If you haven’t heard about it already, Duolingo is a free language learning website created by Luis von Ahn (whose genius was discussed in one of Josian’s earlier blogs).
The concept of Duolingo came about when Luis was pondering the issue of how to translate the internet into various languages without incurring any costs. At the same time he was also reflecting on how many bi-lingual people there were in the world and how many people were actually interested in learning a foreign language. He discovered that language learning was very popular indeed but that courses could sometimes be prohibitively expensive, making language learning for fun the domain of those who have money left over at the end of the month. Then came the Eureka moment (we can’t be sure if he was in the bath when this happened as he doesn’t say). Luis realised that, if people can learn languages through translation, and if they practiced on actual pages of the internet, he could potentially translate the whole internet for free!
And so there you have it: Duolingo! Sign up for free and learn a language whilst helping to translate the internet. I know what you’re thinking, it’s too good to be true, but it’s not, I assure you. I decided to go online and put it to the test myself. To make my test as fair as possible I decided to learn a language that I know nothing about, German. The only thing I know (or should I say knew) how to say in German was “ich liebe dich”, “I love you”, and it’s not the most useful phrase for business purposes.
Learn for Free!
During the lessons, you are asked to translate short phrases from English to German and from German to English. To ensure that you also get listening practice, you are asked to listen to a phrase and write it in German. You’d be amazed at how easily you can do this after only a few lessons. If you have a microphone on your computer, you can also practice speaking using technology that still seems very Sci-Fi to me, even in 2013. I was genuinely stunned at how the speech recognition software managed to recognise what I said in German, not least because of my pitiful German accent. It is best however to do the speaking activities when there is no-one about to overhear you shouting “ICH BIN EIN JUNGE!” (I am a boy) at your computer
What I particularly like about Duolingo (apart from the fact that it’s free) is that, even though the lessons are all online, help is still at hand. If you get stuck on a question, you can start an online discussion with other users and native speakers, which is a nice touch. I also like the optional element of competition. If you decide to learn German with a friend, you can watch each other’s progress to see who has earned the most points and who is slacking. As we are all well aware, motivation is the key when learning a new language and a bit of healthy competition between you and a friend or partner might be just the job.
Once you get a little proficient with the language, Duolingo starts putting your new found knowledge to good use. With the help of an online dictionary, which allows you to hover over words to see their translation, you are presented with paragraphs of text from the internet. You are then asked if you agree with the translation which already exists (which will have been entered by another student). If you can see a way that the translation can be improved, Duolingo gives you the chance to make the necessary changes. This is where the “crowdsourcing” really comes into its own. Each paragraph of text is shown to a number of students and the translation is honed and polished until a remarkably accurate translation is finalised for the web.
One thing I don’t like about Duolingo is the timed practice. Sometimes the little green owl mascot, who hosts the classes, pops up in a sweat band and tries to get you to do a test against the clock. This gets me incredibly stressed even though I know it’s not an exam and I signed up voluntarily to learn German for fun. Getting all the questions answered in the allotted time is as much a test of your typing speed and your ability to work under pressure, as it is of your language abilities.
Stick to Berlitz for holidays…
I would also say that the usefulness of the course depends on what you need to learn the language for. If you are heading out on holiday to Germany in the next couple of weeks, then Duolingo is not for you. It doesn’t start with the holiday basics like “I have a reservation” and “Excuse me, where are the toilets?”. The Duolingo method reminds me of other courses like the popular Michel Thomas audio CDs, where the emphasis is on providing you with the sentence structure first. Once you have the structure, the framework of a sentence, you are presented with the vocabulary to change within it. It’s a much more long-term method of language learning which won’t be that helpful to you if you’re popping off for a long weekend in Berlin.
I urge you to give it a try, if only for the selfless satisfaction of translating a bit of the web for future generations. There’s no doubt that with time and effort Duolingo will help you to become a skilled linguist, until then, you can always call Brightlines for all of your translation needs!