Learning Spanish with Duolingo – and some interesting thoughts to go with it.

Duo the Duolingo Owl

Duo the Duolingo Owl

This week, I decided (since I clearly do not have enough to do, what with finishing an MA dissertation, preparing to start the Graduate Diploma in Law, working two days a week etc) to start learning Spanish.

I did French and German at school, and while the French (which I did for five years) has stuck, sort of, at least to the level of being able to pick my way through reading simple phrases, the German (which I did for only three years) really hasn’t. And I regret that, because I have this guilty feeling that I am simply coasting on being an English speaker, relying on – should I go aboard – always being able to find someone who will speak enough English that I won’t have to make the effort, and risk the embarrassment, of trying to speak someone else’s language and getting it wrong.

Hence a search for a way to learn a new language that is cheap (because I have no money), flexible (because I don’t have much time) and effective (because I hate wasting the time I have).

Duolingo came up as pretty good for what I wanted: it’s free, it’s purely online, and lessons are delivered in handy bite-sized little chunks. Plus it’s all set up like a game so, it’s pretty addictive. Nothing like sitting in French lessons chanting the forms of irregular verbs!

So, what’s it like – after three days?

Well, it’s certainly addictive. Maybe I have a simple little mind, but I like the pretty user interface, and I like that you have three or four ‘lives’ – represented by red hearts at the top of the screen – for each lesson; every time you make a mistake, you lose a life. If you lose them all, you have to repeat the lesson. You can also take extra lessons to reinforce things you have already learned. The algorithm behind the program is supposed to deliver you extra lessons depending on things you got wrong, or things you haven’t practiced for a while, so the extra lessons should all be on things that you need to repeat.

The method of learning is also very different to classroom learning (at least, as it was when I was at school). There is no opportunity to just coast along and let your mind go to sleep. Every lesson, you either have to translate from English into Spanish, Spanish into English, or repeat words and phrases through the microphone. So you get to read, write, speak and listen. The one thing that Duolingo can’t do, of course (as far as I know) is have a conversation with you. But, hey, it’s free software. What do you expect? From what I remember from school, the Duolingo method is more interesting, more challenging, and possibly more effective, than the way I was taught in school. It doesn’t spend time explaining rules of grammar – it just teaches you the words and expects you to learn to use them in sentences. Thinking about it, this seems to mimic how babies learn their first language. As far as I know, parents do not sit down with their one-year-old and try to get it to recite all the forms of the verb to be. Instead, they concentrate on teaching the child to say short, simple phrases – and the kid pretty soon picks up which words go together (I + am, not I + are) by being corrected when they get it wrong and praised when they get it right. Thus Duolingo.

It will be interesting to see how far I can get with learning Spanish with Duolingo, although I think the lack of having a conversation facility will be a limiting factor. However, as I mentioned above, it is free. Looking around the web for reviews, I’ve come across quite a few that criticise it for not including conversation practice, and not being nearly as good as one-to-one tuition, or tuition with a professional teacher, or going to live in the relevant country…. well, hello? Free software! What do people expect? Duolingo is not designed to entirely replace human interaction in language-learning. What it is intended to do – and seems to do quite well – is give people a running start in a language. If anyone wants to get beyond quite a basic level, I imagine it will be necessary to find additional materials. There does seem to be an attitude that if a product isn’t perfect, then it’s automatically rubbish. Duolingo isn’t perfect, and I highly doubt that – as it is at the moment – it is capable of turning someone into a fluent speaker of any of the five languages it offers. But if it’s free, and it gets you to a level where you can have a simple conversation in a foreign language, what’s not to like? Not everyone can afford to pay for lessons, or to go and live in a foreign country for a few weeks or months. This is language-learning for the rest of us.

However, starting learning Spanish with Duolingo has led to some rather interesting developments. One of these was a discussion with my husband about the way we see and hear things. When someone speaks, I always see their words in my head, as if they are printed on tickertape (usually black print on white, if you’re interested). And I find it very hard to remember a new word if I haven’t ever seen it written down. It’s almost as if, until it shows on the tickertape (for which I need to know how to spell it), the word doesn’t really exist as communication – it’s just noise. My husband says it’s not the same for him at all. While I see the person, and their words appear on the tickertape, he just sees the person talking. So if a person is saying something very complicated, I tend to look away, or shut my eyes, so I can concentrate on the tickertape. He doesn’t – he concentrates on the person.

Another thing is that we have solved the DVD problem. We don’t have a huge collection of DVDs, but most of them we’ve watched what feels like thousands of times. To the level that – for some – we can quote whole passages. We’d actually stopped watching DVDs together because we didn’t have anything to watch that we hadn’t alread watched to death. However, the Spanish-learning project (which I’ve roped husband into) has given our DVDs a new lease of life! Instead of just watching the DVD, we have the sound in English but with Spanish subtitles. When we know more Spanish, we’ll do it the other way around. The idea is that we’ll learn some new Spanish vocabulary and get used to sentence structures. Last night we watched Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Tonight, we’ll watch Down Periscope. (You can see we have highbrow taste in films.) We both think it works (although you have to read pretty quick before the subtitles disappear) – and it’s a useful counterpoint to Duolingo. Another plan we have is to get Spanish translations of some books that we’ve already read in English; that way, we can compare the English version to the Spanish version, and learn Spanish vocabulary and idiomatic structure at the same time.

Since motivation is the key to learning a new language, the main thing is going to be to keep devoting even just a few minutes a day to Spanish. And we have promised ourselves a trip to Seville as a reward!

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