addicting even.
In each lesson, you get four “lives.” If you get an answer wrong, you lose a life. If you run out of lives, you have to start the lesson over again. (Update 1/25/2015–It looks like this is still the case in the timed lesson, but has changed in the regular lesson. Now in the regular lesson, you get a point added for a right answer and a point taken away for a wrong answer. To complete the lesson, you have to have scored enough total points.)
There are several ways to “win” or get ahead:
- Rack up points for completing lessons or translation tasks.
- Go up in “Level” for reaching point thresholds
- Progress farther along your skill tree.
- Get credits–called lingots–for certain accomplishments, like going up a level.
- Increase your tally of learned vocabulary words.
Also, Duolingo lets you have “friends.” You’ll be able to see all of your friends’ scores in a leaderboard. Every week, you can compete with them to see who can get the most points.
What I’m saying here is, concentrate on getting further ahead in the game and don’t make a conscious effort to “study.” I have a feeling that if you make winning the game your first goal and language-learning your secondary goal, you’ll maintain your motivation better, you’ll find the program more addictive, and you’ll let a lot of the language sink in subconsciously via repeated exposure.
If you do it right, it won’t even feel like studying.
2. Take the placement test.
If you’ve studied the language before, Duolingo doesn’t make you start their program at the very beginning. You can take a placement test and skip ahead several lessons.
Since I’ve been studying Spanish pretty seriously, I took the test and was given credit for something like 35 lessons and was assessed at a Level 9 in Spanish. That level didn’t mean anything to me (and still doesn’t, I guess) but I was able to bypass all of the stuff I already knew.
I was a little worried that there was content I had missed by jumping ahead, but Duolingo is pretty good about reusing old material and concepts in later lessons. Also, you still have access to those lessons, so you can always go through and do them on your own.
3. Click “Discuss Sentence” if you don’t understand something.
Let’s say you’re in the middle of a lesson and get a question wrong. If you don’t understand why, look for the “Discuss Sentence” link and click it. A discussion forum for the question opens up.
Usually, you’ll see that someone has already asked your question and the answer is waiting for you.
If that’s not the case, go ahead and ask your question. Someone will answer it or point you in the right direction.
4. Review old lessons often.
After I took the Spanish placement test and jumped ahead, I blew through all remaining Spanish lessons in about a week. That’s a little faster than most people, I think, but I was truly addicted.
Now I’m going through old lessons again. With regards to the game, this helps me continue racking up points and keeps my vocab marked as “strong.” (If you don’t study words for a while, they lose their “strength” in the game.)
With regards to language learning, this is beneficial for spaced repetition and helping sink a lot of these words and concepts in your long-term memory.
5. Try timed lessons.
If you earn 25 lingots, you can use them to purchase the Timed Practice option in the Duolingo store.
Then you’ll be able to race against a clock as you complete your lessons. Time, as it tends to do, adds a new dimension to things. The rush makes things more challenging, and being put on the spot reminds me of the demands of live conversation.
6. Don’t rely on Duolingo alone.
I’m sure that you could nitpick Duolingo’s language teaching methodology.
And if you were to try to use Duolingo and Duolingo alone, would you learn a new language fluently? Probably not.
But that could be said of literally any activity. If you were only to read, or watch TV, or speak with a friend, or take a class, you’d have a hard time becoming fluent. But no one expects you to do only one thing. Each activity has its purpose.
The same is true for Duolingo. It’s another tool in your language learning tool box. You don’t have to spend time with it and nothing else. I mean, it’s not like you’re exclusively dating.
Give these tricks a try. If you have any of your own, leave them in the comments. And be sure to friend me at www.duolingo.com/LangSurfer.