Sprechen sie mobile? Language learning with Duolingo

Duolingo logo

The Duolingo Owl

Lunch times at Netskills took on a slightly more cosmoplitan flavour last week. We’d collectively stumbled across Duolingo, a novel language-learning app, so conversations were peppered with people randomly blurting out sentences in various European languages followed by a confirmatory “ding!”.

I chose to learn German, mostly because I think it’s a fascinating language that sounds really beautiful (despite what many people would say about it!). Also, my experience of learning it at school wasn’t great (or effective) so I felt I had something to put right.

I’d overindulged on Clumsy Ninja over the Christmas break. I had slogged my way to the end of the game and was astonished at my capacity to waste so much time and had very little of value to show for it. It had stopped being fun round about level 25 so by level 53 I was mindlessly going through the motions.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was something that harnessed that bizarre willingness to compulsively work through repetitive tasks for small rewards but actually meant you got something useful out of it at the end?

Well, step forward Duolingo.

“Comment ça marche?”

Rather than use the model of tutorial-test-tutorial test, Duolingo just throws you in at the deep end with a series of translation, speaking and listening tasks (it does give hints to help you out). It starts easy and gets progressively harder; simple game design technique. For every task you complete you are awarded experience points and “lingots”, rewards that can be traded in to customise your in-game coach’s appearance.

More complicated levels are “unlocked” as your experience grows.

As you’d expect, it’s easy to make progress early on but you need to put more effort in as the game moves on.

Screengrab from Duolingo 1 Screengrab from Duolingo 2

As a piece of learning design it’s deceptively simple but also very clever. There’s a lot that people who are creating their own elearning could emulate as part of their instructional design. It also uses the affordances of mobile technology really well. You can access everything via a useful desktop site which also has more background information and comments threads linked to individual questions, but even with this extra functionality it’s the convenience of the app that is the real hook here.

“Ist es perfekt?”

I certainly know a lot more than I did when I started and it’s great to be able to learn at my own pace and revisit the things I’m not confident with.

But no, “es ist nicht perfekt”, there are frustrations.

Ironically, I’ve found myself wanting to revert back to how I was originally taught languages and check verb tables as I can’t get these to stick regardless of how many times I do the tasks. But that’s because learning languages is tricky, so I shouldn’t complain. Having this information available on the website is probably the best place for it, otherwise the app would end up too cluttered.

More importantly, I’m missing the social interaction. I’m not sure I feel that I’m actually learning a language yet. There’s a big difference between completing these abstract tasks and properly engaging with a language.

It might have helped if all of us doing this at Netskills had chosen the same language to learn!

I have come across some language apps that have a real, live tutor that you can converse with but that’s not going to be feasible for a free app like Duolingo.

Not all learning activities will fit this games-based model. It suits introductory language learning but if you want to understand the language properly then you’re obviously going to have to start reading properly and finding someone to talk to.

Is the gamification of the process motivating me to continue? I’m not sure how much the functionality of the app would spur someone on who isn’t motivated to start with. There is a world of easier distractions out there. On the other hand, I’ve been wanting to rediscover German for years but hadn’t done anything about it till now, so I think there has to be a mix of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation going on. Nothing extraordinary about that, though

As for whether it’s still fun, I’m now on level 7 and have about 700 XP’s to my name and I’m not feeling bored yet. Time will tell if I ever get to the same semi-hypnotised state I had with Clumsy Ninja.