Product Review: Duolingo

**Note** These were my views as of April 2014.  I may do an update at some point.

From time to time I hope to review language learning products- be they websites, applications, old-fashioned software, books, or other (who knows what the future holds)- to try to give my fellow polyglot consumers some guidance as to what tools to use and, just as important, to NOT use.  Of course, these are just one gal’s opinion, so take it for what it’s worth.

Product Name: Duolingo

Type of Product: Website/App

What’s it do: Let’s you learn a specific language through a semi-game like format.  You pass certain exercises, which opens new levels and vocabulary.

Languages it offers:  Currently it offers Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Portuguese.

They are working on adding (hatching as they term it) Russian, Dutch, Polish, Turkish, Hungarian, Romanian, and Irish.  All of these are in target language to English formats.

Available Formats: Website: duolingo.com

Also available as an app in the iTunes store, Amazon, and Google Play.  The website doesn’t mention Amazon, but I have it on my Kindle so there ya go.

Strengths: This format has quite a few strengths.  Here are some of my favorites:

  • IT IS FREE.
  • It offers practice in all skills- that is speaking, listening, reading, and writing.
  • It gives you a chance to help translate real articles online, contributing to the polyglot community as a whole and giving authenticity to what you are doing and learning.
  • Friends can follow you and you can compare each other’s progress and help cheer one another on.
  • The game like format, a simplistic as it is, does tend to keep you motivated.  It gives a concrete amount of practice per session and earning the gem for exercise and the trophy for each level is akin to stickers back on our grade school homework- inherently meaningless but we love them anyhow.
  • It also keeps track of your streaks or how many days in a row you practice.  It can be super motivating to see how long you can go without breaking your streak.
  • It is available on mobile devices as an app so it can easily go with you in a functional format.

Weaknesses:

  • The speaking practice grades you on your ability to imitate the inflection of the speaker, not your actual pronunciation.  (They’ll deny this if you ask them, but trust me.  I’ve done nonsense sounds with the app in the same cadence and pitches as the speaker and it has passed me.  Other times I did the correct words but in a monotone and it could not tell that it was right.)  To be fair, speech recognition software is difficult and expensive to design, so for free this is still giving you some benefit.
  • Some of the translations are awkward.  They give you an option to challenge an answer, but it will still count you wrong in the meantime.
  • This alone will not make you fluent.  The activities are very prescribed, aside from the translations, and thus are not geared toward promoting conversational speaking and writing abilities.  It is a great start for basic vocabulary and grammar, but you’ll need to seek out other options beyond that to improve.
  • You can talk with other people via forums, but the site is not set up particularly well for social networking.  It’s a start for sure and my guess this portion will improve with time, but if you are looking to meet and interact with native speakers, this is not the best format to do so.
  • No Asian languages (or African for that matter)are currently included.  (I will tend to note Russian as an European language due to its similarities with some languages in that region.)

My Overall Rating and Thoughts?

3.5 Globes out of 5

This is a GREAT site for BEGINNERS who A) are unsure where to begin and B) need to form the consistent study habits essential to quality language learning.  That said, in its current format, Duolingo only takes you a small portion of the journey.  Consider this the taxi ride to the airport, not the plane to the great land of Polyglottia.

Still the gaming set up is creative and can help keep you motivated, especially when you are first starting.  And of course, major props to the creators for managing to keep this site and app FREE which is a major plus.  Most of us Polyglots would rather spend our money on travel than stuff!

Give it a try if you are just starting out or maybe need to review a language you learned a while ago but has fallen into disuse.  It’s fun and free, so it’s worth your time.  Just plan ahead to open yourself up to more authentic language use in the future.

 

This is your trusty Polyglot Products Private Eyes, signing off.  Hope this scoop is useful to you!

 

Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 04/14/14.

 

Flashcards- Make Your Life Easier

There are a lot of differing opinions out there in regards to flashcards and language learning.  Many linguists and polyglots will say that they are not an authentic way of learning the language, and therefore should be avoided.  Others will point out that at some point memorization plays a role in all learning and flashcards can be a great tool to promote that process.

I tend to subscribe to the latter philosophy, but like many people find making and doing flashcards a bit tedious.  I also know that making and storing paper flashcards can be a pain (literal and metaphorical- damn you hand cramp!).  Not to mention at some point you are likely to have so many flashcards that the sheer number makes the idea of trying to review them overwhelming.

Technology to the Rescue!

There are Internet applications called SRS- spaced repetition systems.   These are digital flashcard systems that keep track of which cards you need to study MOST.  You create the cards, set your preferences for max number of cards per day, and review them.  The computer program randomizes the order of the cards, of course, but it also provides you with an opportunity to rate how well you remember the card.  This could be from not at all to kind of to I got this!  Based on how you rate the card, the computer then determines how long it will be until it shows you that card again.  This way the I got this! cards don’t show back up for several days, while the “Is that even a word?  Did I really type that in?” cards may return in just a few hours or even minutes for review.

The beauty of this is that after the first few days of inputting and reviewing cards, you return to a very manageable number of cards to review.  You don’t have to go through all 1001; instead, you can focus on the 50 that are really tough for you.

I personally use the Anki system.  I have it downloaded onto my computer but you can actually do everything from the web.  (In fact, if I was just starting now, this is what I would do.  Makes your cards much more portable.)  I believe they do have working interfaces for most tablets and phones so you can make your flashcards as mobile as you are.

Here are 3-4 SRS programs and their sites to check out if you think this is something you might want to try.  (By the way, they are all FREE.)

Anki: http://ankisrs.net/

Surusu: http://www.surusu.com/  The writer of the blog AJATT (All Japanese All the Time) recommends this one.  My fellow polyglot amigo who I often reference in this blog is also a user.

 

 

Mnemosyne: http://mnemosyne-proj.org/    I do not know anyone who has personally used this, but that does NOT mean it’s not a great program- check it out and see if it fits your needs.

 

 

Super Memo: http://www.supermemo.com/english/smintro.htm I am not sure if this program *technically* falls into the SRS category.  Again, I have not personally used it.  However, it does claim to be learning method to improve memorization, so it’s worth checking out.

UPDATE: Memrise is now my tool of choice and beats the rest to me in terms of versatility.  I’ll probably do a post just on how awesome they are at some point.

Flashcards AREN’T for everyone.  But if you think they’d be a valuable tool for you, I suggest making them as efficient as possible and get the most out of the time you spend reviewing.  If anyone else knows of a great SRS program that I’ve not included, please feel free to inbox me so I can let our fellow Polyglots know.

May the language force be with you… and you… and you…

 

Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 04/07/14.