My 1000 days of learning a language the Duolingo way

I have been using Duolingo to learn German for the last 1000* days. Today I stopped. I thought to share my views of this rather wonderful, free, but occasionally frustrating app.

*actually >1200 days but I lost 200 days on the app’s counter when visiting Germany; my app thought I was based in America and unfortunately, that particular day, had not completed a lesson within the correct 24-hour period. Grumbles.

My motivator is that we have a 4-year-old son. My wife has been talking to him in her native language German his whole life. I expect soon they’ll be having conversations in German, and I want to be a part of that.

My history with languages

I am truly awful at languages. I’ve 5 years of French under my belt both from school (GCSE C grade) and from a year long intensive course from when we lived in Lausanne, Switzerland. With no previous experience in the language, my wife very quickly overtook me in terms of ‘fluency’ and I found myself turning to her when confronted with French.

I learnt Dutch for a year whilst working in Rotterdam. We made some excellent friends over there, and whilst I could order a beer, or swear in (Rotterdamer) Dutch in a multitude of colourful ways, that was it!

Let’s not mention my 3 years of Latin.

Starting with German

In 2009 I did a 3 month basic course in German whilst doing a postdoc in Manchester. I most certainly was one of, if not the, worst in the class, despite putting in lots of effort during the week with homework, and also entering in all vocab into a memorization app (https://www.memrise.com) that works by intelligently spacing the time gaps between exposure to vocab (in a quiz, if you correctly translated the word, you would be asked the same question later in the future compared to if you’d incorrectly answered the question; Supermemo was perhaps the first to offer this technique via a pc based app ). Ideally I would have progressed through a series of German courses, but we kept on moving countries and it proved hard to find nearby language centres.

Duolingo

It was after our son was born that I started with Duolingo.

The app relies on gamification principles to make learning fun and addictive, and so more likely for learning to be made into a daily habit. At the moment the app lets you learn 28+ languages and is Free! Only recently the app introduced some discrete ads to presumably fund some of the infrastructure needed to run the app.

Duolingo process

Every day you do a few short lessons, each being perhaps 3-5 minutes long and consisting of 20 questions. There are a variety of types of question such as multiple choice, pronunciation (via the microphone) and sentence composition. If you get a question wrong, you are asked it again at the end of the lesson. You must get all the questions right to continue. Depending upon how well you did in a particular lesson, you will be asked to do a refresher on the lesson in a week/month/months (they use algorithms to intelligently space lesson refreshers).

There are two powerful gamification inspired motivators for doing lessons. Mid lesson, you get to see how many questions you’ve got right in a row (this drops to zero if you get a question wrong). You also are shown your tally of number of days in a row you’ve studied. This becomes a point of pride as your score grows!

You can earn the ability to have a preserve your tally if you have a day off or forget to do a lesson one day, which is nice.

In the past, you only could get 3 questions wrong per lesson; after this point you had to repeat the whole lesson! This was insanity provoking and I am so glad they changed their system. I recall spending over 30 minutes on one lesson trying to complete it through she brute force memorization of the answers (you get the same questions when repeating a lesson).

You also have a road map (see image at the bottom of this blog) of all the lessons you’ve completed in the past, along with all the lessons you need to complete before finishing the course.

Once you complete the whole course, and you have no lessons to refresh, you get a ‘gold’ Duolingo icon shown at the end of your road map (image at the top of this blog). This is good motivation to keep continue with the course once you have finished (for me, for an extra 2 years).

You are told your level in your language (I reached level 25) and the percentage at which you are fluent (for me, 47%).

Duolingo good at

  • establishing a rewarding daily routine.
  • building up your vocabulary.
  • Being very intuitive to use and friendly.

Aspects in language acquisition Duolingo is not so good at

  • You don’t practice conversational skills via the mobile app.
  • The pronunciation exercises that test you via your phone’s microphone prove frustrating sometimes, especially if you are doing the lesson in a noisy environment.
  • Via the website, you are directed to reading material in your chosen (being learnt) language but I never explored this. It would be amazing if the mobile app somehow linked with this website only feature.

Having finished 1000 days with Duolingo, I do not feel I could hold a conversation with someone. Although I do follow the gist of what is being said around me. I most certainly can order beer though, and I understand the simple conversations between my wife and our 4-year-old son.

My next steps

Coming towards the end of my stint with Duolingo I thought to try out Babbel, which was reported to be far more conservation orientated. I am finding this indeed to be the case. It is similar to Duolingo in that you are encouraged to spend time doing questions with the app every day. A lesson takes between 10 and 20 minutes (between perhaps 40 and 90 short questions); I wish the duration was a little more consistent I must say, as it can be a little frustrating if you end up with a ‘long’ lesson when you are short for time. Besides from that though, I like the app and will stick with it.

I’ll report back in a few years to let you know how things are then!

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