Thursday, July 25, 2013

Tech Corner: Duolingo

Nowadays, there's an app for just about everything, and language learning is no exception. Today we're going to look at Duolingo, an app designed to help you learn or practice any of five languages: Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, German, and French.

Designed by a computer science professor and a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, Duolingo is a translation-based app available for iOS and Android, though it can also be accessed online. Once you've selected the language you want to practice, you get to your "skill tree" filled with various subjects, from "Food" to "Verbs: Conditional Perfect". Each subject contains several lessons, though if you believe you've already mastered a specific area you can test out of it and move ahead in your tree.

This, on the other hand, is a Portuguese tree.
So does it work? I decided to try out the Spanish tree, and spent about an hour each day for a week freshening up my skills while testing out of the various subjects. The translation basis for the app was a great way to review everything from grammar to vocabulary.

Each lesson feels like a mini game, which seems like a smart way to keep people interested. You have four lives per lesson, and must complete a certain number of tasks in order to pass. In most cases, you're given a word, phrase, or sentence to translate. Sometimes you have to write it yourself, while other times you're given a word bank (with extra unusable words) that you must select terms from and put in order. As you progress, you can also test your pronunciation if you have a microphone.

The flag of Spain waving in the wind.
As for issues with the app, no computer program is ever perfect, and Duolingo does have some translation issues, though they are few and far between. Given their discussion forums, it seems clear that I was not the only person puzzled by the repeated use of emparedado for "sandwich", while bocadillo and sándwich were considered incorrect. My main quibble would be that it occasionally rejects Castilian Spanish terms and instead insists on Latin American terms, which mainly bothered me because there was a little Spanish flag in the corner of the screen, and not a Mexican or Chilean flag. 

Overall, I certainly can't attest to whether or not it is the perfect language-learning tool for everyone, but it definitely seems to be worth a try for those who are inclined towards translation as a learning method, especially since it's free. At the very least, it could be useful to review specific skills, especially for high school or college students looking for some verb conjugation practice before a big exam. 

As a final note, the website sounds as if it is far more developed than the relatively new app, including possibilities to participate in crowdsourced translations that are contracted to Duolingo. Have you tried out Duolingo or another language-learning app or website? We'd love to hear about your experiences and recommendations!