Owls chatting. Photo by Ross Dismore, freeimages.com

Battle of the Owls: Duolingo vs. Glossika

You have to hand it to the owls.

For a start, they’re wise. And they love learning. Well, at least in educational lore, having long been considered symbols of all things academic. They make very apt representatives for our language learning knowledge quests. Little wonder then, that two popular language platforms, Duolingo and Glossika, have adopted our feathered friends as their respective mascots.

On the surface they might not appear particularly alike. Different breeds of owl, if you like. But the contrasting plumage hides a strong family resemblance. In fact, their approaches to teaching languages are very similar. Both teach via a vast bank of sample sentences, incorporating spaced repetition techniques to lodge vocab and structures in memory. Both platforms employ a similar listen-read-type system to drill three of the four core language learning skills. And both offer an impressive (and growing) array of languages. For their different colours, those owls are quite alike (although we’re sure they would deny it vociferously!).

So, in a battle of the owls, who comes out on top?

Pricing

Let’s get this one out of the way first: they follow very different access models. All Duolingo content is free to access, with a paid tier to remove ads if required. Those ads aren’t too intrusive, however, simply sandwiched between lessons.

On the other hand, Glossika is subscription-based. The price tag of up to $30 a month will seem like a hefty price for many. That said, there always seems to be some discount code floating around the internet for Glossika, so with save with some internet sleuthing. Students can also get special pricing of $13.50 a month.

Glossika has an extra-special secret, though. Minority languages under a degree of threat are completely free to learn. In fact, Glossika’s free Gaelic course was the route that led me to the platform in the first place. In addition, you can learn Catalan, Hakka (Hailu and Sixian), Kurdish, Manx, Taiwanese Hokkien, Welsh and Wenzhounese (Wu) via the technique for not a penny. These are full courses, featuring the same sentence set as the platform’s mainstream languages. 

🦉 Free is hard to beat, but Glossika’s admirable ethos of supporting endangered languages makes this one a draw.

Mass Sentences

Arguably, the price of Glossika is justified by its quite unique offering. Namely, its bank of thousands of sentences per language are no arbitrary choice. They represent high-frequency vocabulary and language patterns that support fluency training. It is a purposeful, statistics-driven mass-sentence technique.

In the face of this, Duolingo’s approach certainly feels a little more random. One of the frequent criticisms levelled at the platform target its plethora of often silly and whacky example sentences. It depends on the learner, of course. Personally, I love the strange and bizarre phrases that crop up in Duolingo exercises. They make for a greater salience in the learning material, and salience is the friend of memory.

And we should consider another aspect here: Glossika rolls out more or less the same set of sentences for every language. One the one hand, this is great for keeping your languages in sync as a kind of language audit. On the other, it leads to some minor irritations. For example, names and places are not translated, which is a missed opportunity to introduce some cultural material. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve silently cursed when having to type Ταϊπέι (Taipei) into Glossika in Greek.

By comparison, Duolingo fully embraces difference. The recent Finnish course, for example, celebrates uniquely local terms like sisu, and introduces a raft of common Finnish names. Likewise, the Norwegian and Swedish courses are celebrated by fans for their wry take on Scandinavian life. Of course, the fresh take on every language does mean that the courses do not match up in any shape or form. Trying to keep your polyglot knowledge in sync? You’re on your own.

🦉 Close, but let’s call that one another draw. This race is neck-and-neck!

Order, Order!

Mass-sentence cramming makes no sense without a clear progression in level. Both platforms steer the user through a well-defined path that increases in difficulty. However, Duolingo allows for a bit of freedom in user choice. Learners can progress to the next topic after levelling up to just the first of five experience levels (although many of us prefer to gold them up first).

Glossika, on the other hand, is less flexible; you have to work the list of sentences through exactly as the program intends. There is some leeway, though. You can choose to start at any of Glossika’s language-ladder checkpoints. If the basics are too simple, skip ahead to B1 – simple. What’s more, you can choose to ignore sentences you deem unhelpful or not useful as you work through them.

Glossika’s one-size-fits-all ethos is its undoing again here, though. As the sentence corpus is ordered identically for each language, you end up seeing quite complex structures in certain languages very early on. The reason simply seems to be that languages more recently added to the platform map differently onto English compared to Glossika’s original set of languages. Thus, they lack the one-to-one, simple correspondence to basic phrases in English that these first languages have in the beginners’ levels.

In A1 Gaelic, for example, some complex, idiosyncratic structures pop up within the first hundred sentences. Unlike languages like French and Spanish, Gaelic does not use a standard, vanilla verb for ‘to know’. Instead, periphrastic structures are used. The relatively straightforward English sentence “I know lots of people” is rendered in Glossika’s translation as “Is aithne dhomsa tòrr dhaoine” (literally, knowledge is to me of many people). There is no explanation of how this structure works – it is simply presented as is. However, it encompasses features like prepositional pronouns and the genitive case, which probably belong in intermediate-level grammar material. In contrast, Duolingo units are generally tailored to language-specific grammar points, with accompanying notes on usage.

🦉 I declare this a win for the green owl.

Error Catching

The two platforms have a wholly different take on error catching, too. Duolingo is the more forgiving of the two, allowing the odd typo in an answer. Glossika takes a much stricter approach, demanding exact spelling, accurate diacritics and even on-point punctuation before accepting an answer. Which side you take in this battle depends on how much a stickler for perfection you are.

