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Language Learning with Duo Lingo January 30, 2014

Learning a new language takes dedication. Perhaps it’s for this reason that I never have. I don’t like conjugating verbs or rolling my r’s. The result is that I can speak a little Spanish (enough to get myself into trouble), a bit of Greek, and some Hebrew (my signature phrase is “Yesh bananot?” or “Do you have bananas?”). I can say “Yes” and “No” in Russian, French, German, Tagalog, and Klingon. But to be entirely honest, that’s the extent of my prowess.

This state of single language fluency is fairly common here in America, but far less so throughout most of the rest of the world. With nearly 7,000 spoken languages, it really isn’t surprising that, for many people, being dual-lingual or even multi-lingual is the norm. And this leaves me, sadly, at the back of the pack. When I travel, I do so in the hope that everyone I meet will be able to converse in English. Just in case they don’t, I carry a little phrase book that will allow me to point to the pre-translated version of whatever it is I think I want to say.

About twice a year, my frustration with my linguistic shortcomings reaches a peak and I rededicate myself to learning a foreign language. I’ve tried everything from traditional textbooks to immersion (which usually takes the form of cheap software which claims to be “as good as Rosetta Stone at a fraction of the cost”). I’ve used flashcards and foreign language podcasts. I’ve even tried reading familiar texts in an unfamiliar tongue. While each of these has its strengths, it usually isn’t long before I reach a roadblock and give up.

Several months ago, I heard about a new program for language learning: Duo Lingo. According to the webpage, instruction was offered in Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Portuguese. The program was entirely free and could be downloaded as an iPod app. Having received high praise from PC Magazine and The Wall Street Journal, I thought I’d give it a try.

The lessons involve a combination of image-association, speaking, writing, and translation (both from English into the language of choice and from the language of choice into English). Clicking on troublesome words brings up additional information regarding alternate translations, conjugations, and word usage, so I haven’t gotten lost, even when the learning isn’t as intuitive as I’d have liked. The program tracks when I’m struggling with specific words or syntax and reminds me to review lessons before continuing and, since the lessons are adaptive, I can’t simply memorize the material and move on. I have to internalize the lesson. This means that I’m not hitting the brick wall I’ve encountered when using other learning methods.

Each lesson takes approximately five minutes, so it can be neatly tucked into those “empty” spots in my schedule while I’m waiting in line, eating lunch, or between projects at work. The program provides “incentive” towards continued learning through a game-like interface and a link to Facebook which ensures that all of my multi-lingual friends can see my progress and cheer me on. (If you’re looking for even greater incentive, the program creators are actually using learners to help translate the World Wide Web into other languages. Click here to watch a great YouTube video which explains the process.)

With 52 levels, I’m sure it will take me some time to make it through the entire program for each of the five languages being offered, but so far, I’m impressed. I’m learning. I’m having fun. And I’m not hitting the brick wall.


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