An owl, much like the Duolingo mascot!

Duolingo: Five reasons it’s a show-stopper for linguists

I was quite late to the Duolingo party. It might be a wee bit of jealousy, perhaps; as an educational app developer, you look at software like Duolingo and think: wow, that is an educational app. But lately, I’ve bitten the bullet, and have become completely hooked on the green owl (a euphemism everybody should become familiar with).

As one of the most popular apps – let alone educational ones – the web isn’t short of reasons to love it. But here are a few of the very special things that make Duolingo the golden standard for me.

Perfectly paced

The Duolingo environment uses a health system, borrowed from video gaming, to monitor how well you’re performing in a topic. If you start making lots of mistakes, you deplete your health reserves and have to wait until later to continue.

Now, as frustrating as this sounds, it’s a brilliant way to stop language junkies like me from overloading the brain. We all have our limits, and when you enjoy what you’re doing, you can forget where the most efficient place to stop is. The health approach is genius at forcing breaks when learning falls below optimum.

Silly sentences

I’m a huge fan of silly sentences as a memory aid and motivator in language learning. Playing with words in funny ways builds flexibility in a way that learning set phrases doesn’t. And Duolingo embodies the spirit of this to a tee.

No, I hope I will not need to say “cats are not food” if I visit Korea. But having translated that in the app, I’m unlikely to forget the words ‘cats’ and ‘food’, remembered with a silly smile.

Incidentally, a whole Twitter feed has sprung up to celebrate Duolingo’s comedic bent!

Unique content per language

Duolingo avoids a cookie-cutter approach to language learning by providing unique content in each language. Proceeding in exactly the same way in each language might not suit every tongue; instead, each course seems to have been put together from scratch by separate groups of subject experts. It’s quite refreshing to have multiple, bespoke paths available across the (ever-growing) range of languages on offer.

Deductive learning

Duolingo breaks free from the traditional presentation-practice mode of language learning. Sometimes, questions will contain a word or two that you haven’t come across before. As such, it can seem a bit more challenging, like ‘deep end’ learning.

However, rather than frustrating the learner, it encourages a bit of deduction. Can you make an educated guess? Or can you research the mystery word elsewhere? If you’ve had to work to find out the meaning rather than have it handed to you on a plate, it may well be more likely to stick. It highlights the unpredictability of language and the need to experiment and think on your feet – skills that are missing in many more conventional courses.

The Duolingo Universe is growing

Finally, Duolingo wins just on sheer choice. From a few initial language offerings, the app has grown to take in many more, bursting out of the traditional French/German/Spanish bubble. Finding apps for learning Polish – let alone good apps for learning Polish – was tricky in the not-so-distant past. Given the Duolingo treatment, there’s now an excellent solution for learning the basics.

What’s more, the app keeps growing; new languages are being worked on, while existing languages are expanding with new topics. It’s Aladdin’s Cave for a language junkie, and will spark some polyglot roving for inquisitive minds of all ages.

Duolingo has set the bar very high for educational apps in general, and language apps in particular. That certainly keeps educational app developers on their toes. But as a model for digital, self-paced learning, it’s an inspiration for the industry as much as it is a gem for linguaphiles. I’m already looking forward to the next languages to be added!

Which language do you choose out of 7,000 in the world?

Free for all: language courses from Live Lingua [review]

Language learning can be an expensive business. Course materials can be so expensive. And despite free resources like podcasts, online video and websites, sometimes, nothing beats a good coursebook. If only they were free, right?

Free for all

Well, thanks to the efforts of one online organisation, they can be. Live Lingua is primarily an online language lesson service that connects teachers with students. In that respect, it’s a lot like iTalki and Verbling. But where it is different is in a very special side-project on the website.

The organisation has sourced and catalogued a whole range of free, public domain language learning material – both texts and audio files – which you can download from the site. These materials are chiefly courses that have been used in US overseas projects like the Peace Corps. As such, they’re tried-and-tested learning methods that have been employed in real-world settings to great effect. And they’re just as sound resources as their (often very expensive) commercial counterparts.

Worth digging for treasure

There is a huge amount of material on the website; scores and scores of PDFs and MP3 files from courses across a wealth of languages. Learning Arabic? They have courses in nearly a dozen different varieties of it. Learning off-the-beaten track languages? Try their courses in Ilokano or Q’eqchi’. There is a vast catalogue for more mainstream languages too: linguaphiles can feast on their free offerings in French, German and Spanish.

However, one thing is worth bearing in mind. A fair bit of the material is quite old. The resources have been collected from decades of foreign language teaching in US military institutions. That doesn’t make it any less pedagogically sound, of course; I’ve learnt a huge amount from old texts like Teach Yourself Polish (1948)! But it does mean that the format might be a bit rougher that what you might be used to.

With the texts, this can be quite charming; learning from a PDF course that looks like it’s been drafted on a typewriter is quite an experience! (Incidentally, some commercial resources can be similar – I have used the Greek Basic Course from Hippocrene, which is typeset as if from a vintage Olivetti!) Not all of the PDFs are like this, by any means – some are clearly 80s and 90s texts that are formatted in a much more familiar way.

