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!

Pulling out lists of words by tag in Anki

Anki, the vocab monster

Did you think learning vocabulary in a foreign language was just about memorising lists of words? Well, there’s a science to it. And Anki, a free flashcard learning system, has it down to a tee.

I’ve made frequent mention of the program in previous blog posts, and it’s formed a key part of my learning strategy since I started experimenting with it last year. I’m using it to drill and practise a couple of different languages, but here, I’ll focus on my experiences with it to achieve a decent working vocabulary in Polish.

Getting started

I hear it from several language-loving friends, and I felt the same at first: it’s a little bit intimidating at first. Its basic, unstyled interfaces can be offputting for the newcomer, and for certain things – like styling your cards – it is helpful to know a little tech magic like HTML. However, there are some helpful videos on the fundamentals at this link. And further assistance is just a YouTube search away, as there is a vast number of active users online, posting tips and hints. This excellent video introduction is a good example, and a great place to start.

Of course, all the magic is under the hood; it’s in the algorithms that Anki uses to drip-feed you vocab, day by day, and decide which words need more practice, and how often. It just requires a little work on your part, in curating your word lists.

feeding the Anki monster

There’s one key rule to maintaining pace with Anki: keep filling it up. Treat it like a vocabulary monster than needs a regular bucket of new words every so often to keep it fierce. You can add hundreds of words in one fell swoop at the beginning, and let the program do its stuff over the following weeks and months. It will select 25 new words from the bank a day, adding them to previously viewed words to recycle in each session. Eventually, it will run out of new words, and you’ll just be in memory maintenance mode.

Adding huge swathes of vocabulary in one go isn’t practical, though. It’s boring, for a start. And how do you decide on a source right at the beginning of your language learning journey? Also, vocab learning should be – in my opinion – an ongoing, lifelong process, and I feel my own use of Anki should reflect that.

Instead, then, I decided to just stay a few weeks ahead of myself with adding words. I chose a primary text for learning Polish – a very old edition of Teach Yourself Polish – and made a note to myself to add 2-3 chapters of vocabulary from it each week. I did this religiously, and within a few weeks I’d added a whole book’s worth of words.

However, making this a regular habit also allowed me to add in extra sources of vocabulary when I came across them. Along the way, I started to use the excellent Routledge Basic Polish – A Grammar and Workbook and Intermediate Polish – A Grammar and Workbook. As I found useful words in the examples, I’d add those in too. To keep things tidy, I’d add a sub-deck of flashcards to mark vocabulary from different sources separately.

Vocabulary mining

As well as books, I found two other useful ways to mine for vocabulary: self-interrogation and headline hunting.

In the first case, I’d actively interrogate my vocabulary as it was presented to me each day. If the words ‘shirt’, ‘trousers’ and ‘dress’ popped up, I’d ask myself: have I come across the word for ‘t-shirt’ yet? I’d check my vocab list, Google Translate the missing word, double-check it in Wiktionary, and add it to the bank if necessary. (I always use a couple of electronic resources with word-checking – never just a single one. Cross-referencing ensures you don’t end up with any dodgy mistranslations in your word bank!)

Headline hunting speaks for itself – I’d find a new site, and scan down the headlines for new or unusual words. Again, I’d Google Translate, check in Wiktionary and add to the bank. If I only do this once a week, it still generates a trickle of extra vocab to keep the monster fed.

Notably, I decided that vocabulary didn’t just mean ‘words’. Throughout my mining, I’d take model phrases, sayings, turns of speech – anything that I thought could be useful. Doing so meant that I could use Anki to revise simple structure, as well as dictionary items.

Tags are key

Crucially, I’d also add keywords to each vocabulary item. These were mainly based on broad topics that I could assign to each individual word; examples were ‘food and drink’, ‘clothes’, ‘colours’ and so on.

This turned out to be invaluable, given that the vocabulary was not thematically organised in the source material. After adding the words along with keyword tags, I could sort topically later on, pulling out all the ‘colours’ words for revision, for example. It’s especially satisfying when you call up a search list like this, and see how many different sources have gone into building your learning material.

Pulling out lists of words by tag in Anki

Pulling out lists of words by tag in Anki

First-pass learning

The very act of adding words to Anki doubles up as a sort of pre-learning phase. I never make a conscious effort to remember vocab as I’m typing it into the app. But inevitably, some items will catch my attention, and there’ll be a fair bit of residual recall when they pop up later in the program. I call this ‘first-pass learning’, and it’s often enough to provide a hook by the time the words get a second pass when popping up as scheduled.

This ‘learning proper’ phase could happen any time, in any place, thanks to the Anki app. I usually find myself squeezing those 10-15 minutes into train journeys – it’s a great way to fill otherwise ‘dead time’.

For Android users, the experience is still completely free, thanks to a third-party tool app on Google Play. However, for us iPhone people, the iOS app is a slightly pricey purchase at £23.99 / $24.99. Nonetheless, there are ways to approach that price tag on a budget of nothing. I bagged some free iTunes vouchers on Swagbucks for mine – see here for my experience with that!

Lieutenant Anki, language-learning regiment

The greatest thing is that Anki has regimented and regularised my vocabulary learning. Where I could be a little chaotic, now I have organisation. The system forces you to stay on top of things, too; miss a couple of days, and the list of words to learn and revise grows bigger and bigger. Stick to little and often and you won’t work up a backlog!

I’ve now thoroughly learnt over 1000 Polish vocabulary items. In fact, Anki has been so successful at drilling them, my vocab level has far outstripped my grammar – one possible downside to blitzing your words like this! But as I learn grammar at a slightly less frenetic pace, having a large knowledge of words to use with new structures is definitely a bonus. And I’m still experimenting with ways to drill grammar and structure in Anki, too.

In short, I’m now hooked on Anki. I’m proud of my curated word lists, as they are a record of how far I’ve travelled on each language learning journey. They’re highly personal, and, for that, I’m all the more motivated to work with them and learn them. If you’ve ever tried and have felt put off, please persevere – it’s definitely worth it!