There are lots of different reasons why people want to learn a new language. For some people it’s a necessity, if they act as translators for family members or are assimilating into a new culture.
For others, it becomes another bullet point on their resumes, or it’s a way to impress dates (which always makes me think of Kevin Kline in “A Fish Called Wanda,” when he speaks Italian gibberish while seducing Jamie Lee Curtis). And some people might learn for fun.
Whatever your reason, there’s no shortage of language-learning apps available. One app in particular — Duolingo — has been getting attention lately. In 2013, it was Apple’s iPhone App of the Year for language learning, and it’s the No. 1 language app in the Google Play app store.
Duolingo is totally free; it “gamifies” the learning experience (a technique I normally dislike, but here it actually works); and it offers immersion learning on its website, letting users translate real documents for practice purposes. This translation service is also how the company makes money — clients like CNN and BuzzFeed pay Duolingo to translate their international content.
I’ve been using Duolingo for more than a week, and it gets the thumbs-up from me so far. As promised, it does make learning a new language enjoyable, but it has some room for improvement, as its language options are still somewhat limited.
Duolingo offers courses in Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese and German for English speakers, and English lessons for speakers of those languages. I decided to try Italian.
Why Italian? Here’s a brief history of my language experiences. I’m a native English speaker who took several years of Spanish lessons and was force-fed Latin for two years as part of SAT prep in high school (note: rattling off i, orum, is, os, is does very little to impress dates). But I only know a couple of Italian phrases, like the curse words my Grandma Flo has said to me (or maybe she is asking me when I’m going to settle down and have children, I’m not really sure).
So Italian appealed to me because it’s Latin-based but still new enough to me that I could get a sense of how impactful Duolingo really is.
Duolingo takes a conversational approach to learning, throwing you right into basic phrases and sentences. Each lesson includes a series of written, spoken or fill-in-the-blank exercises. Brand-new words are highlighted in yellow text, so if you’re looking for a definition, you can simply tap on that word.
You start out with four hearts in the upper right-hand corner of the page. If you get something wrong, you lose a heart. If you use up all four hearts before finishing the lesson, you have to start over. Extra hearts can also be purchased with Duolingo points, called “lingots.” These are not a real currency, just something you earn as you progress.
Here’s an example of an early-stage Duolingo lesson: After learning basic verbs like “eat,” “write” and “read,” Duolingo would have me translate, “Lei ha un giornale,” prompting me to type, She has a newspaper. Next would be something like, “I ragazzi scrivono,” which means, The boys write. My remaining 18 exercises might use some variation of the same words, but would ask for different pronouns or verb conjugations.
The app also recited an Italian phrase to me, then prompted me to speak the same phrase into the microphone, using voice-recognition technology to determine whether my pronunciations sounded okay. If you’re in an environment where you can’t talk out loud, you can indicate this in the app.
One feature of Duolingo I appreciated was the ability to set my own (realistic) goals. Maybe you can practice for only a few minutes a day. That’s fine; you can set your learning track to be “casual,” “regular,” “serious” or “insane,” which changes the number of exercises you’re required to complete within each lesson.
Each day I would get email reminders and mobile notifications from Duo, the app’s language-learning coach, which takes the form of an adorable green owl. I’m a sucker for owls.
All of this made Duolingo fun. It really did feel more like a game, rather than a lesson. I would sometimes use Duolingo before bed at night. My boyfriend, who plays Words With Friends, would turn to me and say something like, “How is ‘goode’ not a real word?” And I would say, “Io mangio la mela” (I ate the apple). If anyone overheard me this week, they would believe that I ate at least 17 apples.
On its website, Duolingo has an “immersion practice” section. This is where you can read, translate, edit or vote on documents that other users have uploaded for translation. For example, one document appeared to be a kind of Wiki page for Bon Jovi. “I Bon Jovi sono un gruppo rock statunitense, formatosi nel 1983 a Sayreville, New Jersey,” it read. Translation: Bon Jovi is an American rock band, formed in 1983 in Sayreville, New Jersey. Someone else had already translated it, so I clicked the “Looks Good” button.
As fun as Duolingo is, it’s lacking in some areas. Most notably, Duolingo doesn’t fully support non-Latin-based languages like Mandarin, Japanese or Arabic. Late last year, it launched its own incubator — found at Incubator.Duolingo.com — where volunteers can post courses in Swedish, Russian, Polish and others, which is a good way to bring more languages into the fold. But there still aren’t any Asian or Middle Eastern lessons on Duolingo’s incubator site.
The best-known language-learning software, Rosetta Stone, is pricey, but does offer language courses in Chinese, Japanese and Arabic, among others. Rosetta Stone also offers a series of mobile apps for travelers that offer the first three lessons for free.
Duolingo also isn’t a language phrasebook, meaning that it’s not going to help you translate on the fly if you need to look up something quickly. In the past, I’ve used these kinds of phrasebook apps, and have found them incredibly helpful. Never mind that people thought I was asking for sushi while I was asking for directions to an aquarium in Osaka, Japan — the poor translation was probably my own fault.
But Duolingo says it plans to offer more language courses in the future, and also has some other interesting projects in the works. It now runs on Google Glass — something I haven’t tried — and it is working with Google to launch, in the near future, an English-language aptitude test that could become a less expensive, more accessible alternative to the current TOEFL test.
If you’re keen on learning a new language this summer, give Duolingo a try. I would say ciao in closing, but I’m too busy eating apples.