Android App Review: Duolingo

Duolingo is a free app that helps you learn one of several European languages. It gives you lessons in incremental chunks, and rewards you for your progress much like a video game.

The app gives you the choice of learning Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Italian, or English (I chose to learn French because my girlfriend is taking lessons at the moment, and so now it’s obviously a competition).

You learn through a mixture of writing what you hear, saying what you read, and translating between English and French. Each chapter focuses on a few parts of language, and builds on previous ones.

Duolingo uses the time-honoured teaching technique of taking something that looks like work, and disguising it as something fun. In this case, it pretends that your language lessons are actually levels of a video game.

You have a set of hearts in the corner that you lose if you make mistakes, and a leaderboard to show you how you’re doing compared to others.

By completing the first set of questions I earned 13 experience points, and a small fanfare played. I’m also pretty sure I know the words for ‘girl’ and ‘woman’. But more importantly, I now have 13 experience points!

I haven’t taken and proper lessons in language since third form Japanese, so I can’t really compare Duolingo’s teaching techniques to those of actual teachers.

But my girlfriend is studying French at university, and the app kept her entertained and challenged too (although she skipped ahead a few chapters – Duolingo is set up so that people who are beyond novice level can take ‘shortcuts’ and don’t have to trudge through the early stages).

Duoloingo also has a website where you can sign in get access to a few extra things like forums and what they call ‘Immersion’ – basically reading French stuff from the internet and translating it.

You can, of course, do this on your own, but like many self-improving habits it’s a lot more likely to happen if you’re being prompted by some external source.

This app claims to be more effective than a semester of university study (you can see details of their independent study here), but realistically it comes down to you. You’re not going to learn another language unless you want to, and you’re willing to work for it.

But if you are, then Duolingo’s incremental reward-based system seems like a fun way to do it, or at least a nice supplement to some other form of learning.

Whether I eventually become fluent in French remains to be seen, but I’m enjoying it enough that I’ll keep playing at least until I get some more experience points.

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