Learning a new language can be one of the most difficult tasks you could undertake, but it’s also one of the more rewarding educational experiences possible. You’ll have to relearn that you think to really be able to speak a language fluently, but then, you’ll get to open your horizons to a whole new world of media and society with your newfound language skills.
If only learning languages was easier, perhaps more of us would give it a try. I personally moved from the US to Thailand when I was 11. I was fully immersed in Thai, and yet even at that young age, I found it extremely difficult to learn Thai. Over a decade later, I still struggle to sound anything like natural in Thai.
There’s no way we can make learning a language as simple as installing a new app in our brains, but perhaps innovative apps could make the task a bit simpler and more fun. That’s exactly what Duolingo set out to do.
Start Learning While You’re Signing Up
Duolingo is an interesting new web app designed to help you easily learn a new language, while helping translate the web at the same time. It sounds, perhaps, like a far-fetched idea, but after using Duolingo for a bit, it seems a much more plausible idea than you might have imagined. The Duolingo team has gone out of their way to make their app simple and fun to use. It’s educational from the start, and makes learning how to use the app itself part of the process of getting started learning a new language.
But we’d best start from the beginning. Duolingo is currently in private beta, so you’ll have to signup and wait for an invite email to get started learning a new language. Then, you can currently only use Duolingo to learn Spanish or German, or, vise-versa, to learn English if you’re a Spanish speaker. The team plans to add more languages in the near future, but we’d expect this type of language learning tool will work best with European languages, since you can learn to type them without much extra practice, unlike, say, Chinese or Thai.
Once you have an invite, signing up is simple. You’ll need to create an account, as you’d expect, but then you’ll end up adding more info about yourself throughout the intro lesson. It’ll get you to activate your microphone via Flash player, and find out your hometown, all while teaching you naturally to use the app and get started learning the language of your choice. It’s easily one of the nicest signup processes we’ve ever come across, and while it will take a few minutes, it won’t feel as frustrating as most and will actually give you something for your effort.
If you’ve ever tried to learn a new language, you might have already found the most common ways to learn languages. Duolingo does away with most of that. Sure, it teaches you how to say “Hello, my name is ____” first just like you might expect, but everything else is different. First, with most sentences it shows you in the language you’re learning, it’ll automatically read the sentence out-loud to you so you can hear how a native speaker would say the words. Next, you can hover over any words used in a lesson to see their translation. The first, most likely correct definition will be shown first, but you can see other options by clicking the down arrow on the definition popup.
Then, as you keep going, you’ll almost immediately end up translating sentences to and from the language you’re learning. We’d usually think of translation as a pro skill, something you’d do when you’ve already nearly mastered a language. Not with Duolingo. They work on the idea that using the language is the best way to learn it, and have you jump in from the start. It’s not hard, though. First, you can always get hints by hovering over words, but don’t rely on that too much. I was actually surprised that I learned a few words in Spanish (in writing, at any rate) just by playing with the app for the review. Then, you can easily type the special characters needed, as Duolingo has extra small buttons under the textbox so you can easily grab them even on a standard English keyboard.
It’s not a game, it just looks like one
Duolingo tries to make learning languages fun as well. Your main dashboard looks like a in-game map, showing the levels you need to complete. Once you’ve completed a lesson set, you can choose your own path for what vocabulary area you want to learn next. Or, if you’re already somewhat good at a language, you can unlock shortcuts by passing a comprehension test. You’ll gain coins as you finish exercises and help translate, and can even compare your high scores with your Facebook friends. Now, really, you shouldn’t need virtual coins to motivate you to learn, but if you’re going to waste a few minutes on a Facebook game anyhow, might as well use that bit of time instead to learn a language. Plus, competing with your friends to learn it faster just might make your learning process more enjoyable.
Each individual lesson includes specially written lessons that teach you vocabulary and sentence structure, and get you to translate and write in the new language right from the start. You’ll also be able to pick from several pieces of web content that you’d like to help translate to gain experience and coins. You can then also ask questions on the lesson page, or browse through other user’s questions and answers to learn more on your own.
Translating the Internet, One Lesson at a Time
The translation exercises themselves can be rather interesting. You’ll be translating individual sentences from actual online articles, picked by Duolingo based on the words you’ve already learned and your skill level. Translation can be a learning experience too, as you’ll find new vocabulary you might need to use the definition popup to help you with. If a sentence has several words you’ve never studied, Duolingo may open a message asking if you’d like to study the words before translating. Once you’re done, you can look at other user’s translations, and Duolingo will also compare the accuracy of your translation to others. It’s a unique social way to learn a language, right from your browser, using relevant content and helping translate the internet at the same time.
Learning a secondary language is always a helpful asset, especially in our globalized society today. It gives you more chances to work and socialize with a wider range of people, and can help you think more about your own language and how to express thoughts clearly. After learning Thai myself, I’ve always felt that people who have never tried to learn a foreign language are missing out on one of the most challenging yet rewarding educational experiences available. Americans especially are very lax at learning foreign languages, so it’d be great to see apps like Duolingo help reverse that trend.
Do you already speak a second or third language, or would you be interested in using an app like Duolingo? We’d love to hear your thoughts about learning languages, naturally or with apps like this, in the comments below.