Backyard Monsters who? Was there ever a place called Zombie Lane? Move aside for this practically-a-game! Duolingo is the next big thing in getting us addicted to the internet that we are already addicted to. The site describes itself as an elegant solution to two problems, as a way to learn a language for free while, at the same time, helping to translate the web. It is exactly that, in every great way possible. You can learn Spanish, French, or German, then help the site translate web pages into English. (Spanish speakers can also use it to learn English).
You can view its introduction video at www.duolingo.com. It is a pretty good description of the site, which is currently in a private beta for a while but maybe it’s public soon or maybe even already? It is totally free, with no ads and no kind of subscription at all. I want to share it with you because I am having a wonderful time with it and want you to know that you can too. That’s right! Greatest discovery 2012: Learning can be so much fun!
Firstly, everything on Duolingo looks great. It is so important for things to look great in this shallow and sexy modern world. The skill chart is fun, sleek, and informative just like I like ‘em, and is basically the part of the site that you will use the most. The owl mascot is adorable, whether he is teaching you or sad that you haven’t learned so much. Even the background is a cute and interesting little forest, where I guess the owl lives?
The skill chart is a flowchart of the skills you’ve learned and mastered and which are available to you to learn next. Everyone loves flowcharts, so you can tell that the makers of duolingo really knew what they were doing! Know what they ARE doing!! To “complete” a skill, you must finish the lessons in that skill. To “master” it, you must earn a certain number of relevant skill points (explained below) by completing lessons, reviewing, and doing translations. Future topics are greyed out but you can view what they are. I’m personally excited for animals and colors because I am making up for the cynicism I harbored in Kindergarten, when I was too cool to be interested in anything. Check it out!
The skill chart becomes frustrating pretty quickly, but only in a good way I think. That’s what I’m going to insist, anyway. When you unlock new sections, you learn more and more words and grammar rules. The lessons are so fun and easy that you might find yourself running through new words too fast and then getting confused. But the site is so addictive that you will actually want to sit and learn better, as if you are some sort of fiending language-addict. Haha, in that regard, toss out the browser-based games comparison and allow me to say: Alcohol who? Crackrock what? Who has time for other addictions anymore?? Who WANTS to have time for them? Certainly not me or those in the Duolingo Know.
Duo the owl is cute. He is your instructor. I have always heard that owls are wise and now I know that it is true. This guy is multilingual! If you do badly enough, he cries. Perhaps it is meant to make you feel guilty and do better the next time around. In fact, it makes you want to punch him right in his cute owl face – I don’t need the pressure or guilt, owl! It’s okay though, he gives you a few chances, represented by three hearts, which you can lose by answering a question wrong. If your mistake is just a typo, you may not even lose a heart! He is a forgiving owl.
The site teaches you by having you complete various exercises, which include transcribing foreign audio, translating foreign sentences into English, repeating foreign audio into the microphone (which is optional if you don’t have one), identifying photos in the language, translating new vocabulary words to English, and choosing articles to match the nouns. It takes a little getting used to, but it starts off real clear and simple. It is genuinely helpful and progresses in a very intuitive way. I admire it so much that I am trying to copy their informative style in my article, is it working?!
Now I should mention the best part of the site, which is that it rewards you in points. Instantly easy to compete in! You can follow your friends and enemies and when viewing your homescreen it will automatically list what place you are in among them. It is fascinating. It is also much better than getting points for harvesting crops and shooting zombies. Each and every point will make you definitely smarter and everyone wants to be smarter! Points are an absolutely fantastic system. If workouts and my job awarded me with points, I might even appear to act like a normal human being regarding fitness and work. Hurry up, developers of things like this!
Anyway! You will be ranked in overall points and in number of translations. You also progress by levels. You are just getting points for all sorts of things all the time! It is great. You need specific points to master each skill, which you can get only by the related lessons, reviewing those lessons, or completing a translation with highlighted words (which are from the lesson). You actually end up completing a decent amount of review of each set of material just by filling bars with points. To prove that you are even learning anything, Duolingo gives you little trophies and announces your level advances with much fanfare and exclamation marks.
For example: I joined the site about three weeks ago and I am learning German. I have mastered Basics 1, Basics 2, Phrases, Masculine and Feminine, and Food. The level now open to me is Plurals, which will open up a lesson on the Formal You. I have 1094 skill points, am at level 7, and have done 59 translations. I am ranked 1st among myself and the twenty-five people I follow for both points and number of translations (which I keep reminding them about). Oh wait no, what I’M SECOND PLACE IN TRANSLATIONS NOW!? HRARRRGHHH
In no time, you will feel like you can actually say some things in your language of choice. Some of them might even be relevant to you! Once you do some lessons, you move on to translations. It seems too early at first, until you realize that you can still see the translations of each word by hovering with your cursor. Turning the string of disjointed vocabulary words into a coherent thought is why this translation isn’t left up to a computer, according to the TEDx Talk I saw about it. It is pretty fun, and easy to do right away. At first it was weird getting used to actually being helpful, but it turns out that it doesn’t even take away from the other positives!
You’re awarded points based on how similar your translation was to other people’s translation of the same sentence, I think. It gives you a percentage that is basically meaningless to us because it is compared to other translations, but you can view those! I guess what it does is takes everyone’s translations and combines them and averages them out to make the Best Possible Translation for the real live internet page you are working on, which is pretty neato. A good way of going about that, imo. You can also rate people’s translations after each one that you do. Sometimes it is even helpful to see how other people interpreted the sentence, so I try to do it when I remember. You can also even rate the page that the sentences to translate are from.
Everything you do on the site ends up on your stream. The stream is hardly interesting, unless the people you follow actually use it. If they do, it is great, so you should encourage them. After each lesson it encourages you to post using the words you have just learned. It posts an update each time you finish a lesson, go up a level, complete a translation, or follow someone new. You can comment on people’s posts and updates and you can mark them as “Awesome.” It is a pretty good way to keep you and your friends going, I mean, if you are susceptible to praise like I am, and all of my friends seem to be. An even better way to keep focused on language-learning is to get OUTRAGED when the site emails you to gently inform you that a friend has surpassed you in points, I WILL GET YOU SOME DAY, CHRIS. THIS I PROMISE.
Oh, this is even barely worth mentioning, but a couple of us have encountered some super square naysayers so maybe you will have this happen to you, too. Out there in the world, there are people who wish to embrace ignorance, never want to learn new things, and they don’t think anyone else should, either. These people might step forward and loudly call you a nerd for competing with your friends over who can learn faster. These people might go so far as to say something like, “just the idea that a French learning game has sparked this much anger. Not since 2nd grade Math Munchers have two nerds went at it so hard.” You can probably tell by the misused verb in that mocking quote, but yes that was OMGJeremy himself casting disbelief and doubt at Amanda. Well, he can go ahead and live in Monolingualville. On the outskirts. Because he barely even can use English. AND YES THIS IS A PARAGRAPH WRITTEN BY AMANDA, I CONFESS. Bet you never would have guessed!!!
So if you’d like to learn how to talk about drinking oil in a very German lady-robot voice after a series of game-style lessons, I can invite you to Duolingo! Just send me an email at email@example.com and I will invite you to meet Duo, the exasperating owl. An invite gives you immediate access, whereas signing up on the site might result in a wait. Come on, get on that bandwagon with us. Get addicted to something useful for once in your life!
Newark, New Jersey’s very own Melissa is a gal who has stuff to say about things.
Contact her: firstname.lastname@example.org