Let me start by saying, I’ve self taught myself at least four languages. Arguably, I think that makes me a pretty good authority on the topic of language autodidacting. Furthermore, I actually did my undergraduate education in the Spanish Language…so I’ve done my fair share of Spanish teaching. That said, Duolingo.com is so quality, that it actually makes me wish I was born later so that I could have taken advantage of it at 15. You’ll learn more in the bathroom than you learned in 3 years of high school Spanish.
There have always been a few language learning applications on the market, but in my opinion none of them seem to have ever really understood how to capture the student’s interest. Language learning has to be fun, and has to provide instant gratification for the user. For me, I used music, and translated lyrics until I understood what was going on. Applications like Rosetta Stone never did that for me. In fact, I’ve always found it easier to actually break a language apart and reassemble it, then have Rosetta Stone try to force feed me pictures of horses and women swimming.
Then came Duolingo. With a tiny staff and rather small amount of VC they’ve created a product leaps and bounds more effective than Rosetta Stone…and it’s fun. The social component creates a healthily competitive environment. It’s similar to having a language learning gym buddy to keep you motivated. The software is very well written, almost entirely bug free, and very elegantly designed. But more than that, it actually works. I have up until now been very pessimistic when people have suggested to me they wanted to learn another language. I’ve seen many try, and almost everyone fail. The barrier to entry to a new language has always been so high, until Duolingo.com came along.
That said, it’s definitely not without it’s uncomfortable moments. I can with some authority now say that I can call your daughter round, and that your wife is perfect. At some times I felt like I was in fact learning how to hit on women in French, and then was awarded a trophy for my hard work. That said, I was able to do so both at my desktop, which is much more comfortable and allows the user to press enter after every lesson. Or awkwardly on public transport from my iPhone, which after some time did start start to get a little uncomfortable on my hands.. and strange looks. This does lead to my one gripe with the product, for some reason out of nowhere the voice recognition will stop detecting…mostly anything. This has on multiple occasions led to me repeating awkward phrases like “My elephant is eating some good wine” in French over and over again on the train. I don’t think the pronunciation software actually detects anything as of now, but that probably honestly doesn’t matter, as in reality just trying to pronounce words helps. I can attest to this, as I am very good at talking about my pet éléphant.
Moving between the Desktop and Mobile versions is really seamless, anything short of mid-lessons seems to sync instantly. A frustrating component is that it does seem to randomly add new lessons to skills, ostensibly in order to help re-freshen these basic skills. But in reality it’s just annoying. As anyone who has played a well designed video games knows, you don’t want to redo the early game quests later on, you want new quests. The algorithm really should build these early lessons in to the later lessons to help you compound your knowledge. Making you go back and relearn old material is just frustrating and creates a perceived “uphill battle”. That said…these are some pretty minor complaints. Duolingo is fantastic, and I’m actively pushing it to everyone I know who has always been interested in learning another language. Then…prodding them by actively watching their progress :-D.
Finally, I know there is a translation/immersion section, which is aiming to translate large quantities of the internet. From what I understand that is actually a core component of the ‘vision’ of duolingo.com, to translate the internet. Honestly, I don’t quite understand what’s going on there, and I’m actually really hoping that they monetize the product and get the resources necessary to expand into a number of harder to find languages. I know as a matter of fact how big the Language learning industry, and how bad language schools need a commercial version of Duolingo that allows them to closely monitor student progress. There is nothing wrong with making money, and I’m hoping that Duolingo builds a commercial product sooner rather than later so that I can get some Russian and Vietnamese lessons.