Thoughts on DuoLingo

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.

Languages available for English speakers to study on DuoLingo
Languages available for English speakers to study on DuoLingo

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)
  • dictation

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.

Russian grammar Q+A on prepositions and possessives.
Russian grammar Q+A on prepositions and possessives.

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.

DuoLingo gives you a weekly summary of your activity.
DuoLingo gives you a weekly summary of your activity.

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.

How I'm doing in Russian. You can see that I need to review "prepositions and place," "family," "people 2," and "nature."
How I’m doing in Russian. You can see that I need to review “Prepositions and Place,” “Family,” “People 2,” and “Nature.”

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.

Verdict

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.

Tips For Getting The Most Out Of Anki

I first came across Anki in Gabriel Wyner’s Fluent Forever. It’s a whole treasure trove of language-learning tips, but the bulk of Wyner’s philosophy revolves around flashcards, Anki, and spaced repetition. I couldn’t begin to summarize the book in a single blog post, so I’ll just recommend it. Wyner is sometimes a bit too gung-ho about all the great tools he wants to sell you, but Fluent Forever is no less helpful because of that.

Wyner sings the praises of Anki, and since the Droid version is free, I thought I’d give it a shot. I’m currently studying Russian, so it came along at the perfect time. Once I got the hang of creating the cards, and got my smartphone synced up with my desktop version, things were a breeze.

Flashcards are for more than mere vocabulary, however. Here are a couple of different ways I would recommend using Anki in your English study—aside from vocabulary.

(Note: I assume that you have a copy of Anki and that you’re comfortable using it. If you’d like more details on how to customize Anki, you can refer to their manual. Another good guide is this one from Alex Vermeer.)

1. Spelling Help

600px-Spelling_icon.svg
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

If you struggle with English’s semi-random yet semi-predictable spelling, you can offload the problem on to Anki.

The first step is being aware of the mistakes you make the most consistently. Maybe you have issues with -sion versus -tion, for example. Or maybe you struggle with irregular verbs: not eated but ate? not runned but ran? Put them in Anki.

You can just use a basic card with, say “eat” on the front and “ate” on the back. Or maybe “b__t (thing on water)” on the front and “boat” on the back. If you feel comfortable typing within Anki, you can set up the card so that you have to type in an answer (rather than just think about it). Anki will then display the correct answer and highlight any mistakes you may have made. For more about how to design Anki cards with typing input, see this how-to video.

I would recommend this method if it all possible. If not, try to keep scrap paper on hand to write on while you study so you can write out the correct spelling yourself. If you don’t have that, then you can move your hand as if you were writing, or imagine writing the answer. Or spell out in your head, like in a spelling bee. The more you do something yourself, or the more you think through the steps of doing something yourself, the better you learn something and the less likely you are to fall into the trap of just assuming you know something.

 

2. Listening And Pronunciation

How's your English listening?
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons and Håkan Dahlström

Learning the phonemes of a language—its individual, component sounds—is maybe one of the most difficult parts of learning a language. Usually we struggle with sounds in a language because we can’t distinguish them from other sounds, whether in our native language or the target language. I have a tough time with å and o in Swedish, for example. You can use an Anki deck to blitz the difference between them.

Wyner has a number of useful Anki card templates available for download from his site. The template you’d want for this would be his “minimal pairs” template. If you want to make your own, though, you can. But whether you’re customizing Wyner’s template or creating your own, you’re going to be doing a lot of research and input.

First, collect a bunch of words that share your “struggle sounds.” A typical pair of problem sounds in English for many learners is short “i” and long “e” (ship / sheep, chip / cheap), for example. Find recordings from Forvo.com, and then very carefully apply them to cards (you want your recordings to match their answers!) in a pattern like this:

Front: ship or sheep? [sound file: ship]

Back: ship

Front: ship or sheep? [sound file: sheep]

Back: sheep

If you allow the cards to be reversed, you can practice your pronunciation as well as your listening: the word “ship” or “sheep” will come up, and you can compare your pronunciation with that of the recording. Of course, sometimes it’s hard to hear how close you are to a particular sound. That’s where a teacher comes in handy.

 

3. Grammar Blitz

Tips for studying English grammar with Anki.

There are so many ways you can do this. I’ll just share a small bit of my personal method and hopefully it will inspire you.

I use Anki to study Russian. Where modern English has only three cases (“grammar jobs,” for lack of a better word), Russian has six. Learning all of the ways that a personal pronoun can change depending on the job it has to do is just half the battle—when do you use each case?

First, I sat down and worked out a color scheme for all of the cases. So prepositions or verbs that require the accusative case (“him” in English) are dark blue, and prepositional cases (“by him”) in red, and so on.

Then, when it came to making the cards, I put phrases (“with him,” “without money,” “to the park,” and so on) on one side of the flashcard, with the Russian preposition in its appropriate color and whatever noun in its nominative form. The right answer is to 1) have a correct English translation of the preposition and 2) to know the proper form of the noun (and any attendant adjectives).

The other side of the card has the English translation of the preposition and the appropriate form of the noun (in its matching color). The right answer is the Russian translation of the preposition.

You can apply this similarly to English. If you struggle with catenative verbs and remembering which ones take a gerund, which ones take just the verb stem, and which ones take the “to” infinitive, you can come up with your own color code and little phrases and review those in a similar manner.

(I find it helpful to relate the color to the grammar point in some way. For example, my genitive case prepositions are in green, and instrumental in indigo. You want the color associations to be quick and easy! So in this case maybe green for gerund, taupe for “to” infinitive, and silver for stem. But it depends, of course, on the color names in your native language.)

So those are just a few ways you can use Anki beyond simple vocabulary. Do you have any other tips or tricks? Share them in the comments, or tweet @KobaEnglish!