Duolingo – my favourite app

DuolingoPardon me while I enthuse briefly about Duolingo. For the past 68 days, I have used the Duolingo app on my Google Nexus 7 every day. I’m working on my French. It’s getting to be a habit. A good habit. According to Duolingo’s statistics, over those 68 days I have used (successfully) some 1223 French words. I’ve reached, approximately, the half-way point in the 25 skill levels available. My wife says that even my pronunciation is improving. I love this app.

I’ve been working on improving my French for at least 10 years, off and on. It is one of my great regrets in life that I did not pursue French as a youth when it might have been easier and when the language might have got better secured in my still malleable brain. For some reason, I was permitted to drop French after grade 10 in high school. By the time I reached my second year of university, I knew that I’d made a big mistake. But there was no going back. Instead I decided to start from scratch with German and to learn it intensively. That did the trick. I reached a passable level of German and for a while there even carried on conversations with my wife’s unilingual German relatives.

The initial impetus to reclaim my French came when I visited France, and more especially Paris, for the first time. It was the turn of the century (the current one; I’m not that ancient). We were living in London, England, just then. I must have been thinking that it was time to start afresh. Time to make a commitment to who I wanted to be. Time to reclaim the half of my Canadian heritage that I’d admired in the past but never been able to participate in. It was time for me to learn French.

Learning a language well past the age of 30 is, frankly, hard. For me it was very hard. I don’t have a natural aptitude for language learning. And I’d already had a less than stellar history with French nearly 20 years earlier. So there were some obstacles. On the other hand, nothing greatly depended on my learning French. It was just something I wanted to do for myself. I could go at my own pace. And that is basically what I’ve done. Slowly.

Enough about me. Let’s get back to Duolingo.

I can’t say that I set about researching lots of language learning apps before I started using Duolingo. When I first got my Google Nexus 7, I looked briefly at the apps recommend on Google Play. Duolingo had two things going for it straight off. Lots of people were using it, and it was (and apparently always will be) free (as in no cost). So I gave it a whirl.

In Duolingo the user works through a learning tree from basics to intermediate to advanced. Each set of exercises centres around some aspect of the language, either grammar or vocabulary. For example, one set might be focussed on adverbs and another on clothing, or pronouns, or directions. There are four or more lessons in each exercise set. Once you successfully complete all of the lessons in a set its colour changes to gold and, usually, new (harder) exercises are unlocked. The activities in the lessons vary between translating from French to English, translating from English to French, transcribing a sentence you hear in French (I find that the hardest), and repeating a sentence in French until the software declares that you’ve got it close enough to move on. Probably nothing there that you would not expect to find in any technologically sophisticated language learning program.

So you make your way through lesson after lesson, completing exercise after exercise, probably thinking, “This isn’t so hard.” And then one day you notice that an exercise set earlier in the series, which you had completed successfully, is no longer gold. What’s this?

It’s time for revision. Duolingo determines by some algorithm that the skills you learned a week or two weeks ago may already be getting a bit rusty. Time to go back and do a lesson in order to practise your skills. Complete one such lesson successfully and the entire exercise set reverts to gold. You can move on.

The constant need for revision — call it hectoring, if you like — turns out to be exactly what I, as an older learner, need. I need to go over and over those adverbs or pronouns to get them well and truly locked in my head. And then I need to return to them in the not too distant future to deepen the grooves.

Of course once you get to the half-way mark in the learning tree, there are more and more exercise sets behind you that are going to need revision periodically. And that, inevitably, will slow your progress. But I think that’s a good thing. I feel like I’m finally getting some things secured.

My entire experience with Duolingo has been through its Android app. I now know that Duolingo is available through your web browser as well. So you definitely don’t need to wait until you get a tablet device to start enjoying Duolingo. There is also a social component to Duolingo that I have not explored. For example, a group of individuals could join Duolingo together and compete as friends in their progress through the language they are learning. That didn’t appeal to me, but it may appeal to you. And of course there are more languages than just French. You could try Portuguese, German, or Italian. Other languages will follow.

I probably won’t ever reach a level of real proficiency in French. But everything isn’t about the endpoint. It’s about the journey. Duolingo helps make the language learning journey more enjoyable. I recommend it.

Posted in technology.