Learning languages with @Duolingo – a review

Partial screen shot of Duolingo

Partial screen shot of Duolingo

As our move to Germany is coming closer, I started to practice my German language skills again. I do speak the language, and understanding it is quite easy for a Dutchman, but some exercise is needed to become fluent. Apart from reading online news, and watching news videos, I’ve started the German language course on Duolingo.

Learning a language on Duolingo is free. The offer is slightly limited, as now you can only learn French, German, Spanish and Portuguese if you speak English, and English if you speak Spanish or Portuguese. But, for me, it’s perfect.

Starting is made very easy: you sign up, fill out a bit of your profile, select a language and start lesson 1. Even though I had German in school, speak a language that is closely related and do understand and speak German, I decided to start with the basics. A good way of repeating and getting to know the Duolingo platform.

The lesson structure is great. You learn new words, how to use them and also how to write and speak them. There’s audio, and even a record-function to let you practice speaking. After completing a lesson, you unlock the next one. For each lesson you get points, and bonus points if you make less than four mistakes. So there’s also a bit of gamification.

If you think you can skip the basics, you can skip to a test that unlocks the first levels, and lets you start at a later point in the course. If you pass that test, that is.

Obvioulsy, there are many options online to learn a language. My choice for Duolingo was not based on extensive research, but on the story behind it. The founder of Duolingo is the same guy that is behind the great innovation of reCAPTCHA. You know, that bit of internet-software that makes you fill out a ‘distorted sequence of characters’ on web forms. Originally, you could pass the I’m-not-a-robot-test by correctly typing one word, but with reCAPTCHA you had to do two. One clearly legible, the other not so much. You probably know that by doing so, you help to perfect software that is able to read scanned documents. The less legible words of reCAPTCHA are scanned words that are found to be unrecognisable by computers. The idea is that if you get many people to say which word it is, the one most mentioned is likely to be it. This same principle applies to Duolingo. The lessons are free, if you also help with translating sentences from the language you’re learning into English. Many translations, that are then rated by many people, will teach machines to translate one language to another (in my case of learning German: help translate German into English). Unfortunately, this is also the weak point of Duolingo.

Because of the limited offer of languages, I estimate that most users will choose English as their starting language. However, I also think that many users probably do speak English, but not at a sufficient level to do and rate translations. As an example of this, one translation I found that was already ‘accepted’ was the standard closing of letters. In German that is ‘Mit freundlichen Grüße’. From what I’ve seen of the English language, the correct version of that would be ‘With kind regards’. However, the accepted version on Duolingo was the more literal translation ‘With friendly regards’. Word-by-word it might seem like a correct translation, and it is rated like that by the crowd of Duolingo users, but I think it is not. Considering the fact that these translations will be used in translation software available on the web, this slightly worries me.

On the other hand, there are always nitpickers like me who will suggest an edit to that translation. So if enough people use Duolingo, we can all together make automated translations better.

Now, I’m off to my next German lesson.

Mit freundlichen Grüße!