Duolingo: crowd sourced language-learning that’s simple, effective and free

duolingoTHE ABILITY to speak a foreign language has long been touted as one of those invaluable skills that has many benefits and no real drawbacks to speak of. To us students, this is especially true. Adding bilingualism to our skill set boosts our employability, and gives us a wider range of locations around the globe that we can choose to work and live in. It enhances our travel experiences, allowing us to more easily immerse ourselves in the different societies and cultures that we visit.

But for those of us who don’t study a language as part of our university degree, finding the time to learn alongside everything else going on at university can be difficult. Online courses are often preferable to in-person ones as you can progress through them in your own time. But the cost of many of these pieces of software can put people off. Companies like Rosetta Stone and Babbel either sell expensive learning packages or charge a monthly fee. Duolingo is, to some, the perfect response to all of these qualms and more.

First and foremost, it’s free and always will be. Users can register an account within seconds and log in from anywhere; through either a web browser or an application for mobile devices. They can then pick a language to start learning and get cracking right away. Different areas of vocabulary and grammar are divided into a variety of categories, which are sorted into a skill tree which you can progress through step-by-step. The individual lessons and tests within these categories take between one and two minutes to get through, and offer user-driven explanations and discussions of confusing grammar technicalities.

Duolingo also utilises a ‘gamified’ approach to learning. Gamification as a concept is not necessarily anything new, but has risen in popularity since around 2010. It is essentially the implementation of game-mechanics into something which is not a game (in the case of Duolingo, an educational tool). Concepts such as gaining experience points and levelling up are applied to make use of our natural desire to achieve statusduolingolessons and to compete with others. The result is a user-experience which is thoroughly engaging and just a little addictive.

Okay, so you’ve accumulated enough experience points to finally ascend to Level 3 in French. Congratulations! But it’s so much more satisfying to compete with your friends. Luckily, finding pals that use Duolingo is painless, as you can link your Facebook account to discover which of your contacts are also keen language-learners.
A study carried out in 2012 by City University of New York and the University of South Carolina compared the effectiveness of Duolingo compared to other language-learning software such as Rosetta Stone. Its results showed that Duolingo users would take on average about 34 hours to reach the ability level of a college student who’d taken approximately 130 hours of classes. It took Rosetta Stone students between 55 and 60 hours to reach this level. Whilst it’s dangerous to take too much from this study, especially as it was commissioned by Duolingo in the first place, I do think that the way that the Duolingo system fosters motivation and persistence really helps to get students committed to the language-learning process.

However, as with anything there are a few elements of Duolingo that are potentially problematic. The learning process for writing and general comprehension are wonderful, but I do think that Duolingo struggles to give users a grounding in actually speaking the language that they’re attempting to learn. Of course, no language-learning software can truly be a substitute for actual conversation with native speakers, but I think that more speaking exercises could be implemented. There are some already, which utilise the microphone of your laptop, phone or tablet, but they pop up quite rarely in comparison to written translation and comprehension tests.
Additionally, I’m not sure to what extent the gamification of language-learning actually helps to keep beginners motivated. I’d studied French throughout school and college so used the software as more of a means of practising, and even when I started Spanish from scratch I had a bit of a head start as I was familiar with common grammar rules found in Romance languages. A complete beginner might struggle initially with tricky things like genders and verb conjugations, unless they have the initiative to utilise the community discussion posts attached to each exercise.

I have to say that, despite my abounding love for Duolingo, if you’re serious about adding another language to your skill set and are an absolute novice then you probably shouldn’t view it as a standalone method. That’s not to say that you have to go out and purchase lessons or loads of books. There are plenty of online resources which are totally free and offer the level of sophisticated grammar education which you need to comprehensively understand the way that a language works.

With ever increasing membership levels, currently sitting at over 25 million, you might question how Duolingo can continue to offer a free service to users. In fact, its plan for continued viability is really quite impressive. There are a whole host of translation exercises that users can attempt in order to practice their skills, and other users can correct errors if needs be. These texts are in fact real-life articles that companies have paid Duolingo to have translated. Recently, web giant Buzzfeed (the website behind all of those quizzes swarming Facebook at the moment) has entered into a contract with the company to use its translation services to expand its international sites. One way of looking at it is that you sort of work for Duolingo, and that your compensation is free language learning.

This utilisation of manpower in exchange for a service is not a foreign concept to Duolingo co-founder and CEO Luis von Ahn, who was responsible for creating reCAPTCHA, a new take on the CAPTCHA test which sees if computer users are human to protect websites from spam. This redesigned version actually helps to digitise old books through identifying words that only the human eye can do.

The only problem with the translations for me, and I’m sure many others, is that they can actually be quite hard. That’s always going to happen, as real-life texts are much more complex and idiomatic than phrases that have been preset by Duolingo for you. That said, it does give you a realistic expectation of how the language you’re learning is actually used by its native speakers, and if you mess up your translation then there’s always a more experienced user who’ll happily swoop in and correct it for you.

duolingoprogressAs of today, the languages that Duolingo offers to English speakers are French, Spanish, German, Italian and Portuguese. However, the company has taken the same crowdsourcing model that it uses to stay profitable and applied it to its expansion of courses. Bilingual users can use the ‘Incubator’ to contribute to courses that are in the process of being developed, which are eventually released in Beta and then in full. Currently in the works are Russian, Hungarian, Romanian, Polish, Turkish and Dutch (for English speakers), and a whole host of English courses for speakers of other languages. Just last month, Duolingo announced its plans to create a standardised language test that users can take for $20, as opposed to the usual figure which can go into the hundreds.

Crowd sourcing definitely has a promising future, even more so as internet access expands across the globe. It’s great to see that its found its place in educational tools as well, and Duolingo seems to be primed for even more growth as its ‘Incubator’ churns out more and more different language courses for people to make use of. I for one hope to make great strides with Spanish over the summer.

For the particularly interested, check out ‘Shit Duolingo Says’ on Twitter (@shitduosays) for some hilarious examples of randomly generated translation exercises. Highlights include: Eres el rey del petróleo (you are the king of petroleum), debes eliminar al testigo (you have to eliminate the witness), and my personal favourite – você precisa sair daqui antes que chegue o meu marido (you need to get out of here before my husband arrives). If that doesn’t inspire you to get learning on Duolingo, I don’t know what will.