Learning a new language from scratch is a massive undertaking: getting started with basic words and phrases is a common approach, but leaping beyond these ordinary words to a solid understanding of grammar and pronunciation requires dedication and a lot of practice, particularly for adults. This is often so much to ask that the new language is quickly set aside, turning something that should be a fun and rewarding challenge into a boring chore that’s easy to put off.
Duolingo is a free Web site and app designed to solve this problem. Providing quality Spanish, English, French, German, Portuguese, and Italian lessons for free (more on the business model later), with some very modern teaching styles and a sleek, fun interface on both the iPhone and Web, Duolingo is helping to provide free language education for the world.
I’ll be taking a holiday this August to the Spanish Costa Blanca. For the last few weeks, I’ve been using Duolingo to brush up my rusty Spanish skills — I studied Spanish at secondary school from 2005 to 2009, but haven’t spoken a word of it in the past four years.
Anyone who has ever taken up a second language as an adult will agree that mastering the pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar nuances present in foreign tongues is an almost overwhelming task. Having researched other online and application-based language learning tools (such as the well-respected Rosetta Stone suite), I was put off by a combination of high price and high requirements: running an expensive software package designed primarily for use on a desktop computer feels like a last-century solution when my iPhone has a remarkably good microphone and is always at hand for practice.
Learning the Lingo -- Duolingo gets it. There is no clunky software to install or manage: all learning is done either in your Web browser or in the free iPhone app. This is important: having a language learning tool accessible from wherever you are — as is the case with the iPhone — is invaluable. Got 10 minutes to kill whilst waiting for a friend? Simply open up the app and do a few exercises. You’ll be surprised at how little work is necessary to hone your abilities.
This toe-dipping, short-session approach brings me to the format of the lessons themselves. Duolingo uses a popular approach to learning dubbed “gamification”, whereby points are obtained for completing each lesson, making the language acquisition process feel like a game. Whilst gamification can certainly be taken too far, such as some rather in-your-face apps which turn to-do lists into games, I find Duolingo’s approach of leveling up, losing hearts (or lives, just like in many popular video games) for incorrect answers, and practicing against the clock is a compelling and effective learning mechanism.
Duolingo presents the learning structure as a “skill tree,” pictured below. Each lesson is akin to a level in a game, taking just a few minutes to complete. In order to access harder levels, learning more vocabulary and grammar, you must first complete the basics. As an ex-Spanish speaker looking to re-familiarise myself with the language, this was a great way to recap what I already knew before challenging myself with more complicated vocabulary and rules.
Each branch of the skill tree is made up of a few levels, which in turn are composed of exercises. These exercises vary in type and difficulty — ranging from correctly matching an image from a group to a foreign word all the way to correctly speaking a sentence in your language of choice. I estimate that each exercise takes roughly 20 seconds to complete, with a lesson taking around 5 minutes. This is the perfect length to encourage regular practice — a key aspect of language learning.
The design aesthetic behind Duolingo (just like the skill-tree learning approach) is modern and compelling. Whilst almost all my time has been spent using the iPhone app, the Web site is arguably more technically impressive: using an advanced suite of modern Web technologies to deliver a rich experience complete with quality foreign spoken languages, images, and voice recognition. However, I still find the experience of the iPhone app far surpasses that of the Web site, so I recommend starting out there if you have any reservations about giving this service a try.
Show Me the Green? -- By this point, you’re probably asking yourself how this impressive product makes money, considering that it’s completely free to sign up and use. The answer is both beautiful and ingenious: each Duolingo user is actually translating part of the Web — they just don’t necessarily realise it. Publishers pay Duolingo for the translation services the users provide. The only possible downside to this approach could be lesson content occasionally being of poor quality (or just strange — such as Google’s frustratingly popular reCAPTCHA spam-prevention service), but during my time using the app I’ve never encountered such an issue.
I have to congratulate the Duolingo team on creating an extremely user-friendly and technically impressive free app and service that has genuinely improved my life. When I visit Spain in a month, I’ll feel confident whether browsing a grocery store, asking for directions, or bartering at a local market. Speaking a foreign language is often about confidence, and the various teaching methods of Duolingo have given me confidence in my own abilities. Whether you want to brush up your existing language skills or take up a new one, check out what Duolingo has to offer. It certainly gets my thumbs-up.
[Chris Armstrong is a writer, musician and geek from Bournemouth, England. He is the founder of Chasing Perfection, news editor for The Industry, and an obsessive Twitter user. He studied Product Design at university before discovering his passion for software.]