One minor niggle, however, is Glossika’s pickiness for speech marks. To my mind, punctuation is of least concern when learning a language. However, leave out a comma, or use an exclamation mark instead of a full-stop, and Glossika marks an answer incorrect. It can be incredibly frustrating to repeat an exercise because of this.

In short, I find myself in the middle of this debate. Duolingo is a bit too forgiving; I’ve noticed it accept some quite liberal interpretations of Gaelic spelling! On the other hand, Glossika seems like a rather mean master at times.

Helping hands

Glossika pulls it all back with one nifty quirk, though: you can leave accents out. Purists will throw their hands up in horror at the very thought. But in the very early stages of learning, this can be a real boon. It’s hard enough for a beginner to remember where the accents come in  “στον σιδηροδρομικό σταθμό” (to the railway station) without stressing about stressing!

Glossika also edges ahead on alternative input. Some Duolingo courses in non-Latin alphabet languages allow for Latin alpha input, but support is not always complete, as with Greeklish. Conversely, Latin keyboard support is solid across Glossika’s language offerings. And even within Latin alphabet languages, there are helping hands – you can substitute Icelandic ð with d and þ with th, if you really struggle with foreign keyboard layouts, for example.

Of course it makes sense, in the long run, to learn how to type in Greek, Russian and so on. But it’s nice to have the option to get off to a quicker start.

🦉 The owls are evenly matched here, it seems, but they could both learn from each other.

Voices

With listening skills being, for many, the biggest challenge in language learning, speech is everything. How platforms approach the production of native sounds can be a deal-clincher.

Glossika is exclusively human in this respect. Every recording is a native speaker. That is an important consideration for many learners, who prefer human voices over digital text-to-speech. Usually, the same speaker narrates the whole course, but on other courses (Polish, for example), different voice artists are used.

The downside to that, of course, is that sometimes, a voice will grate. As for me, I’m not overly keen on the choice of Icelandic voice. On the other hand, I find the Greek voice is really neutral and pleasant to listen to. It is very much pot luck.

On the other side of the coin, we have text-to-speech, which has come a long way since its early days. Duolingo makes a lot of use of this technology in many of its courses (although some, like Gaelic, Irish and Swahili, still use recordings of human speakers). The benefit to TTS is a smooth, very neutral voice in the target language, as opposed to occasionally, decidedly hit-and-miss recordings in the others. And the digital standard has not stood still – recently, the platform updated its Norwegian and Polish voices, which both now sound even more natural.

🦉 A lot of this is down to personal preference. Yet another draw?

Community

Finally, the true mettle of a platform may well lie in its users. And – spoiler alert – here is where Duolingo plays a real blinder.

Duolingo’s forum has always been a lively place, thanks largely to its armies of users. But the outfit makes particularly clever use of this by layering the forum on top of the actual content. Every single sentence is linked to a discussion thread where users can talk and ask question about it. An active bunch of moderators keep tabs on everything, which means that it’s never long before you get that explanation you really need to understand a structure. The result is an incredibly finely granulated repository of learning content. Kudos to the platform for spotting the potential of that.

Now, Glossika does have a well-maintained blog, which is open for comments and discussion, as well as a Facebook user group. But the level of interaction achieved on Duolingo is hard to beat.

🦉 Hands down, Duolingo won this match.

Joining Forces

Despite that last resounding victory, I have to admit it: those owls are pretty evenly matched on the whole. No twit (twoo) here. Duolingo and Glossika do similar things in subtly different ways, and thereby manage to complement each other nicely. That’s the reason both of them are essential items in my own daily language learning tactics.

And perhaps that is the ultimate lesson to learn in all of this. By joining forces and creating an app arsenal, we are much more likely to smash those language learning goals. The moral of the tale?

Two owls are always better than one.

What are your favourite aspects of these platforms? Or do you combine other apps that complement each other in similar ways? Let us know in the comments!

– no background info on each translation, which is problematic – for example, are we learning polite or familiar ‘you’ in some sentences?
+ presented with several ways to say the same thing – some say that shows real mastery! From Gaelic, for example, a’ sileadh and an t-uisge, snog and gasta, acrach and an t-acras air, sìde and aimsir.

A page from a German dictionary with the translation of various words. Image from freeimages.com.

Avoiding the Translation Crutch in Language Learning

I was on a mission this week: to minimise the interference of English translation in my language learning.

You are probably familiar with the scenario – that slow, faltering, stoppy-starty feel to conversation in a language you are learning. In those early stages, what we want to say often pops up in our native language first; then, we try to translate it into the target language on the fly. The inefficiency of it all is so frustrating.

Independence from translation is one of the super-skills of fluent foreign language use. But reaching that point, where Mentalese, the non-verbal code of thinking, bypasses your first tongue and goes straight to the target one, can seem a far-off ideal.

Translation is Everywhere

The problem is, we are constantly nudged to think of languages in terms of equivalencies. Just look at the most popular e-learning tools. Duolingo, Memrise, Glossika and many, many others default to translation exercises for drilling vocabulary. Even the setup of our beloved Anki assumes a one-to-one relationship between the new words you learn and some native matching pair.

Translation has its place, of course, and not only because of its very long pedigree as the classical language learning method of choice. If you have ever leafed through some old Teach Yourself volumes, for example, it was once the only way anybody ever considered learning or teaching a language.

