By: Pola Papadopoulou
The internet is teeming with sites that support that they can teach you how to learn a foreign language in just a short time. Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of being fluent in many languages, but I am wondering to what extent it is really possible to do such a thing online, without the help of a tutor, and if you can, how much time it takes you to achieve that goal.
As I mentioned, the number and variety of those sites are enormous. What I would like to focus on in this article is a language learning site called Duolingo. I used Duolingo as I wanted to brush up on my Italian and I thought it would be a great idea to actually start from the beginning. So instead of hiring a personal tutor again, as this is how I learned the language in the first place, I started using the program.
Getting Started with Duolingo
When I first began with Duolingo there were only four languages available to learn – Spanish, Italian, French and German. I thought that this was a bit restrictive, but at least they had what I was looking for, Italian. I can’t remember exactly when, but Portuguese and Dutch were also added in the program to learn. Duolingo was a success apparently because over 25 million people were actually using it! Do you know when there are language learning programs that advertise they are free, but after you sign in they only provide you a limited access to the learning material while they ask you to pay for the rest? What is free about that? Well, with Duolingo this is not the case. It actually allows free access to their program forever. As is mentioned in their about page in the site, the program can remain free “because you create value by translating real-world documents while you are learning”.
So, basically it goes like this: people who are interested in having their document translated turn to Duolingo. The program in its turn asks – optionally – the learners to translate the documents in the language they are learning so as to practice and then Duolingo gets back to the owner of the document in order to get paid. I find this genius. What better way both to sustain the site free for the users and to allow real-time practice for the learners?
Before giving you the rundown on the advantages and disadvantages of the program I would like to take a minute to explain the way Duolingo works. First of all, you need to create an account on www.duolingo.com by pressing on the sign up button. It’s a very easy process and takes only a minute. After you are logged in you can start by choosing the language you are interested in learning. Once you choose the language you have two options; the first one is to start from the beginning, as a completely new learner; the other is to take a placement test and according to your results pass some levels and go directly where you fit in best. I believe this is a great way to work as you get to know your own knowledge of the language – unless you are starting from scratch!
Once your level is decided you can begin learning. Imagine being in a classroom learning a new language and the teachers starts introducing you to some concepts like food, animals, plurals etc. As you progress so does your level from simpler to more complex. This is the way Duolingo works. There are various circular boxes to introduce you to each concept so by pressing on one of these you usually have one or more lessons with different exercises and questions each.
There are four types of activities that Duolingo employs; first, there is the translation from the learner’s native language to the target language and vice versa; there is also a listening exercise where the learner listens to a sentence being spoken and types in what they heard – it is possible for the learner to slow down the pace of the spoken sentence if they don’t understand all of it and it is also available to be listened to as many times as the learner wishes. A speaking exercise is offered as well, during which the learner has to read out loud a sentence in the language they are learning; and lastly, a matching exercise for vocabulary where the learner matches pictures to words and vice versa. What kept me going with Duolingo is that it is like playing a game. You have three hearts for each exercise which means that you only get three chances to get each lesson in each level right; otherwise you have to start over.
Pros and Cons of Duolingo
Now that I have explained a bit how the program works – and believe me it is way easier in practice than what I make it look like here – I would like to focus on the advantages, first, and then the disadvantages of using Duolingo. The very first and best advantage is that the program is free. Other than that:
- It is very easy to use with a pretty straightforward interface; it allows you to publish your results on Facebook – since that happens with everything nowadays – and challenges you to be a better version of yourself every day until you beat your own scores;
- It is very fun to use due to its game-like property and you might find yourself addicted to it;
- When your answer is wrong it gives you the correct one so that you know why you lost a heart;
- There is an app version as well which allows you to learn wherever you have internet connection and whenever you feel like it.
The above were just one side of the coin. There are also disadvantages to the program which, according to me, are the following:
- In terms of grammar, Duolingo does not offer any explanations whatsoever on grammatical use. To me grammar is an essential part of language learning and I believe that even though there are not direct grammar lessons, there should be a way to incorporate it along with vocabulary.
- Beginners of a new language can benefit from Duolingo up to a point. When starting with vocabulary everything seems to make sense and be easy, however, that changes when you get to more complex structures. There are words that you most likely will not use in your everyday life (such as “elephant”, “monkey” etc) and sentences that do not make sense to you and do not help you in real life situations (such as “the monkey eats the cake”).
- Another drawback I would like to mention is that during the listening exercise, and even though I support this kind of exercise when learning a language, the way the sentences are spoken is not a representative way of native people speaking that language. The machine can never really provide you with a great listening activity when it is automatic.
In conclusion, I believe that the program is easy and fun and a great way to start learning a language while you are still a beginner. However, I don’t know if I would recommend it to someone who knows the target language, but has forgotten over the years and needs to brush it up. Nevertheless, it’s up to you to decide! I would love to hear your thoughts!
Check out Duolingo here!
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