However, it does become apparent when you start delving into the sound files. Some of the older courses have been ripped to MP3 from cassettes, for example. Because of this, the sound quality can vary from dodgy to excellent. But it’s worth persevering – there are some real treasures to be found by careful digging.

FAST learning

As passionate a linguist as I am, I haven’t had time to try all the courses (yet!). But of the ones I’ve been exploring so far, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) FAST courses are amongst the best. They’re concise but cover lots of vocabulary, structures and grammar. There’s good support for listening with fairly good quality MP3s files. And they’re also quite modern-looking texts – not that the typewriter font bothers me in the older ones anyway!

The organisers have taken care over the scanning of the material, too. Hyperlinks have been added to the PDF contents pages, for example, making the resources much more interactive than simple scans.

I’m currently working slowly but happily through the FSI FAST course in Polish. It has a good communicative approach, focusing on everyday interactions – perfect for preparing for a trip to Poland. Written in the 90s, the cultural information is woefully out-of-date;  “You must still count on spending considerable time queuing up in each store” is probably not the case in modern-day Poland! That said, it’s a fascinating snapshot into a transitional period of contemporary Polish social history.

Go and have a dig at Live Lingua – you might save yourself a fortune. You might even happen upon your next language amongst the huge collection. Anyone fancy learning Sesotho with me? 😃

While you’re at it, check out these FREE grammar apps on Android!

A calendar page, which you might use to beat procrastination!

Procrastination, begone! The 12 Week Year [Review]

Confession time: I get hopelessly lost in optimistic procrastination. I always think I have time for everything.

That goes for language learning, too. I start with great intentions of doing a bit every day, yet quickly fall behind when everyday life demands my attention too. I’ll forget to do my daily dose of Anki, letting the cards pile up. I won’t read the daily news in my chosen language, like I promised myself. I’ll put off listening to that podcast until I’m already two or three episodes behind. Then I’ll beat myself up for getting so lazy!

Time for some discipline!

Enter The 12 Week Year by Brian Moran. It’s a productivity guide that I took a punt on when I spotted it on Amazon Kindle Deal of the Day, admittedly with some initial scepticism. I love the idea of productivity frameworks for organising my language learning, but most books are a poor fit. They’re generally either too business-oriented, or too complicated to apply to everyday learning.

This one takes quite a fresh approach. You start with your ultimate vision, the end goal you see yourself at in a number of years. For linguists, that might be ‘complete fluency / zero accent in the foreign language’. It could also be something more concrete, like ‘managing without any difficulties in any situation when I’m in Country X etc.’, or ‘passing my Spanish exam with top marks’.

Then, you break it down to an achievable, shorter-term goal. What would a major step towards that end point be? Again, for linguists, it could be ‘going shopping in Country X and using only my target language’. The book then encourages you to break that down into the even shorter term goal windows, namely 12 weeks.

Zap procrastination!

Why 12 weeks? Well, as the book explains, when setting ourselves goals, we often go with the calendar year as our window of action. We will set ourselves resolutions on January 1st, and aim to achieve X, Y or Z by the end of the year. This regularly fails due to vast amount of time we perceive before we need to act. We put off action at the beginning of the year, meaning to catch up towards the end. 12 week windows are much tighter, creating a greater sense of immediacy between ‘now’ and ‘achievement’, and providing an extremely effective vaccine to procrastination.

With that 12 week goal set, you can then start planning your weekly ‘tactics’ to achieve them. These might be one-time, set goals like “Read chapter 2 of Textbook X”. But they can also be general, regular tasks, like “Listen to a podcast in the target language at least once a week”, or “Do your Anki flashcards every day” – the kind of things you should be doing frequently in order to keep your new language blooming.

Keeping score

Now here’s the bit that really works for me: you score yourself weekly! Take all of those tactics, and you turn them into a weekly score. This can simply consist of crossing off list items on a paper plan each week. However, I like to use Evernote for making my lists, as you easily can add tick boxes to keep track. Here’s a sample weekly list from one of my plans:

Evernote tick list

Evernote tick list

At the end of the week, you tot up your score as a percentage, aiming to hit over 85%. This turns execution into a fun thing, a challenge to yourself. You’ll find yourself positively buzzing to tick boxes off early in the week in order to hit the threshold. Executing tasks for score-boosting ticks is surprisingly addictive!

It’s as simple as that. And it works!

The book is full of extra tips and tools for fine-tuning your plan, but the general idea is amazingly simple to implement and work into your life. It turns each day into a bit of a game for me, and I’ve cut my language procrastination right down.

Teachers could adapt these techniques for their students, too. Devise a weekly check-list of all the tasks they should be doing to improve steadily. There’s lots of scope there for adding competitive elements here, and comparing productivity rates at the end of every week. Who knows – they might find it so useful that they apply it elsewhere in their lives.

If you’re in a vocabulary rut, or find yourself falling behind and running out of time with your language goals, The 12 Week Year is worth a shot.