And it has its success stories. Some very successful polyglots have achieved stunning results with translation. Take Luca Lampariello’s bidirectional translation technique, for instance. Similarly, the Assimil courses, based on side-by-side bilingual dialogues, continue to be incredibly popular.

It remains a rational starting point for the absolute beginner. For one thing, we need something to hook new words and phrases onto when we learn them. As such, even those old translation-based courses have their uses. I learnt masses of vocabulary and grammar from an ancient copy of Teach Yourself Polish. The only snag is, I still manipulate them quite clumsily and unnaturally in conversation, thanks to that translation bias.

Is there a better way to run, once we have learnt to walk?

Minimising abstractions

One route to weakening the native-hook reliance is to mimic how children acquire language: to tie new language directly to mental representations of the real world. If we see words as abstract symbols representing real-world concepts, then the translation method simply adds a second level of abstraction. No wonder it slows us down in higher-level speaking.

Some apps adopt an approach that minimises this reliance upon the native language. For instance, when Drops presents a new term, the translation is flashed up briefly with the pictogram to avoid misinterpretation. But beyond that point, its activities rely only upon the image, not the English translation.

Can we integrate that kind of non-verbal representation into our independent learning?

Helping hands

Well, one way I have explored recently is through physical signing – a kind of personal sign language. It is a good fit, to be honest. I can be a bit of a ‘hand talker’ in any case, as a visual thinker. My hands have a communicative mind of their own, and like to form shapes of their own accord along with the sounds that come out of my mouth.

Why not, in that case, enlist that trait in the battle to ‘de-English’ my foreign languages?

I start by forming the shape of the idea or concept with my hands as I say the target word out loud. Some signs are easier than others, but since they are purely personal cues, they can be as obtuse as you like. ‘Get’, for example, is a movement of the hands towards the body. For ‘rest’, I smooth out a flat surface before my body, as if preparing a bed to lie on, or painting a calm sea. The hope is that future retrieval of the word comes from a non-verbal representation, rather than an English translation.

Of course, you could also make this signing official. Fully-fledged sign languages have highly complex systems for expressing concepts like tense. For a kinaesthetic learner, these could offer very flexible support techniques to couple all sorts of grammatical features in a spoken language with a non-verbal memory cue.

Better meta

The native language trap is set when we talk about features of the target language, too. This might be with teachers and peers, but also when using text books and grammars written for a non-native audience.

Fortunately, squashing this bug is an easy win. You can go meta with your language skills by equipping yourself with the necessary speaking tools. By learning terms like ‘noun’ and ‘verb’ in the target language, you can work on grammar acquisition in a monolingual environment rather than resources meant for foreign learners.

Similarly, you might consider supporting the growing wave of social media content creators turning away from English and using the target language for discussion of polyglot themes. It can be a tough call, balancing a desire for linguistic diversity with inclusivity. But more and more members of the community are switching on to the idea.

Triangulation

All that said, some resources are just too good to write off just because they use a drill-by-translation approach. But all is not lost: you can change the base, or native language, in many of them. Simply make a different language your ‘native’ one!

Admittedly, this only works well when you have at least one strong foreign language already. You switch the base language of the app or resource to one of these, triangulating your learning with by linking two foreign languages. The bonus pay-off: it helps to maintain your stronger language, too.

A well-used triangulation tactic is to work through a Duolingo course designed for speakers of another language, such as German for Spanish speakers. In Glossika, too, you can change the base language to completely upend the environment, and avoid native translation as your method. Alternatively, if you are following your own DIY mass sentences programme, repositories like Tatoeba offer the same feature.

Translation Options in Glossika - a screen showing Polish and Norwegian (Nynorsk).

You can’t get away from translation in Glossika. But you CAN escape your native language. Here is a Norwegian (Nynorsk) sentence for learning, with Polish support.

The same works the old-fashioned way too, of course. It is easy enough to get hold of learning materials for a different native language audience, just like those alternative Duolingo courses. Assimil editions, for example, are available chiefly in French and German, like the Greek course for German speakers below.

A picture of the book "Griechiesch ohne Mühe" (Greek with Ease) by Assimil.

“Griechiesch ohne Mühe” (Greek with Ease) by Assimil – my latest acquisition for avoiding English translation!

Personally, I love building up a library of double-foreign language teaching materials – there is something really fun about constructing a web of all your language projects without everything revolving around English at the centre.

Gaining Your Wings: Comprehensible Input

At some point, of course, translation becomes a moot point. The stabilisers come off, and your level is enough to operate with authentic materials produced for a home audience.

When you reach lift-off velocity – say, A2 or B1 – you can do away with the translation crutch altogether. This is the point where you can start to ‘mass sentence’ up your skills the native way, through exposure to real-world media, and the copious reading and listening that comes with that.

Getting to this point whilst minimising translation is the real feat, though. If you can manage that, you will be well on the way to thinking directly in the target language.

Good luck gaining your own wings!

A thistle. Learn Gaelic, know Scotland a little better. Image from freeimages.com

Exhausted Duolingo Gaelic already? Try these resources for size!

Got your Gaelic fix with Duolingo but hungry for more? You’re not alone. The ubiquitous language learning platform delighted users with its latest addition. But like all first-phase courses, it is not the lengthiest – yet.

More will almost certainly be in the pipeline, particularly given the popularity of the course. But you don’t have to play the waiting game – there are scores of great resources available to keep you going.

