For dual reasons (appropriately enough) I have made myself a commitment to pursue several months of language lessons on Duolingo, which describes itself as “the free science-based language education platform that has organically become the most popular way to learn languages online.”

That’s just marketeering. Let’s try turning it into English: Duolingo is an interactive web-based tool (and iPhone app) that provides lessons in many different languages. The commitment I made is to use it for at least the period from January through June, so I’m almost halfway right now. In particular, I’ve been refreshing my knowledge of Norwegian, Esperanto, and Turkish.

“Why,” you might ask, “would anyone do such a thing?” Am I, you wonder, going to Norway any time soon? To Turkey? To Esperantoland? What’s up?

Well, no. As far as I know, I am not going to Norway, nor Turkey, nor even Esperantoland. The truth is that I will be offering a June Academy course tentatively titled “Five Languages in Five Days.” Click the second of these links to see the course description, but more about that in a later post. Here I just wanted to explain my first reason for using Duolingo: I am simultaneously working my way through lessons in Norwegian, Esperanto, and Turkish (usually a little bit of each language each day) in order to review my woefully rusty knowledge in preparation for teaching this course in June.

Yes, Duolingo does offer courses in all three of these languages, along with dozens of others. I’m on my own for language #4, at least if I stick to Ancient Greek as my choice. (But if I switch to Hungarian, I can use Duolingo — along with some aid from my Hungarian colleague — for that language as well. Ancient Greek does have the advantage that I studied it for six years and it is filled with English etymological opportunities; Hungarian has the advantage that it is spoken today and Duolingo has lessons in it, but unfortunately I don’t know any Hungarian.) Since language #5 will be an individual student choice, there’s no way I can study for that.

I wrote at the top that I have dual reasons for trying Duolingo, where the first is to prepare myself for June Academy, and the second is… Well, the other is just to see what I think of Duolingo itself. The only way to get a truly informed view is to try it — in depth. And the interim report is mixed: I’d say so far, so good, with a few mostly nit-picking exceptions and one big one. I like the grammatical explanations and the mixture of exercises, which form a nice combination of open-response translation into the target language, open-response translating into English, identifying pictures, fill-in-the-blank, multiple-choice, transcribing dictation, oral comprehension, speaking, and so forth. My minor issues at this point are that Duolingo is occasionally inflexible about alternative but equally good translations (though it’s a lot less rigid than I would have expected) and that I think it’s sometimes just plain wrong. The big issue is that no passage is longer than a single short sentence! There’s absolutely no sense of discourse, of conversational or literary flow. Even a single question-and-answer interchange is nowhere to be found, and there are certainly no entire conversations. The result is a distorted view of language, where the largest unit appears to be the sentence. Given Duolingo’s constraints as a web or iPhone app, I’m not sure what could be done about this, but it’s definitely a problem.

I’ll have more to say in a couple of months, after I’m done with my prep work. If all goes well, I’ll try it with my students.

Categories: Linguistics, Teaching & Learning, Technology, Weston