Duolingo and Language Learning like a Game Fronted by a Friendly Green Owl…

Sprechen sie Deutsch? Nein? Erm, okay. Italiano? Français? No? Erm, você fala Português? Espagñol?

Yeah, I thought as much and, hey , neither do I. We’re all a bit pathetic in our monoglot state, except you people reading who can speak in foreign tongues and use those tongues fluently. You’re very impressive and so are your tongues. We will now coat both you and your tongues in honey and glitter. Actually, no, we won’t because then you’re going to find it difficult to articulate those foreign phrases. Sorry. As you were you über-impressive linguistic genius, you…

I too would like to be an über-impressive linguistic genius because I like words (naturally, I’m a writer) and because I want to engage more effectively with foreign cultures. I have polymath enthusiasm and aspire to be a polyglot with a capable command of a language that ain’t English (I’ve mastered, disastered and bastardised my mother tongue many times over). Time and time again I trip off to somewhere like Italy armed with basic vocab but no ability to form complex sentences and fully comprehend the conversation that’s thrown back at me. Every time I come back to my homeland (where people can’t speak English never mind another language) vowing “I will learn! I will get better and really, really get educate myself so I can exotically garble on with style and confidence!

That determination then ebbs away. At least that’s the typical pattern but this summer the picture has changed (I covered it in glitter and honey). I came back from Italy with a few new phrases (“Una buona vita inizia con una buona collazione“) and fresh motivation to actually study and self-improve. My friend Giuseppe had presented a new method through which I might actually be able to advance my basic blunt Italian. He was very evangelical about said method and talked fondly about something called Duolingo which he was using to enhance his (already excellent) English. He beamed a lot when he said “Duolingo”, waved his phone at me and made sure that I noted down the name.

I did my research and hit the website. It looked brilliant and, finding that there’s an app in addition to the main site with all extra features, I hit iTunes and downloaded it to my techno-techno magick device. I then opened it up and started to explore what it offered, subsequently finding that I really liked what it offered…

But what does Duolingo offer? Commence the non-official heavy-hype press release pitch: game-ified language-learning in an easy-to-use app with a colourful format. It is way better than any other quiz-style linguistics app I’ve played with in the past and more appealing and convenient than audiotapes. Duolingo’s charm is in its gamification as it kicks at your own compulsive nature while carefully expanding your cognitive comprehension.

It breaks down big blocks of language into subjects and splits everything up into levels to conquer (and then conquer better). You clock up skill points and are rewarded if you don’t make mistakes (you lose hearts if you do, so it’s a little like ‘Linguistic Legend of Zelda’). Users pick up vocab, grammar and syntactic nuances as they go along without even realising it because it feels more like a game with goals to unlock and achievements to achieve. You’re tested with multiple choice questions, sentence-making exercises, listening exercises and ‘repeat into the mic, please’ prompts. It takes you back to classroom language learning but feels fresh and fun because you’re only competing with yourself and the app rather than an oppressive curriculum and uninspiring high school teachers. Duolingo’s mascot is a friendly-looking green owl, by the way, and when I see her or him beaming at me on my phone screen I can’t help but think “Awww, the nice owl is smiling at me. I should go on Duolingo…

The added bonus is that it’s all free. Duolingo funds itself through translation services it offers to third parties as performed by eager, advanced users. It’s therefore altruistic in addition to being an outstanding high-quality educational tool for the technologically-empowered masses. It’s amazing and I continue to hold on to that view even when I’m frustrated by my own mistakes in the quizzes or find myself tackling odd sentences that no one will ever say (stuff like “The duck has the apples” and “Six trousers are good“).

I came back from Italy, hooked up with this thing and am having fun with it, feeling like I’m getting a better grounding in a foreign language. The irony is that I returned from Italy determined to improve my Italian and am instead relearning German. I blame a two-hour stopover in München that reminded me just how much I love the country, how much I wanted to go back and grapple with all the umlauts and glorious words I throttled back when I was at school. I’m now on Level 6 German and am checking in every day to advance further. I’ve revised and bolstered my basic GCSE-standard Deutsch and can now say things like “Nein, ich bezahle nicht” (No, I’m not paying) and “Wofür brauche ich fünf Katzen?” (For what do I need five cats?)

I’ve got a long way to go but I’m getting there gradually, every day strengthening my Teutonic tongue and enjoying the challenge. Learning is fun and foreign languages are beautiful. I recommend Duolingo if you feel the same and want to improve your linguistic abilities. Es ist sehr gut, indeed…

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