Never fear – as an incorrigible bibliophile, I’ve beavered my way through a heap of beginners’ materials, so you don’t have to. And however solid and ever-present the Teach Yourself and Routledge Colloquial courses are, there’s more to language learning life than just those. So enjoy some of these less obvious newcomers’ picks below for a varied foray into elementary Scottish Gaelic!

Ceumannan – Stòrlann

Ceumannan means footsteps in Gaelic, and is also the name of the secondary level textbook used to teach Gaelic in schools. Despite being aimed at kids, it covers all the ground you’d expect of any good primer course. So much so, in fact, that it is the textbook of choice in my Gaelic evening class at Edinburgh University.

Book one is the chunkiest of the five-volume set. This is its strength – the basics are thoroughly recycled again and again in different contexts throughout the book. By the end of it, you should really have mastered the basics of Gaelic syntax.

Ceumannan, the elementary Gaelic course for schools - and adult learners!

Ceumannan, the elementary Gaelic course for schools – and adult learners!

Publishers Stòrlann have also made available all of the listening material on the free Ceumannan website. The site itself is beginning to look a little clunky and dated (the Flash games, for example, will no longer work for many), but it is still a goldmine of material for learners.

Gaelic without Groans – John MacKechnie

This next resource is a real treat, especially if you like the quirkiness of language manuals from a bygone age as much as I do.

John MacKechnie’s Gaelic without Groans dates from the middle of the last century, but saw multiple reprints over the decades. Although out of print now, you can still pick up second-hand copies very cheaply online or offline. It’s always popping up in second-hand bookshops across Edinburgh, for example.

This short, friendly and joyfully eccentric introduction to basic Gaelic is a gem. MacKechnie adopts a chatty, informal style from the outset, introducing a point of basic grammar in each concise chapter. Core vocabulary appears in bite-sized chunks at the end of each section, with good old-fashioned drill exercises to hammer the points home.

John MacKechnie's Gaelic without Groans - a quirky joy from the cover to its contents!

John MacKechnie’s Gaelic without Groans – a quirky joy from the cover to its contents!

The very observant might notice a couple of discrepancies with one or two spellings, compared to much more modern learning resources. However, the differences are generally very minor. And in any case, they serve as a window onto the world of a language with plenty of dialect variation, and still undergoing many of the processes of standardisation.

Gaelic without Groans really is a joy – well worth a couple of pounds if you come across it!

Gràmar na gàidhlig – Michael Byrne

Michael Byrne’s Gràmar na Gàidhlig is another concise but packed book. Chock full of example sentences, it describes key points of Gaelic grammar in short, snappy sections. If you are struggling to understand the nuts and bolts in your other books, Gràmar na Gàidhlig puts them in terms that are very easy to understand.

The book itself is part of Gaelic language history, being a translation of the first Gaelic grammar with explanations completely in the language itself. In this English edition, you can take advantage of its clarity of instruction as a second language learner too.

BBC materials

As with Ceumannan, some of the most useful resources can be those aimed at young people. BBC Bitesize, the revision website, has a low-profile but very handy section for Gaelic learners. The target audience is students revising for Scottish school qualifications, but all learners will find the short grammar summaries useful. Some sections, like this page on irregular verbs, contain some really practical vocabulary lists, too.

Of course, the BBC in Scotland has a history of Gaelic instruction that goes further back than the Internet days. Former flagship Gaelic offering Speaking Our Language still has legendary status. That’s thanks in part to some pretty cheesy dialogue and hammy acting, but nonetheless, it is an excellent place to learn some Gàidhlig.

Supporting course book for BBC's Speaking Our Language

A supporting course book for BBC’s Speaking Our Language

The excellent site LearnGaelic.scot has repackaged some of the Speaking Our Language material for use online, including supporting exercises. That said, you can also catch repeats on BBC Alba, or find the programmes in their full, original, 1990s glory on YouTube. Revel in the nostalgia those yesteryear fashions inspire!

Scottish Gaelic Verb Blitz

Finally, if apps are your thing, you can still get a little vocabulary and grammar practice beyond Duolingo with Scottish Gaelic Verb Blitz by Geoglot. Available on iOS and Android, the app doubles as a reference and drill tool. John MacKechnie would probably have loved those translation-based games.

Scottish Gaelic Verb Blitz

Scottish Gaelic Verb Blitz

Life beyond Duolingo

So there you have five places to continue your Gaelic beyond the green owl. Of course, this list can only scratch the surface of what is available. Honourable mentions must go to Gaelic in Twelve Weeks, and the now antiquated original edition of Teach Yourself Gaelic, and all the others yet to cross my path.

But for a bit of resource-hunting of your own, try perusing the items at Stòrlann, the Gaelic publishing house. And, of course, a trip to any good second-hand bookshop in Scotland!

Hopefully, this little selection shows that whether on page or screen, there is life beyond Duolingo. Explore, enjoy, and please share any of your own resource tips in the comments below!

An owl - not the Duolingo one, but probably related. Image by Pamela Benn on freeimages.com

Approaching Duolingo : One Way to Catch An Owl

In case you hadn’t noticed, Duolingo released its Scottish Gaelic course early this week. And naturally, I leapt straight in like a pig in mud!

Like many, I had waited patiently and eagerly for this release, not least since I study Gaelic at evening classes in Edinburgh. Despite a resolution not to race ahead, Duolingo’s early Christmas present was a gift too good not to open straight away. As expected, it is a joy of bite-sized vocabulary snacks.

