Duolingo–the Fun Way to Fluency


Those people who get to know me often remember at least one fact–that I am fluent in 5 different foreign languages:   Spanish, French, German, Japanese, and Chinese.     The most frequent question I get asked is not how I learned them all, but how do I remember them all.

Compared to real polyglots like Benny Lewis, author of the blog about language learning called “Fluent in 3 Months”, my ability is pretty modest.    But the way to learn and remember foreign languages is to use them as often as possible.    So if possible, using them on a daily basis would be the best practice.   But if you are working a regular job in an all-English environment, and you don’t have access to the money you need to travel abroad, how can you learn and retain a foreign language?

There are various language-learning software programs like Rosetta Stone, but the one free app you can download to your smartphone or tablet that will help you learn and retain a foreign language is Duolingo.    It was developed by Carnegie Mellon University professor Luis von Ahn with the idea of creating a way of crowd sourcing translations.   The app to learn the languages would be offered for free, and those who felt a certain degree of confidence in their language ability would be encouraged to try their hand at translating articles between the foreign language they are learning and their native language.

The result ended up being an essentially free foreign-language learning platform for English speakers to learn one of the following European languages:

  • Spanish
  • French
  • German
  • Italian
  • Portuguese

There are 25 language levels, and you will probably be close to the B2 level of fluency, which is upper-intermediate, by the time you are completed.     I myself am at around level 12 or 13 for all five languages.    Spanish, French, German, which I studied to review them, and Italian and Portuguese, which I studied for the first time with Duolingo.

Why is it popular?   Because the language is not broken down into lessons, but rather units of skills, such as Basics, Verbs, Adjectives, Colors, Numbers, etc.    For each skill, there are a series of lessons that introduce various vocabulary and/or grammar points.   For each lesson within a skill, you answer a series of questions and try to complete all 15-20 questions correctly.   You start out with 3 “lives” that are represented by hearts at the top right of your screen.   If you get an answer wrong, you lose a “life” and one of the hearts disappears.    If you lose all of your lives before the questions run out, you “lose” and have to start the lesson over.    If you win, then you complete that lesson and move onto to the next one.    After one row of skills is complete, you go on to the next one.

But what if you already know a language to a certain extent?   Do you have to start from square one?   No, you can try to test out of a particular skill, or even a particular set of skills, if you want to try to skip over material that you already know well.    That’s what I did with Spanish, French, and German.

There are various achievements called “lingots” that you get for completing all questions without losing a single life, or for having a “streak” of having played the Duolingo app once every day for at least 10 days.   Right now, I’m on a streak that has lasted 228 days–for all five languages!    It takes me about one half-hour to do a single set of exercises for all five languages.    The fact that it is fun, and that you get achievement awards for every small “win” along the way to fluency, are some of the reasons why I have kept up with it so long.

If you get a question wrong, there is a comment section which will contain the reason why you got the question wrong.    These comments are usually written by native speakers who are experts at the language you are trying to learn.    So any grammar points that you are stuck on get answered in the context of particular examples you are trying to learn.    The questions that are asked can vary from filling in the blanks from multiple choices (the easiest kind of question to answer) to doing a translation of a sentence from your native language to the target language you are studying (the hardest kind of question to answer).    If you get an accent wrong, or even make a single typo, the program is forgiving of those kind of mistakes.    But if you make a mistake that changes the meaning of the sentence grammatically, it will be marked wrong.

You can follow friends, or have them follow you, to have “contests” to see how many points you can rack up during the week.   I really follow my own pace of doing one skill in each of five languages every day, which during a busy week may be all that I have time for.   However, on the weekend, if I’m close to going up a level in a particular language, I may do a half-hour or more on that particular language.    But the minimum I always do is one skill per language so I don’t forget what I learned.    Doing a little bit each day is better for learning and retaining a foreign language than studying once a week for a long time.

If you are trying to learn a foreign language, or you are trying to review a language you’ve already learned, then try Duolingo, download it to you smartphone or tablet, and start learning!    Other languages are being developed, so you may be able to study other languages in the future–so stay tuned!

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