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

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 isĀ 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!