AlexJ's Computer Science Journal

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Online education: Duolingo

Have too much time on your hands and want to learn a new language (and I don’t mean C++, Python or Ruby) ? Or do you want to catch up on your forgotten French or German learned in high school? Duolingo might be what you need.

About two years ago, some friends of mine who moved to German speaking cities told me about a language learning site called Duolingo. I created an account, I saw that you could learn German, French, Spanish and others, but didn’t really have time to actually do anything. Some time later, when I had  some free time and wanted to rehash my foreign (non-English) language skills, I quickly searched for some sites that can teach but they weren’t that exciting because they lacked interactivity. They were basically class notes posted online. A few offered videos so you could hear pronunciation and some had some quizzes for self evaluation. But then,I rediscovered Duolingo and my search was over.

Doulingo is a little different than other language learning sites and it’s probably why it is successful. First of all, it’s very interactive. After you choose a language that you know (let’s say English) and a language that you want to learn (let’s say Spanish) you directly start learning by doing. No tons of theory before being asked to do a simple exercise. You start with the exercises from moment 0. You always get instant feedback and it’s amazing how intuitive things are and how many things you can learn instantly.

There are a range of different exercises, balanced out, organized in a knowledge tree. You either read and/or hear a text in Spanish (using as example) and you have to translate it into English (also using as example) or get an English text and you need to translate it into Spanish (at first you get easy texts that you can can successfully guess what they translate to).  You also can get single word (usually objects) association tasks, where you either get an image and you need to type in the word describing the word in Spanish or the other way around. And probably the most interesting task is the speak recognition where you get the chance to pronounce the learnt words (it has a rather high number of false positives, but it’s still useful to focus on speaking too).

Another interesting thing about the architecture of Duolingo is that it has a smart knowledge tracking system. The chapters don’t just have static lessons and tasks. Each exercise is generated considering what words you know and which ones you need to exercise more. The system keeps track of the words learned and when you last used them, and if it has been to long since that happened it makes you repeat them. For example, basic words in the first chapter will probably be used in most of the other chapters so you are “strong” with those. But some others, less likely to use in generic exercises, will become “weak” and Duolingo will suggest you do more exercises with them.

You learn something by keep repeating things. And Duolingo helps you repeat what you need. But repetition is sometimes boring, so the site makes everything like a game. And it doesn’t matter if you are young or old, games are always attractive.

They add, in a game-like manner, several incentives to keep you going. Like points that you earn by doing each lesson and levels when you reach different point values and bonuses if you study every day. And if you add friends that also use the site, you can compete with them on who earned more points (who studied more), making things more social. Combined with a very nice interface both in your browser and within a mobile app, it makes the interaction very appealing and it can become really addictive (in a good way).

Another reasons why I think Duolingo is so powerful is the fact that it’s community driven. It’s not developed just by one company or a group of people, but by an entire global community. All the language courses are distributed across volunteer groups all around the world. For example, the course “English for Romanian speakers” is done by a group of Romanians who… speak English.

Also, it can be developed by you, in an open source-ish way. Some exercises still have bugs and you can report them and/or suggest correct solutions while inside the lesson. And if you are unsure if something is correct or not, you can have a discussion on the many forums available. The forums are formed by people like you (some beginners, some advanced) and they are very interactive and busy.

And what I am glad to see is that the site is constantly evolving. They have a program called Incubator that is a beta program for news courses. And there are a ton of new courses being developed. When I first signed up, there were 6 or 7 public courses. Currently, there are 21 that graduated from beta and are officially launched, with another more than 30 in phase 1 or phase 2 of development. And yes, you can beta test courses that are not officially released.

Of course, everything takes time and effort. Don’t expect to learn over night. Just to give you an example, never having taken a Spanish course in my life, I started the Duolingo “Spanish for English speakers” (I am native Romanian speaker but I am proficient in English) course about a year ago. It look me about 9-10 months to finish all the exercises available (redoing some lessons in the process). My mother took the “English for Romanian speakers” course (that was still in beta when she started) and took her about 6 months to finish all the lessons. And tough neither of us can have a decent conversation in the new learned language, we can now at least, understand what others say or write in that language.

That being said, I would like to leave you with the following TED talk. It’s a very interesting presentation that shows you how important the first steps in learning something new are.

(note: this article was stated on January 1st 2014… took about one year to publish. It has been a busy year)

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