One of the reasons why I designed Walking Home to cross France was to improve my French skills. I never learned the language at school but only discovered a few years ago that speaking another language (besides German and English) could be desirable.
At first, I bought a PC software in the mid-price range. I paid appr. €100 for a program which was supposed to take me from no French to B1. It wasn’t bad but impractical. So I didn’t practice my French at all when I was traveling in Africa.
My return in the summer of 2012 happened at about the same time as the official launch of what would soon turn into my favorite language learning tool: Duolingo.
What I love about it
- Language choice: they started off with the most sought after languages (e.g. Spanish, French, German, Portuguese) and are still expanding the list of languages. There is even a group working on a Glingon course. And even though I find the English classes to be better you don’t have to use English as your base language. You can also learn English from Russian etc.
- All-encompassing learning experience: the idea is to learn the language from scratch but in all its dimension — reading, listening, speaking, translating from both the base and the target language.
- Multi-device: apart from the standard browser version there are apps for iOS, Android, and even Windows.
- Topics: each course is divided into different subjects — grammar elements as well as topics like “Health” or “Spiritual.” By completing lessons, you earn points which you can then invest in additional lessons, for example, terms and phrases around “Christmas.” The browser version also offers extensive background information on the grammar lessons.
- Intuitiveness: you start off with basic phrases and terms like “woman” or “I drink.” and work your way up to more complex structures. You are allowed some errors when going through a lesson and can repeat the lessons as often ass you want.
- Immersion: once you have reached a certain expert level you can move on to translation texts. In the browser version, you can choose from different competency levels and between translation from scratch or review existing translations.
- Practice: I have long completed the French course (called “The Langauge Tree”). However, the practice mode lets you review lessons that you have made many mistakes in or that you haven’t reviewed in awhile. There are two modes: timed to challenge and stress yourself and without timer when you aren’t quite there yet. To me, it is this practice mode which helps me to internalize the language and its pitfalls (a.k.a. the grammar rules) as I immerse myself in a country where the language is spoken.
- Forum: the forum is built into the learning process. So, if you still have questions after completing a task (correctly or incorrectly) you can ask them or see whether others have had that question before — this works in the browser as well as the apps. There are always language pros in each language pair who will post additional info, especially on grammar and word usage.
- Reminders: you can receive daily reminders in both the apps or via email. Even more so, you see how many days in a row you have been learning, and you will soon be challenging yourself not to let that streak break (my longest was more than 250 days and only broke when I went Walking Home)…
- No money: Duolingo is completely free — there are no hidden fees, any additional content is acquired by using Duolingo, be it by completing lessons or using the immersion.
- Get certified: for some languages you can take a rather strict test (with your device camera checking that you completed the test without help…) to receive a certificate to show your language skills to the world (or your boss).
What’s there to not like about it
- Too slow: you have to complete the language tree step by step and complete lower level lessons to start working on the higher ones. Well, you don’t: you can test your way out of lessons blocks and advance to the next level. However, the lower level phrases will still appear in practice mode. My sister hates this…
- No grammar in the apps: if you only use the apps to learn a new language you will have to either simply figure out the rules by yourself, or you have to use additional sources to have grammar explained to you.
- Mistakes: Duolingo is free, and one way to achieve that is having the courses created not by paid pros but by volunteers. So occasionally (or in some language pairs more often) you will come across errors — in both the base and the target language. The good news is: you can report them quickly from within the lesson, they will be reviewed (which sometimes takes weeks or months), and you receive feedback via email when your suggestion was accepted.
- Limited offline availability: you can only have a limited number of lessons available offline, namely the next five lessons in the language level you are currently working on. The system decides this. So, once you have finished the course, there is no offline availability at all.
- Very basic Windows app: I don’t like the Windows app, so I use the browser version on my Windows tablet instead.