There are lots of free online language-learning tools, but the one I see used most often is DuoLingo, so that’s where I’m going to start in my survey of web-based language portals.
What Is DuoLingo?
DuoLingo is a free language-learning website and app. Today, I’m only focusing on the website, as that’s what I use myself.
As of now, you can use the site in 21 different languages and study up to 16. It looks like the native English version of the site has the most languages available out of any other, including niche offerings like Welsh or Esperanto. For everyone else, the choice is a little more limited and is usually English. I think it’s pretty safe to infer that many of DuoLingo’s users are using it to learn English.
DuoLingo is built on translating simple sentences. Exactly what is available seems to depend on the language, but the basics include:
- translating a sentence from the target language into your native language, and vice versa
- multiple choice questions
- simple clozes (fill-in-the-blanks)
In some lessons there’s also a speaking portion, if you care to use your mic. (I don’t have it in Russian, but my partner has it in Italian.)
DuoLingo is free to use.
What Do I Like About DuoLingo?
It’s free! And for being free it’s a pretty great resource. It attempts to address all four areas of language acquisition (speaking, listening, reading, and writing) and every exercise has a discussion thread attached to it, allowing you to get feedback from experts and native speakers about why a particular answer is or isn’t correct. DuoLingo’s userbase is so large that any question you ask will probably be answered fairly quickly.
The focus of each lesson is also sufficiently narrow to keep from overwhelming the true beginner, while the level tests allow a false beginner to skip ahead to an appropriate level/lesson instead of going over the basics yet again. And it generally seems pretty forgiving on spelling (unless spelling is an essential part of the grammar).
DuoLingo also encourages daily practice. In whichever language you study, you set yourself a goal of how many points you want to earn a day. You can set it low if you want to keep things casual, or if you’re serious you can set it quite high. If you use Chrome (or Chromium) and allow DuoLingo to use your alerts, the site will nag you if you haven’t hit your daily goal yet. You also get rewarded for streaks.
Finally, the whole thing is built on daily practice and a spaced repetition model. The site shows you exactly which areas you need to review and which you don’t, according to models that I assume are based on your previous performance and how long it’s been since you reviewed a particular lesson.
What Don’t I Like About DuoLingo?
It focuses almost exclusively on simple sentences, or at most two or three. This is fine for learning new vocabulary or grammatical structures, but won’t help your long-form reading (or writing) skills. Also, some of the sentences are surreal to the point of uselessness. (“There are many problems from his houses.” is one that springs to mind from the Russian for English speakers series.)
I believe language acquisition works best when you’re able to use it talk about, well, you! Yourself and things you care about. With DuoLingo, you are an incredibly passive participant, with zero input into the direction of the lessons.
The quality of lessons also seem to be inconsistent across languages. There are lots of cool options available to my partner in the Italian tree that I don’t have in Russian, like using lingots to purchase bonus lessons on idioms or pick-up lines. Likewise, I can’t guarantee the quality of any other lesson, because it seems to depend at least partially on your native language.
DuoLingo is really good for learning vocabulary and essential grammar concepts. But no matter what your level is, you should be supplementing it with other material: music, movies, or podcasts; short stories, essays, or news articles; conversation classes or Skype sessions; writing your own work. These last options require clear and useful feedback, something a good teacher can provide.
Want conversation practice or feedback on your writing? Email me from the sidebar or tweet @KobaEnglish and we can set something up.