Have you heard about Duolingo (https://www.duolingo.com/)? You didn’t?! Where have you been for last at least six months then? :) Nevermind, let’s fill that gap - Duolingo is a perfect solution for someone that’d like to learn / remind him(her)self a foreign language of choice. Doesn’t it sound great? Hell it does, and it looks far better (in practice) than you can imagine. Why? Because it WORKS (there are some conditions though, I’ll come to that soon).

So, what is it about?

Duolingo is a website. Yes, modern-looking, Ajax-aided, Web 2.0 website. No thick-client app, no special installers, no OS limitations. You just go to the website, register and voila, you’re set to go. And it’s free, I think I didn’t mention it yet.

But how does learning process look alike? Obviously, you start with picking a language you’d like to master and the base language you already know - for now, the palette of options is pretty impressive and it grows on the daily basis: the post popular combinations are:

  • spanish for english-speaking (10.6M people learning!)
  • english for spanish-speaking (9.9M people learning!)
  • french for english-speaking (6.5M people learning!)

English and spanish speakers have the widest choice of languages they can learn (5 or 4 accordingly), the majority of other nationalities have just one option - they can learn english (seems legit for me).

But how do you learn?

By exercises. Only. For each language you pick, you get a tree (directed graph) of topics - solving the tree level unlocks the next one. To solve the level, you have to pass the exercises on this level (up to 20, I think). To pass an exercise, you need to answer 20 questions while making at most 3 mistakes (otherwise you have to repeat whole exercise). What kind of questions am I speaking about? Quite straightforward:

  • translate a sentence from your mother language to the language you learn
  • translate in the opposite direction
  • bind the picture with the word
  • write down the sentence that is read by the lector
  • etc.

Verification algorithm is quite smartish - it can pretty well figure out the typos (and if it does, it won’t punish you for one), it indicates missing accents, but it doesn’t count as an error. On the other hand, it may be quite nazi about a/an/the/- mistakes, so stay prone. Obviously, it tries to cover some variations in the answers (because usually there is more than 1 acceptable answer) - sometimes it fails, but it’s not often enough to be annoying.

Grammar, what about grammar?!

There are no theoretical lessons, like grammar-description lectures. You learn it by making more and more exercises - by using it in practice. It reminds me the Pimsleur (http://www.pimsleur.com/) method: it works in a pretty similar way.

What’s so special that it works so well?

Well, there are few factors:

  1. The web application is very convenient to use - there are indicators that mark the new words, there are tooltips to help you check the conjugation, there is a very fast access to dictionary, etc. It’s very intuitive and everything you need is exactly where you need it.

  2. There’s a nice social aspect - you can discuss EACH sentence that appears in exercises, you can raise an issue, ask a question, suggest more solutions that are correct, etc.

  3. Obviously, each sentence can be read around and if it’s too fast, you can have it read more slowly - it works perfect.

  4. You’ve got a bunch of statistics to help you with learning process - each section has a “strength” that indicates how recently you’ve practice the words it contains, so you can practice it explicitly when  its strength drops too low. All your efforts are evaluated in points, so you can track the amount of effort you put - by day, week, month, etc.

  5. There’s an interesting gamification aspect - you earn internal currency (lingots) that you can spend on various stuff (like additional learning topics, learning streak extensions, etc.), you can compare your achievements to your Facebook friends and earn levels in each language separately.

All of that works like charm together - my streak (number of consecutive days with at least 1 exercise completed) is 47 today and I am still as motivated as I was on the first day.

I’ve went through all the lessons, what’s next?

After 47 days of learning (well, in the beginning it was more like reminding myself, but now I learn new stuff) I still didn’t complete my spanish tree, but when it’s done, it won’t mean that I have nothing to do:

  • there will be a lot of opportunities to practice the stuff I’ve already learning (but my “strength” has decayed)
  • there’s a special section named “Immersion” when you can participate in translating the REAL articles - for instance Wikipedia ones; it’s all done within Duolingo (with a proper Web 2.0 UI) of course
  • if you don’t like translating the articles, you can evaluate the translations other do - sentence by sentence … (by up/down-voting, commenting, etc.)
  • … or just learn another language - there are some ones in incubation phase, more and more content appears every now and then

But, but, If I don’t have to pay for that, what’s the catch?

There’s no catch. There are no ads, there’s no freemium model, there’s no max level threshold “for payers only” - the business model of Duolingo relies on people practicing the languages by translating and validating translations of the articles (I’ve mentioned it above). Ain’t it sweet? Perfect win-win scenario = everyone gets his gain.

But the most important thing is …

… that I didn’t use spanish in at least 3 years, but now, after 1.5 months, I have barely any trouble with reading in spanish and some minor problems with understanding spoken spanish. The progress is unbelievable. I’ve already promised myself that once I complete whole tree, I’ll buy some spanish books on Amazon to read them - each day it seems less and less challenge. Once I finish with spanish, I will surely go for other languages - it SO much fun.

But, there’s always a “but”

It’s as much a silverbullet as long you let it be one. What does it mean? Even as cool as it is, Duolingo won’t do the work for you - it’s you who have to find both the motivation and the time to work with Duolingo. It’s you who are the weakest link, so the whole endeavor fails, most likely you’re to blame yourself, not the tool. The great tool is already here, you just have to really want to use it.

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