Quick take: Learning a language with Duolingo

Since many translators are compulsive language learners–in addition to our working languages, it seems that we’re always trying to learn new ones–I thought I’d give a brief overview of my experience studying Italian with Duolingo, a free online language-learning site. If other readers have used Duolingo, I’d be interested in hearing your impressions!

The basics: Duolingo promotes itself as “the world’s most popular way to learn a language.” It’s free, and you can do the lessons on Duolingo’s website or via their app. They currently offer 23 languages (the ones you’d expect, plus surprises like Esperanto and Welsh) and their primary hook is that you study the language in very small increments–each lesson takes about five minutes to complete. Duolingo is also very gamified–whether you like that kind of thing or not. You earn badges and “lingots” (virtual jewels that can be redeemed for various bonuses on the site), and you can follow friends who also study on Duolingo. Like many other web-based learning platforms, Duolingo offers a paid version that is ad-free and allows you to download the lessons for offline use. The paid upgrades range from $5.99 to $9.99 a month, depending on how many months you pay for at once.

My purpose: I started Duolingo’s Italian course about six months ago, with the goal of being able to hold a basic conversation in Italian. I don’t aspire to translate from Italian. My family has done three bike trips in Italy, and one of my (many) big dreams is to someday do some sort of music program in Italy to further my studies on the lute (what can I say…it keeps me out of trouble). I’ve done the “Italian for Dummies” CDs, and of course the full-immersion experience when we’re there is helpful. But my goal is pretty basic: be able to have simple conversations in Italian. According to Duolingo, I’m now 40% fluent in Italian–more on this later.

The pluses: Duolingo has a lot to recommend it. It’s free, it’s fun, and it’s a pretty painless way to learn the basics of a new language. The lessons are very straightforward and well-designed, and I’ll admit that Duolingo’s gimmicks work on me (like a charm!). I really try to make good use of the little pockets of time in the day (waiting for a conference call, waiting for my daughter at guitar lessons, and so on), so as soon as Duolingo e-mails me, “Got 5 minutes? Do a lesson!” I’m on it. Duolingo offers lots of ways to reinforce what you’re learning: you can mouse over a word to hear it pronounced, or to display the equivalent in English.

The minuses: If you’re trying to learn a language for real (or somewhat for real), Duolingo also has a few downsides. First, the lessons seem to get less varied and creative as you progress up the ladder. Initially, the Italian course involved a wide variety of activities: translating from Italian to English and English to Italian in writing; sight-translating written English sentences into spoken Italian (with pronunciation analysis), matching pictures with the Italian nouns for them, and so on. But as I’ve made progress, the exercises are almost exclusively translating written Italian sentences into English. Which, if you translate French for a living and studied a little Spanish, isn’t that difficult, even if you would have no clue how to produce that sentence in Italian. It’s just not that hard to guess that the Italian verb “lavorare” means “to work,” even if you couldn’t use that verb in a sentence. So in that sense, Duolingo helps you develop passive comprehension skills more than active speaking skills.

Additionally, Duolingo’s “You are X percent fluent in…” assessment gives you a very inflated sense of your abilities, depending on how you look at it. As mentioned above, Duolingo classifies me as 40% fluent in Italian. If, by that, they mean that there’s a 40% chance that I understand an utterance in Italian, or that I’m 40% of the way to a very basic knowledge of Italian…OK. But I’m betting that many people who do Duolingo’s courses interpret that percentage as “I’m 40% of the way to speaking this language perfectly,” which is far from the case. Based on my experience, there is no way that someone who started from 0% fluent and reached 100% fluent exclusively by using Duolingo would be able to work as a translator from that language, for example.

Still, I like the fact that Duolingo really emphasizes consistent, daily practice, and that the lessons are of a length that you can absorb without feeling like your head is going to explode. I’d encourage other translators to use Duolingo to build conversational fluency; it’s free, and fun, and very engaging to use.

12 Responses to “Quick take: Learning a language with Duolingo”
  1. Tamara December 11, 2017
    • Corinne McKay December 11, 2017
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