Spreekt Nederlands? 3: Duolingo
Duolingo is a language-learning phone app, and a rather good one. It also has an online version, but we have primarily been using it on our phones. My sister-in-law Amy first introduced us to Duolingo before we left, and Brian who tried it first after we arrived. After some pestering, he convinced me to try it too. Although I don’t think it’s a full package for learning a language, I think it gets a lot of things right for building your vocabulary, learning the basics and retaining what you've learned.
The first great thing is that Duolingo offers many languages, so whether you want to know Dutch or Spanish or French, Duolingo might be for you. The second great thing is that you can add “friends” on the app and get a bit of a rivalry going over your points.
More than anything else so far, Duolingo offers us accountability. When we first signed up, we were asked to set goals, and the app tracks whether we are meeting our quota for the time period we have set. Each time we log in, you are presented with a visual representation of our progress over the past week and whether or not we are meeting our goals. If we have neglected the app for too long, it’s plain to see that we are not keeping up your end of the bargain, and successfully guilts me into catching up.
A lesson starts with a progress bar that is filled by each successful answer. There is some gamification going on as well, if that is something that really motivates you. I personally have ignored this aspect, but it's great that Duolingo offers more than one way to make learning fun. The Duolingo learning currency is called the "lingot," which you earn in multiple ways like leveling up, finishing a skill and achieving streaks. These can be used in the store for things like maintaining your streak even though you've missed a day or taking practice tests.
The exercises are simple enough for beginners. Through a combination of matching pictures to words, translating sentences, writing what you hear, multiple choice, and a lot of repetition, we did notice our vocabulary improving right away. Some of the words they teach you are a bit not the most useful for everyday conversation – I’m not sure how many times I will need to refer to a “neushoorn” (rhinocerous), but it was used rather excessively. On the upside, I certainly won’t forget the word. Some of the sentences are a bit weird too, but we think it’s all part of making the app fun and the words you learn indelible.
Another great feature of Duolingo is that it keeps track of your “weak” words and as you continue to use the app, it asks you to go back and refresh your memory on those lessons. Completed lessons are gold, and once your strength in them has faded, they return to their former colours. I try to catch up on my weak words as soon as I open the app, and I’m always motivated to get through them so I can move on to the new stuff.
Once we advanced a bit further, we started to get a bit frustrated. The Duolingo app doesn’t really explain to you any of the rules, and here's where it probably pays to use the online version as a companion piece. With the online version, you can view tips beforehand and also review the level including all your right or wrong answers. Another strong advantage of using the online version is that some of the exercises actually force you to speak Dutch out loud!
People who prefer to use only smartphones will be forced to figure out the rules and patterns themselves by trial and error, or have some other way of filling in the blanks. Even when we thought we had certain things figured out, we would get questions wrong, and there isn't an easy way on the app to find out why an answer is incorrect. You can flag things that you think should have been marked correct, and you can check the comments for each question, but I haven’t found the comments feature to be useful for timely answers to questions.
The things that are missing from the Duolingo app, like grammer concepts and better review tools, are included in the online version, so if you're serious about picking up a new language, I recommend using both together. It's a little less convenient in this smartphone world, but spare a few minutes to tackle new and complicated lessons on your desktop or laptop computor and then switch to your smartphone for repetition and strengthening weak words.
Good luck! Let us know which languages you are working on and how it's going.