I’m going to Graz in June for a conference, so I have been working on my German in preparation for that trip. I had to pick up some German in my PhD program for reading scholarly articles, but the type of language used in Classics journals is not exactly the kind that will help me order a train ticket or find the bathroom. I’m also interested in new ways of teaching languages, so it’s always good to see what others are doing in languages that are not Latin or Greek. So, I decided to check out Duolingo, and I’m loving it so far.
Duolingo Skill Tree
The reason I chose Duolingo is simple: it was free and named the 2013 app of the year by Apple. As I pretty much do everything on my phone these days, having a mobile app was a necessity, so Duolingo was an obvious choice. There is also a web platform to go along with the mobile experience, though I will probably not be using it that much (though one will note that the screengrabs are from the desktop site). As with most iPhone apps, it was easy to install, sign up (I connected via Facebook), and get started. Currently, they support German, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Italian, as well as several options for learning English.
Here’s how it works. The main interface is the skill tree, which tracks your progress in learning the language. Each level of the tree has one or more skills to be learned, which are generally either vocabulary sets (family, animals, clothing, etc.) or aspects of grammar (pronouns, verb tenses, conjunctions, etc.). From my experience in teaching languages, each level of the skill tree is probably equivalent to a chapter in a book. When you complete all the skills on a particular level, you move onto the next one. Pretty straightforward and intuitive. You can also unlock bonus skills (like Christmas words) via the web app–I haven’t seen this option in the mobile app.
A Duolingo Question
Each of these skills are broken down into two or more lessons in which the actual business of learning the language takes place. Each lesson will present the user with a series of questions which both introduce the concepts and challenge the learner to integrate them into their existing skill set. These questions take one of several forms: identify the noun via a picture, translate from one language to another, check all the right answers from a list, and so on. There is often a computer voice that will pronounce the sentence, and often you are asked to listen and transcribe what you hear. On the mobile version at least, you are also asked to speak a sentence occasionally, though since I rarely fail these questions I wonder how great the voice recognition is (not as sensitive as Google Translate, anyway). A typical lesson will have about 20 questions. You have three hearts for each lesson, and if you get a question wrong, you lose a heart. If you answer incorrectly while questions remain and don’t have any hearts, you fail the lesson and have to try again.
I have to say, it is pretty fun, even if the questions can be repetitive or silly (I’ve seen Der Bär trägt das Kleid, “The bear wears the dress”, a couple of times). The program also tracks when and how you screw up, so you can go back and strengthen skills as they fade over time. Passing lessons earns you experience points that, like any RPG, translate into levels, which can be used to track your progress in the language (I’m currently on German Level 7!). When you finish a skill, complete a lesson without losing hearts, or gain a level of experience, you can earn lingots, which function as a sort of in-app currency. With lingots, you can refill hearts, unlock bonus skills, and purchase a snazzy new outfit for your owl to wear while you learning. Duolingo also tracks your daily progress and sends you reminders to study for the day. There is also a social aspect, via connection through Facebook, but I haven’t explored that just yet. There are also options via the web interface to read and translate articles into English, but this isn’t available on the mobile platform.
As I said up front, I really like this app. I like that it reminds me to practice, and that I can do it anywhere on my phone (incidentally, it is also to easier to type umlauts using the iPhone, which is nice). It is a bit silly at times, as I mentioned, but I can get over that. I would also like to see a bit of explanation in the form of a grammar resource (Inflection, for example, could use a bit of explanation), but that is easily found elsewhere on the internet. All in all, I give it an A+, and will update this review as I progress.