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!

Dogs dressed as clowns

Be a clown! How playing the fool makes you a better linguist

Can I tell you my guilty secret? I love making a fool of myself.

Before any of my friends and family organise an intervention to curb these masochistic tendencies,  I should qualify that: I love playing the fool when it comes to foreign languages, and I think a touch of the clown is an essential part of being a successful linguist.

It wasn’t always like this. In the not-so-distant past, I’d agonise over enunciating my foreign phrases so perfectly, so seriously, that I’d reduce myself to a stuttering, gibbering wreck by the time I was standing in front of a native speaker. I’d convince myself that grammatical correctness was a deeply serious business, and I’d risk ridicule if I got just one of my endings wrong. I was passionate about languages – surely that meant they were a matter of extreme gravity!

In fact, the opposite was true – by hyper-focussing on being right, I was taking the whole business of communication – the ultimate goal of language learning – to a really unhelpful extreme. Needless to say, it turned me into that paradox of the linguist who was terrible at speaking.

The turning point

It took a pretty embarrassing incident to change all that (and I’m thankful for it!). Spending a year abroad in Austria as part of my degree, I had the chance to entertain neighbours at my place. It was all a bit short notice, and I’d barely had chance to tidy up when they knocked on the door. “Come in!” I started, in German, “but I’m really sorry about all the diarrhoea everywhere!

Yes, I honestly said that.

It wasn’t planned, of course, and – mortifyingly – nobody said a word, until a friend (stifling laughter) explained what I’d said after the event. It certainly explained the sidewards glances and smiles, which I’d put down to my not-so-Austrian accent. I felt such a fool!

Laugh at yourself

It could have gone both ways, that incident. On the one hand, I was horrified at my mistake (somehow, who knows how, mixing up Durcheinander – mess – and Durchfall – diarrhoea). I could have thrown in the towel there and then, and been put off the language for life. On the other hand, it was genuinely pretty funny – it certainly made my friend laugh, and me too, once the horror had subsided! And it underscored for me the importance of silliness in language learning.

For one thing, I will never forget those two words. Ever! I mean, how could I? The whole tragic story is etched, indelibly, excruciatingly, into my memory.  But it also makes me laugh, to this day, and those happy, daft feelings are more than just the warm fuzz of nostalgia. There is lots of evidence to suggest that happy memories are ones that last longer. A wealth of psychological studies attest this Fading Affect Bias (FAB – great acronym), which seems to be one of the core drivers behind fun and play-based learning. When you fool about and have a laugh with language, it simply sticks longer. It’s one of the reasons that techniques like Linkword work so well, too.

The name of the game

Language teachers know this only too well. As a former classroom teacher and friend to many more, I can honestly say that we’re the most open bunch to in-school silliness. The language classroom is perhaps the most game-based and fun of them all (I’m biased, I know!).

However, it’s something we could all carry into our own individual learning too, at whatever age. I work in a multilingual office for part of the week, and it would be a crime not to take advantage of that as a linguaphile. It would be too easy to approach that in a very straight-laced way, and try to engage colleagues in formalised chit-chat (poor them, I’m sure you’re thinking!).

But it’s much more fun – and a heap less stressful – to have a bit of a laugh, say some silly things to practise your latest vocab, and make people smile and laugh. It’s clowning around, but it’s creating those fuzzy feelings around language learning that will make you want to carry on. I don’t expect to ever say “I need a sheep” in Polish, like I did the other day (you had to be there, I think), but I’ll definitely not forget the Polish for “I need…” after having a chuckle over it!

(Don’t) pity the fool

The crux of all this is simple: bring some uninhibited joy back into your language learning. When the time comes, you can play it straight. While you’re learning, though, clown around with words. Make happy language memories. Be a big kid. Play. Be silly and make people laugh – after all, the world’s a better place for it.

dictionary

Getting lost in languages: finding your flow

How often do we hear others dismiss language learning as “too hard” to bother?

In my own long and varied experience with MFL, it’s a charge I’ve heard frequently levelled at languages, as much from frustrated students as from family and friends. “I’d love to learn a language, but I’m just no good at it” is such a common defence; “I’ve got a terrible memory for languages” is another.

But what if expending too much effort is part of the problem? This isn’t to say that there’s some magic, easy method to acquire a working knowledge of a language in a short amount of time. No subliminal headphones-while-you-sleep shortcuts, I’m afraid.

Rather, we should be challenging the over-serious, head-breaking, traditional model of language learning; that slightly authoritarian, sit-down-and-learn-your-grammar reputation that MFL has (rightly or wrongly) earnt over the decades.

Recently I’ve been working on interactive resources in Maori and Latvian, two languages I know next to nothing about. A lot of the groundwork for this involved pretty repetitive copy-pasting to create resource files for apps. However, despite the fairly automatic nature of the task, I found myself noticing and picking up language patterns almost subconsciously  during the process. After more than 100 Latvian verb conjugations, for example, you start to recognise present tense endings like -u/-i/-a/-m/-t/-a and other groups more or less instinctively.

In the zone

Not only that, but turning into a bit of a copy-paste automaton for an hour or so was an easy – even relaxing – experience. Talking about it with a  colleague, I likened it to ‘taking a stroll’ through the language. I’d entered that mindful state of ‘being in the zone’, or flow, as described by positive psychologists like Csíkszentmihályi. I had, in effect, created the perfect mind conditions to enjoy and absorb working within the foreign language, almost without any conscious effort.

I do this kind of task very often in my line of work, unsurprisingly, it’s led me to a head chock full of vocab and grammar snippets that I never really intended to learn, but somehow, fortuitously, did anyway. It leads me to re-evaluate the kinds of learning task that we often dismiss in MFL, those that seem to have little worth on the surface, like word searches and simple matching activities. I’ve often a guilty ‘word search snob’ myself, but it’s likely worth rethinking their poor reputation amongst MFL educators in this light. Food for thought when considering whether to include such ‘low-level’ tasks in your language learning regime or resources!

If they’re engaging enough to spark a little of that flow, contain a fair amount of language patterns and paradigms with clear meaning,  then maybe, just maybe, ‘grunt’ language learning tasks have a valuable place in learning.