Devouring unit after unit, it struck me that there are many ways to systematically approach a resource like this. The question of how to tackle Duolingo also cropped up recently in discussion with excellent iTalki tutor Marcel, who is running a Duo-challenge WhatsApp group I’m part of. Personally, I prefer a two-wave method. I outline it here in the hope that it helps others who, at first glance, find a huge topic tree a bit overwhelming, and wonder how to tackle it.

The two-wave approach to Duolingo

This method has a lot in common with the forward-loading approach to course books, which is one of my favourite ways to tackle language learning material. It involves an initial, exploratory reccy through the material, combined with a systematic and focused follow-up.

The first wave

When you first open up that course, it is all about getting to know the terrain. Like hacking your way through undergrowth, you need to clear a path first.

Duolingo prevents users from accessing material out of order by locking lessons until the previous one is completed to the first of five XP levels. However, unlocking to this first, blue level is usually just a matter of a few short introductory lessons. So, in the first wave, you simply steam ahead, unlocking topic sections just to level one before opening up the next one. In no time at all, you’ll have blued up a good portion of your tree (or maybe even all of it with a shorter course like Gaelic).

Don’t worry too much about retention at this stage. The aim is to have fun, notice the shapes and sounds of the language, and lay down some passive pre-knowledge before we get serious. Above all, it is the no stress stage. Just explore and enjoy your new language!

The second wave

When you have unlocked a fair few topics, the second wave can begin!

At this stage of your Duolingo attack, you go right back to the very first topic section. Work through slowly and carefully, one by one, hammering each topic to level up fully to gold before moving on to the next.

Note that there is no speed pressure here. You can gold a topic up in a single sitting, or take days to do it. The important thing is that, during this more focused stage, you resist the temptation to move on before a topic is gold.

The second stage is where the deep learning occurs. But thanks to the familiarity you have from the first pass, you already have a ground layer to build on.

A snapshot of my progress through Duolingo Scottish Gaelic, showing how the two-wave approach works.

A golden wave works its way through Duolingo!

Own the vocabulary

Here is the crucial turbo-boost you can engage during the second wave: make the vocabulary your own. Duolingo shouldn’t simply be a passive resource. For long-term learning, you should record all those new words and phrases in your own, separate collection for drilling.

Anki is hard to beat on that score. Every time I meet a new item in the lessons, I look up a detailed definition using a resource like Wiktionary, and add it to an Anki deck. Since Anki will also drip-feed that vocabulary to you using its clever spaced repetition algorithm, you effectively double the learning power of the Duolingo course.

And that’s all there is to the two-wave approach. Familiarise first, study systematically, and make the material your own as you go. A simple but effective way to catch an owl!

How do you approach Duolingo courses? Do you use a different technique? And have you started Gaelic yourself? Let us know in the comments!

The Terracotta Warriors would no doubt fare very well on the Duolingo leaderboards.

Battleground Duolingo : Sun Tzu’s Art of Language Learning

Duolingo aficionados cannot have not have failed to miss the recent frenzy over competitive leaderboards. Perhaps you have – no doubt luckily – escaped the red mist and hidden sensibly away from the hordes. Instead, you might have recognised it in the glazed eyes of language learning friends and family who have succumbed.

Yes, Duolingo is merciless: it has been taking brave, eager, wide-eyed language explorers and ruthlessly transforming them into gladiators, one against the other.

The unintended consequence of all this is a new tribe of learner. It has spawned a vast band of Duo warriors. And warriors have one aesthetic: the Art of War. It’s no stretch to claim that Duolingo league tables have given rise to a code of conduct worthy of Sun Tzu himself.

Those tempting charms and glinting jewels wove their tentacles around me tightly, I must admit. So here, I share what I have learnt of this dark art. And, on a more serious note, how the whole shebang can help – or hinder, if we’re not careful – our language learning!

Duolingo: The Art of strigine strategy

Strategy is everything. What kind of warrior are you? There are three key tactics in the path to strigine victory. (Aye. I had to look that word up too.)

Runaway train

The runaway train is the blunt instrument of linguistic military tactics. It demands quick action. Straight off the mark on a Monday morning, the warrior owlet will steam ahead a few thousand points, leaving competitors scrabbling in the dust.

Fighters will have their go-to weapons at hand: the expert topic they can test on repeatedly to bank easy points. They will only switch to more complex instruments – higher level topics – when they are at a safe distance.

Keep looking over your shoulder, though. Those sneaky co-combatants will usually give valant chase. There is nothing more panic-inducing than seeing your closest challengers clock up the points at a rate of knots. Especially if you are stuck somewhere, unable to use your phone for a while…

Duolingo Runaway Train

Duolingo Runaway Train (usernames have been hidden to protect the innocent!)

Lurking with the pack

No time for a relentless sprint? Then lurk with the rest of the pack until the time comes to strike.

This strategy involves keeping pace with the frontrunners, jostling and leapfrogging daily. The sly player will hang back in third or fourth, so as not to induce phone notification panic in the unsuspecting leader. Of course, that is for the dogs on Sunday, as the whole stage is set up for an epic battle for first place.

The upside? Less time-intensive means less battle-weary so soon. And the slow creep will drive your opponents crazy. But be prepared for vocab carnage on Sunday evening!

