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Duolingo: Learning Languages in Self-Isolation

In these trying times, I resort to desserts and languages. Desserts are soothing to make but dangerous to consume; they are likely to stab you in your back. Languages, in contrast, are one of the few sources of control and stability while the world is crumbling into tiny pieces (just like the gorgeous 12-ingredient morning biscuit of mine!). Learning a language gives you a pleasant sensation of building something. This sensation is also improved by the fact that it doesn’t end up in creating a couple more physical objects in my already crammed living space. Well, apart from some paper and notebooks. Don’t forget to recycle – sustainability first.

Reasons for taking up Duolingo

For me personally, learning a language is mixed up with a feeling of guilt. I am the shoemaker who walks barefoot. I majored in linguistics, then went on to study teaching English. Before the world turned upside down, I taught all kinds of students, young and old. I keep teaching small-time on Skype. My students like me, and some of them have actually learned how to do various things in English. I passed the first part of DELTA with Distinction, for Scott Thornbury’s sake! (Meaning I kinda know how people learn languages, from the scientific standpoint). Still, after 27 years of my somewhat laborious life I can only speak two languages, Russian being my mother tongue and English my dominant source of income.

This is why I am learning Spanish in this spring of isolation. I am determined to learn it well, autonomously, and mostly for free. Alongside with lovely Dasha, I am doing it in a variety of ways (which will probably be the topic of other articles, but who knows). But here I want to focus on one of them – perhaps a controversial one, especially coming from a professional teacher. I am using one of the most popular language-learning apps on the market, Duolingo. And I will try to explain what exactly Dunlingo is and is not going to do for you.

My Approach to Duolingo

Duolingo has an adorable green owl, a podcast I haven’t checked out, some hilarious dialogues in a special section, and a whole lot of grammar exercises. When you use it, you shouldn’t forget a simple fact – it’s a grammar trainer. It is a fairly traditional grammar trainer as well, based on the time-tested notions of back-and-forth translation, drilling and using key vocabulary in target structures. Back at university I studied Latin, and it was pretty much the way we were taught, just with copybooks instead of phones. I don’t speak Latin, and neither do any of my coursemates.

Duolingo is not going to teach you to speak the language. However, it doesn’t mean that it is not worth using. For anyone who embarks on the journey of autonomous language learning, I have only one essential piece of advice. Here it goes:

The app is not the teacher. The textbook is not the teacher. The movie is not the teacher. You are the teacher.

Therefore, apps, textbooks, movies and series are all just your tools. And your ultimate goal is to make them work the best possible way, taking into account their basic features and your personal preferences.

First Steps with Duolingo

As you download and open Duolingo app on your phone, you get to choose the language you will be learning. Then it shows you a number of cartoonish and very visually appealing circles which are called “skills”. It might have been better to call them “units” – they focus on particular chunks of vocabulary and grammar systems, not real linguistic competencies. But I think we all know why they want to spice up the naming, and it is totally justifiable.

So we start with one of the skills and come across a variety of discrete tasks. Those include:

  • vocabulary presented through pictures;
  • translation from the language you are learning;
  • translation into the language you are learning;
  • writing down the sentence you hear;
  • saying the sentence for the program to analyze.

I think the mobile version also has a task where you have to match words and short phrases with their translations. I am using the browser version, and it is pretty important for my personal Duolingo journey. The thing is that in all the tasks I don’t use the “word bank” that the app handily offers you to choose from. I click on the option “use keyboard”, and from then on I have to type all my phrases and sentences myself. And this is why I find it extremely useful.

Boosting the Challenge: Go Deeper.

I think to some extent I am a power user of Duolingo – or at least I am trying to make my learning experience as hard as possible. Partly, this is my ingrained Russian masochism, but partly I am just looking for the appropriate level of challenge. In language teaching world it is usually called “grading the task”, and it is important to remember that you can push the difficulty both up and down.

My own grading of Duolingo goes in two directions; I try both to increase the challenge and to widen the range of skills involved. First of all, just to make it tougher, I try to use the minimal amount of clues available, switching from recognition to production whenever possible. For instance, the app often gives me an English phrase and three Spanish options to choose from. Options are certainly alluring, but I stubbornly ignore them until I make the necessary sentence in my head and say it out loud. Only then it is time to check with the given sentences and click the correct one. It takes slightly more time, but it activates memory and makes you think of grammar and vocabulary at the same time, which is certainly useful for real-life conversation.

Another way to increase difficulty and somewhat speed up your journey through the app is using the little key button when you open a skill. It gives you a test (which looks almost exactly like ordinary exercises) after which you can jump to the next level of the skill. There are five levels altogether, and the content is not that varied – I think that on the second level you get a couple more vocabulary items and structures, and from then on – just a bit more translation tasks. I am a completionist and an anxious person who values repetition, so I prefer each of my skills to be upgraded to a lovely golden level 5 button. Speed-up tests are handy, because they test all structures from the skill, limit you to four mistakes and make the routine of similar tasks and language material not so mind-numbingly boring.

Boosting the Challenge: Go Wider

Another reason why I like those little speed-ups is because the regular lessons in the app normally introduce new vocabulary and structures to you before giving any real tasks. It seems like a very logical thing to do, and the teacher in me totally approves. However, the learner in me knows that she can guess, construe and produce by analogy most of the low-level grammar and vocabulary content. This approach to learning is often called “guided discovery” – you are given some language material and encouraged to figure out the meaning, use and form by yourself, possibly with some tips and help. It is easy to see elements of this approach in the way Duolingo works, although they are subdued for the sake of mass appeal.

As we can see, one of the extra skills you can develop with Duoligo is inference – understanding meaning and structure from the context. The others are also not difficult to come by. For extra pronunciation – repeat each sentence you hear and create (I know people often use apps in transport, well, it never actually stopped me). The app gives you the speech recognition tool sometimes, but it is decidedly not perfect – so why not increase your speaking time independently?

To tap futher into the production side, try to speak a little bit about yourself on the same topic after each skill. Duolingo syllabus is partially organised by situations, so it is often possible to come up with 2-3 natural sentences about family, shopping, travelling or food. If you are more of an analytical person, try figuring out and writing the grammar rules in your notebook to compare them with what they give you in study tips. Write the words that you remember after each unit, put them in sentences. Take strange decontextualised sentences about Señor Sanchez and make stories around them. Possibilities are endless.

Learning Outcomes

You might ask: and why exactly would I do all this rather laborious and sometimes stressful stuff? What do I get out of it?

Well, first of all, you get a couple of words and grammar items well-stuck in your brain. However sad it is, rote learning and repetition work pretty well at lower levels. If you combine Duolingo practice with being self-aware and trying to get some speaking practice, the learned phrases will eventually jump out of your mouth. It won’t be very fast, very natural or even very correct, but it will make your journey to fluency a bit more smooth.

The other important thing is actually something that you won’t have. You won’t have to worry about choice of material, choice of book, finding both the exercises and keys for them, revising and evaluating. You won’t spend precious mental energy on finding the unit and deciding what exactly you have to do today (which usually stops autonomous learners from doing anything). Two clicks away from starting the lesson, you will have your journey clearly mapped out in colourful circles and motivated by a friendly owl, a league competition and a burning streak. It will be, by all means, highly imperfect. But it will be so much easier to start.

Photo by DocuSign on Unsplash

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