As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been going back over Duolingo lessons again and trying to keep my skill tree golden.
After I got tired of completing lessons, I clicked the “Immersion” button, which took me to a list of articles needing to be translated. I gave a couple a look, felt completely lost, and then x’d out. I could recognize most of the words, but the texts were gibberish to me. Even though I had just passed a test rating me as having advanced-low proficiency in reading German, it was as if I hadn’t even studied German before.This isn’t the first time this has happened to me. I’ve tried and failed with Duolingo’s translation feature before. The reason I can’t do them?
It’s because Duolingo often uses Wikipedia articles for its Immersion/translation exercises. And Wikipedia articles are not appropriate for language learners.
This isn’t a dig against Wikipedia
I know it’s been popular in the past to bash on Wikipedia. But that’s not what I’m doing here. Wikipedia is a great resource.
People have devoted time and effort to make sure the articles are up to snuff. They’re generally grammatically correct and free of typos, and these days the information is pretty accurate. Articles are also heavily sourced, so if something doesn’t seem right, you can easily find the original documents and make your own determinations.
Also, Wikipedia is free, which makes information accessible to people from all walks of life. A kid in any town with a library or Internet cafe can read about whatever topics he or she has an interest in.
It’s just too hard
The problem is that Wkipedia texts are hard. This means that if you’re learning a language:
- You won’t get much out of them.
- You’ll feel frustrated.
- You may even feel demoralized to the point where you just say, ah, I’m not even close–I give up.
Okay, so you know how I said not too long ago not to worry too much about text levels? This is one time where I think you should, at a minimum, be aware of how challenging Wikipedia really is.
An article at “The Scholarly Kitchen” discusses how Wikipedia is too difficult even for native speakers. It reads:
“A study in 2010 of cancer information on Wikipedia found that while the information was as accurate as that in a professionally curated database, its advanced reading demands made it much less accessible (the professional database required about a 9th grade reading level, while Wikipedia’s cancer information required about a college sophomore’s reading skills).”
You can (and should) read the article for the full details, including a link to the study. But the gist of it is that Wikipedia texts are getting so difficult that they’re losing their value for explaining concepts to non-technical audiences.
If you think about it, it makes sense. Who’s writing these articles? People who have an intense interest in the subject. They’re naturally going to use specialized jargon. Also, as a technical writer, I can vouch for the fact that experts, in spite of their intellect, are not always going to be the best communicators.
Take this excerpt from a Wikipedia article, for example. It’s from the entry for “Violin,” a relatively simple topic about an instrument we’re all familiar with:
“The purfling running around the edge of the spruce top provides some protection against cracks originating at the edge. It also allows the top to flex more independently of the rib structure. Painted-on faux purfling on the top is usually a sign of an inferior instrument. The back and ribs are typically made of maple, most often with a matching striped figure, referred to as flame, fiddleback, or tiger stripe.”
I mean, as an educated native English speaker, I get the gist of what’s trying to be said. Also, for the most part, this paragraph is written fine. Yet since I don’t play the violin, I have no frame of reference for purfling or flames (or its equivalents, fiddlebacks and tiger stripes). So this paragraph ultimately doesn’t mean anything to me.
Imagine how difficult, tiring, and frustrating this paragraph would be for someone who’s trying to learn English?
My advice for language learners: Stay away from Wikipedia. Run. Read literally anything else.
If you want to study a topic, such as violins, find a book on violins–preferably a book written for older children or teenagers.
If you’re learning English, one Wikipedia resource you might try is Simple English Wikipedia. These are articles written in simple English–even Wikipedia is aware that its texts have become too heavy–and are much, much more appropriate for language learners.
I haven’t been able to find the equivalent of Simple English Wikipedia for other languages, but if you have, please let me know.