Duolingo Lurking With The Pack

Lurking With The Pack

The surprise attack

Everybody loves an underdog. Except Duolingo users you unleash this strategy on!

The surprise attacker keeps back a fair distance, biding time at the bottom of the table. It’s an easy week for this Duolingo paladin, merely keeping pace with the minimum amount of effort per day. That way, nobody suspects…

Suddenly, on Sunday night, your powers are unleashed. You thrash away at the keyboard or touch-screen for hours, rising like a phoenix to overtake your clueless adversaries. You were down – but never out.

The price you pay? Well, your whole Sunday, I’m afraid. Because this warrior ain’t going anywhere while there are several thousand points to make up. But it’s worth it to grin from the top of victory mountain. Right?

I just hope there isn’t a runaway train at the top of your leaderboard…

Basking in the glory

And there you have it. A battle plan any self-respecting warlord would have been proud of.

But of course, the warrior is also advised to take a large pinch of salt with every pre-fight meal. Duolingo battleboards are joyful, gamified fun for everyone invested in the system, but not to be taken too seriously.

The question on every fighter’s lips: do they actually work?

Everything in moderation

Well, competitive league-tabling is a bit of fun at best, and nigglingly passive aggressive at worst. The watchful, always-on mindset it fosters is a hoot, but it can get a little fatiguing and time-consuming in the long run. That goes especially for naturally competitive people, whose buttons are furiously pressed by all this. (Yup, me.)

That said, the approach is a wonderful motivator for ensuring very regular practice. But it does require discipline on the part of the user, as the format may encourage some poor habits. The most time-wasting of these is going for easy points, rather than slogging away at difficult units for the same gain. The best way to beat this temptation is to impose house rules on yourself, such as only mining points from higher-level topics.

Seeking points in new places

On the other hand, the hunger for points fosters some very good habits, too, such as dabbling. Points pressure makes it doubly rewarding to dip into the first lessons of a brand new language. This is not least because initial lessons on Duolingo tend to be rather short, and yield a speedy cache of 10-15 points per shot.

Elementary Turkish, for example, has been a saving grace for me this week. Teşekkürler! Beyond the helping hand up a few rungs, a dip into Turkish might just have given me enough of a taste to keep going with it at some point.

Talking of quick point gains, there is also the incentive to dive back into stronger, but less-practised languages. That would be Spanish and French for me, and golding up my Duolingo trees for that pair has become a side goal in itself. A focus on your already proficient languages can also avoid the cognitive dissonance you feel at seeing your developmental languages many levels about them! Let’s get that Duolingo profile matching your real-life skills, eh?

Need for speed

Finally, success in these competitions is often about speed. And speed-translating is an excellent route to building muscle memory in your developing languages. Challenging the brain to deliver an accurate answer within seconds is handy training for routine quick thinking. Because being fast can be handy, both in Duolingo battles and real life, when we often have to seize upon the correct turn of phrase on the spot.

Duolingo have once again played a blinder with addictive learning, turning us all into lingua-warriors. With a bit of healthy moderation, learning this Art of War could build some excellent new habits!

An owl. Probably not the Duolingo one, but I'm sure they're friends. (Image from freeimages.com)

Building linguistic muscle memory with Duolingo

I achieved not quite a lifelong dream this week. Let’s call it a months-long dream. I finally reached level 25 in German on Duolingo!

When the moment of glory came, it was more with a fizzle than with fireworks. As the XP points ticked over, the ‘points to next’ level disappeared, a simple XP counter in its place. I won’t pretend I wasn’t quite chuffed secretly, though.

But hang on! Can’t I already speak German? As my strongest foreign language, what was I doing thrashing through levels and levels of a beginner to intermediate course? Of course, besides the gamified pride of having that shiny 25 next to the language on my Duolingo profile.

Well, fluency is never a done deal. Even our strongest languages need maintenance work to keep them in shape. And what started as a curious exploration of Duolingo’s German course showed me how useful it can be to use lower-level learner drill tools to reinforce your skills as a fluent speaker. Convinced of the benefits, I’m now using it to blitz Norwegian, another of my more confident languages.

So why is Duolingo so useful?

A Duolingo leaderboard

A Duolingo leaderboard

Muscle memory

Muscle memory, or motor learning, is the process by which certain skills become automatic and unthinking through repetition. You know the kind of thing: playing scales on a piano, using a computer keyboard, operating the controls of a car. They are tasks that we perform so often that they just happen on some level below consciousness.

Proficient language use has a component of this, too. As we become more and more familiar with the patterns of a language, we form grammatically sound phrases ever more automatically. After years of learning French, German or Spanish, you no longer have to think about gendered articles, for example. At some point you just get it.

The key routes to achieving this language ‘muscle memory’ are exposure and repetition. And Duolingo exercises have that by the truckload. That green owl has prepared hundreds and hundreds of sentences, each selected as an example of idiomatic, grammatically correct usage.

Automating those little details

The upshot of this is that you can work on automating those annoying little details that always trip you up, even in your strong languages. For example,  learning phrases to express date and time are a pet hate of mine as a learner. When speaking quickly, I am still tempted to use the equivalent of the English preposition, which is often not the same in the target language.

Take Norwegian as an example. To express duration where English uses ‘for’, the language uses i (in), such as ‘i fem uker’ (for five weeks). Even after years of working on my Norwegian, it can be hard to stifle that anglophone twitch to use ‘for’ instead of ‘i’.

