In preparation for our epic trekking trip to Machu Picchu in Peru this summer, I’ve been learning some Spanish through this nifty free app called DuoLingo. Although I grew up in Spanish-speaking Southern California, somehow I managed to escape my childhood with knowing only a handful of Spanish words. Convinced that I was destined to live my life in Paris, I took French in high school. I have still yet to live in Paris, though I’ve visited several times.With our two-week trip looming on the horizon (whatever horizon we can see that isn’t covered in snow and ice), I decided that I should learn some Spanish to help us communicate with Peruvians.
I learned about DuoLingo through this Slate article that lauded DuoLingo’s addictive qualities. DuoLingo is a language learning platform that teaches through repetition and gamification. Currently only Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, Italian, and German are supported, but several other languages are in the pipeline for development. Unlike traditional pedagogical methods that is based on explicit teaching of grammatical rules, DuoLingo teaches through simplified repetition and practice.
Aside from a few random words, such as leche (milk), carne (meat), mucho (a lot), I knew no Spanish. Could an app really teach me enough Spanish to muddle through a conversation? There are several short lessons focused on a particular topic. Vocabulary and grammar are taught in various ways. Sometimes there are pictures labeled in Spanish and you’re asked to pick out the photo of the woman (or whatever word the app wants to teach you at that moment). Sometimes the new word is embedded in a simple sentence where you already know all the other words. You can click on the new vocab word and a pop out window defines the new word. There are different exercises – translations in both directions (Spanish to English, English to Spanish), verbally repetition where you can practice speaking, and dictation where you practice listening to Spanish and writing down what you hear. Each lesson is quite short and takes me about 10 minutes to do. I like that each lesson is so short because it makes it easy to knock out a lesson each day. If I have a few minutes to spare, rather than idling browsing through the internet, I can learn some Spanish. Often I find the lessons so much fun that I do two, three, or four lessons in a session.
The other aspect of DuoLingo that I greatly appreciate is that they have a feature where you can practice your weakest skills. You click on a button labeled Practice Weak Skills, and it’ll create a lesson around the items that you’ve previously missed or had difficulty with from prior lessons.
Below each completed lesson is a strength bar. The strength bar indicates how well you know the lesson. Through time if you don’t practice what the topic of the lesson was, the strength bar will decrease. Some lessons will never decrease their strength bar because you will be using those skills in every lesson. But other lessons do decrease in strength over time. If you find that the strength bar has decreased, just tap on that lesson and DuoLingo will offer you a refresher lesson. As soon as you complete it, your strength bar goes back up to full strength. I quite like it because it reflects real world atrophy that happens with disuse.
The gamification aspect of DuoLingo is fun. Every time you miss a question, you lose a life. When you lose all your lives (each lesson has 3-4 lives), you need to start the lesson over from the start. When you finish a lesson, a trumpet blares announcing that you’ve finished. You earn points based upon how well you completed the lesson. If you link your DuoLingo account to Facebook or other social media platforms, you can find your friends and compete with them on DuoLingo.
An impartial study was conducted that investigated DuoLingo’s effectiveness. A group of participants who had no previous knowledge of Spanish used DuoLingo for 8 weeks, studying a minimum of 2 hours per week. Vesselinov and Grego (2012) found that DuoLingo was very effective and that roughly 26 hours of studying on DuoLingo corresponded to one semester of college Spanish. Not only does DuoLingo effective in teaching Spanish, but it’s very efficient as well because the 26 hours on DuoLingo is far less than the time one would spend in a classroom.
DuoLingo doesn’t promise that you’ll become a fluent speaker when you finish all the lessons, but you will have the skills and confidence to speak conversationally with people as you travel. It’s free, effective, and efficient. You can’t ask for more than that.
If you have any curiosity in picking up a new language, I definitely recommend using DuoLingo to help you get started.