A Great Supplement for Language Learners
My partner, Gabe, is here with me in Peru. He had never studied Spanish before coming here and enrolled in classes when we first arrived. But the classes were too expensive for us to maintain long-term so Gabe has had to find other ways to improve his Spanish while living here. A few months ago, a friend introduced him to Duolingo, a free online program and smartphone application for learning languages. I also started using it for learning French, and now we are both addicted.
How does it work?
Duolingo provides you with sentences to translate. These are actual sentences from the web and from their clients who need translation (this is why it’s offered completely free of charge or advertisements). You are given sentences that match your level, and you can always click on the words to check their meaning if you’re not sure. Pop-up boxes give you brief grammar explanations but the idea is that you learn the grammar intrinsically through practice.
It is set up as a series of games, and you gain points and prizes as you go along. As you move up in the levels, it cycles back through old material and encourages you to keep up your “weak skills” and gain “experience points”. You can track your friends’ progress too so part of the addiction is being ahead of the game. Duolingo is currently available for English, French, Spanish, German, Portuguese, and Italian.
What are the pros and cons?
The biggest pro is that it is completely free. It is also easy to use, lots of fun, and can be used on your own time. I also like that it teaches grammar intrinsically, through actual use of the language. The main con is that there is no conversation practice, although the sentences are said orally by a native speaker. Also, there is a heavy focus on translation and the lower level sentences are quite mundane (“the girl is short”, “the cat is black”) and sometimes a bit weird (“the moon is not made of cheese”). So it’s not necessarily the most helpful for travellers who need to know specific sentences for getting around, ordering food, etc., or for those looking for more critical content.
A fun addition to your language-learning toolkit
Overall, Duolingo is an excellent supplement for language learning. It won’t give you the oral practice you really need to become fluent, and it won’t give you the in-depth grammar lessons you might need to pass an exam. But it will help to increase your vocabulary, have access to authentic content (especially at the higher levels), and improve your comprehension. I am very impressed with how much Gabe is able to understand in Spanish even if he can’t speak fluently, and I definitely attribute it to his dedication to Duolingo. Most importantly, it’s a lot of fun – a great addition to any language-learning journey!