Cue Duolingo’s Time topic. After bashing out exercise after exercise containing solid Norwegian time phrases, they are starting to come more naturally now. Bad habits start to break down; the brain is getting trained.

It is not just the brain, either. After typing thousands of characters of target language, the fingers start to instinctively know how to form the special characters on the keyboard. No more clumsy fiddling for å, ø or any of their kin!

Duolingo and the lost details

Fluency is not the summit of a perfectly formed mountain. It is easy to sit proudly atop your language mastery and assume that you simply have it covered. Especially the basics.

Hold your horses! Duolingo surprised me by throwing up some shockers that I had forgotten over the years. The gender of Euro and Cent in German (both der, by the way). The correct word for employ or hire (einstellen, not anstellen as I’d been assuming for years). They’re little things, and they would barely impede comprehension. But those lost details make the difference between sounding like a learner and sounding like someone who has really got a grip on the language.

Duolingo has even being training the sloppiness out of my language habits. Learning Norwegian as a German speaker can be incredibly handy, since the languages are fairly close. However, assuming similarity can result in mistakes. Using Duolingo on both of them has thrown up some surprising discrepancies in the gender of cognates between the two languages. More often than not, these relate to the convention around how words from classical languages, like Greek and Latin, are absorbed into the language. Here are a few:

🇳🇴 🇩🇪
cinema kinoen masculine das Kino neuter
ice isen masculine das Eis neuter
keyboard tastaturet neuter die Tastatur feminine
library biblioteket neuter die Bibliothek feminine
mind sinnet neuter der Sinn masculine
radio radioen masculine das Radio neuter
sugar sukkeret neuter der Zucker masculine

Where I would previously assume the Norwegian gender was identical to the German, I now know better. Duolingo exercises gave me a systematic arena to find that out. Without it, it might have taken me an age to come across them by chance. No more blindly relying on German for my Norwegian details!

Need for speed…

Many of Duolingo’s activities are translation-based. And a key benefit of this for already proficient linguists is the development of lightning-speed gist translation.

Understanding gist, or the general essence, of a sentence quickly is a key skill for operating seamlessly in a foreign language. Life moves quickly, and we must often act swiftly to keep pace. By adding a timed element to these exercises in its random test feature, Duolingo encourages learners to understand quickly. And true enough, after some time using the platform, you will find yourself getting faster and faster on the keyboard.

Challenge yourself to a few random quizzes (via the dumbbell icon in the app). See how quickly you can translate via a glance at the native language prompt or single listen to the spoken phrase, and work on extending that gist brain. Dictation exercises are also excellent for training you ear to catch things quickly, especially in languages with elision, where words can seem to blur into one another.

Interestingly, translation drilling is a feature of the platform that may well be more useful to language maintainers than learners. Although mass sentence approaches can be incredibly useful for increasing your exposure, pure translation is probably not most efficient sole learning method. The threshold of conversational fluency might be just the right time to jump into Duolingo’s testing tool.

…but recognising road bumps

Travelling the same paths over and over again is a good opportunity to spot where there are potholes. And through regular muscle memory training on Duolingo, you soon find out what your own weaknesses are.

A major lesson for me relates to what psychologist Daniel Kahnemann has called fast and slow thinking. These relate to the two tracks of thought processing humans are hypothesised to have. The first is a snappy, gut-instinct decision making brain based on heuristics or patterns. Its complement is a more careful, deliberating one.

When you start speed translating for gist training, you may be tempted to jump the gun and answer too quickly at first. Perhaps a similar, but slightly different sentence appeared on the screen two minutes ago. Your fast-thinking, pattern-spotting brain might catch only the similar part, remember the answer to the previous sentence, and enter that instead of checking the whole thing. At first, this would happen frequently with me – oops.

With plenty of practice, though, you can train your brain to engage its more deliberated mode whilst still maintaining speed. In essence, it is a lesson in “don’t assume anything”, and a good counterbalance to the speed translation kick.

Learning is a journey, not an outcome

It is tempting to see learning as something with an endpoint. But a commitment to a language involves regular maintenance and audits, which can be hard to put into play if you live outside your target countries.

There may be a hint of polyglot snobbery around using beginner to intermediate tools like Duolingo. But the opportunity these offer for stocktaking and strengthening existing pathways is too good to miss. And sometimes, going back to basics can just be fun, especially when it is gamified!

Already have a strong language amongst the Duolingo courses? Join the XP chase, schedule a daily drill, and see what levelling up can do for you.

Variety adds a bit of a colour to your learning. (Image from freeimages.com)

Five ways to maintain variety in your language learning

Routine and regularity are cornerstones of language learning. But if your structure is too rigid, you might find yourself tiring of the same old, same old. Fortunately, it’s not too hard to work some variety into your language learning plan to keep things fresh.

There is evidence to suggest that a more varied learning approach might prevent context-bound recall. One stock study of Psych 101 classes shows how we remember more when we are in the same environment the material was learnt in. Of course, students can leverage that when preparing for exams. But perhaps an even better approach would be to employ variety to avoid binding your knowledge to specific circumstances. After all, you want those words to flow wherever you are, right?

Let’s take an example to illustrate the point. Do you, like me, sometimes find it easy to recall a word in Duolingo, phone in hand, but struggle to dredge it from memory in conversation? It could be that your mental record of that vocab item is bound to that specific context of using an app on your phone.

So, variety is key. But how can you hit that magic balance between routine and variation to free your recall?

Different platforms

We all have those favourite e-learning tools that we turn to first. Anki, Babbel, Duolingo, Memrise count amongst the most popular quick fixes that we can all build into our daily language task list. And they are excellent at their job; there is no need to use any of these favourites any less.

But instead, we can vary how – or, more specifically, on what – we use them.

Many language learning platforms like these are multi-platform, so you can play them on a variety of devices. Duolingo, for example, can be played on your phone, tablet or on any computer via the browser. Anki, Babbel and Memrise, too, can be played on a device or on the web.

If you always play on the same platform, change that up a little. Work through your Anki cards on the computer one day, and on your phone the next. Vary when you access it, too. Sometimes I will bring up Anki on my laptop during the day, for example, in a few spare moments between work tasks. At other times, I’ll use the mobile app while I’m waiting for a train.

Don’t always make your language app work a phone-in-hand learning session. 

Different times, different places

Just as simple a route to varying your routine is to change your environment. Mobile apps make this easy – you can learn anywhere you like. But even book-based learning can be mobile if you always make sure you have some course material in your bag wherever you go. If you find yourself with a spare half an hour in town, find a coffee shop and settle down with a chapter and a cappuccino.

Flexible resources help here, too. You may have both the paper and PDF / electronic versions of a resource, and these lend themselves to different environments. Leverage that by alternating between them, studying them at different times and in different places. The very fact that you can study the same resource in different formats is a boost to variety in itself.

Keep your scenery constantly changing, and your brain will not have a chance to bind recall with context-based clues.

Veer off course

If you doggedly stick to exactly the same learning materials every day, every week, then feelings of stagnation soon creep in. Pushing through the same course for weeks on end can seem like wading through sludge.

What to do when the beaten path gets muddy? Take a detour. You can achieve this in language learning by having a couple of courses on the go simultaneously. For instance, you might choose to work through both Colloquial French and Teach Yourself Complete French as part of your plan. Throw the new (and excellent) French Tutor into the mix too, and you have a range of course materials you can switch tracks between. Bored of one? Switch to the other for a lesson or two.

The joy of this is not limited just to the change of paper scenery. Different books explain things in different ways. And, given a range of explanations for the same grammatical rules, we often understand better.

It’s like viewing an object from several aspects. Together, those different views give you a much clearer mental picture of the object.

Dare to be non-linear

On that tack, whoever decreed that everybody must work through materials from cover to cover, never deviating from the plan? Naturally, course materials are written with linear progression in mind, and you need some structure. But it doesn’t need to be done to the letter.

From time to time, it does not hurt to jump forward a little. It can be quite exciting to sneak a peek at later chapters of a book. It’s like stealing a glance at what is to come in your learning journey. It reminds me a little of finding out what the ‘big kids’ are doing in the years above you at school. There’s a delicious anticipation about it, a sense of “so this is what I’ll be doing when I’m even better at my language!”.

In many ways, however, it is a completely legitimate way of pre-preparing yourself to learn future material even more effectively. By breaking away and racing ahead, even just for a moment, your brain can get a little head start. And, by the time you come to study that material for real, who knows what subconscious cogitations it has been subject to? You will positively run with it!

Back to the future

Breaking away from the linear is as valid for electronic resources as it is for book-based courses. For example, Duolingo offers more than just the familiar step-by-step, topic-based tree. It also features a Practise section, which selects a random set of words and phrases to test you on. There is no way to tell which topic Duolingo will throw at you, except that it will be one you have studied.

Here, it is about jumping backwards rather than forwards, offering an opportunity to strengthen material you have already covered. Rather than choosing – and therefore expecting – a particular topic, you hand the choice over to the platform. How about that for a bit of unpredictability? Give that a whirl regularly, and your brain will benefit from handling more unexpected material.

In the wild

Our learning resources and plans, of course, necessarily represent a safe bubble of predictability. This is no surprise; nobody wants to be overwhelmed when they first start learning a foreign language.

However, you can carefully stage-manage your gradual release into the wild of everyday language use. After all, there is no greater variety than the real world. A mindful choice of media materials like podcasts and news sites can be a safe dip of the toe into the waters of real-life language.

For a once-weekly dose of current affairs variety, I like the News In Slow … range for French, German, Italian and French students. The podcasts are free, although you can subscribe for extra support resources too, if you prefer to layer some structure on top of that. The language is slow and simple enough to get the gist as a beginner, but current enough to feel relevant.

If your language is not amongst that list, you can often find news programmes in your target language by trawling national broadcaster and other media sites. The Icelandic television company RÚV, for instance, has a daily news programme for kids called Krakkafréttir. And for Norwegian (Bokmål), learners can take advantage of KlarTale.no, a news resource aimed at readers with dyslexia and speakers of Norwegian as a second language.

As always with authentic texts, a bit of Googling will go a long way. I recently unearthed a treasure trove of simplified Icelandic texts intended for school learners. The authors probably never realised how useful they would be for those learning Icelandic overseas!

Gradual exposure to real-world, real-time resources will definitely keep your linguist brain on its toes.

Mix it up, max it out

I hope that the above points convince you that a combined structure-variety approach will maximise what you get out of your learning time. We are not learning robots, and mechanical, unchanging and unbending routine will do no human being much good in the long run.

Follow the variety principle, and keep your learning fresh!

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!