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Locking down and levelling up with Duolingo

Language learning via app fares well compared to in-person classes

Earlier this year, I wrote an article about how you shouldn’t learn a language at university. In it, I argued that while learning a language is an enriching intellectual endeavour, studying one at university probably won’t make you fluent, so those thinking of doing it should go in with tempered expectations. Much of this was based on my own experience of studying Japanese at USyd. Never would I have guessed that this article would be the most controversial thing I’ve ever written. 

“This is such a poor take. I’ve finished Japanese 2 and I have some ideas of how to express my daily thoughts pretty simply in Japanese” one comment reads. A particularly angry reader even sent a letter to Honi warning them against posting “one-sided articles” like the one I had written as it would “dissuade people from studying what they’re really passionate about.” One comment that did stick with me though was from someone asking where else you would learn a language if not at university? Of course, immersion is the best way to go, but not everyone has the luxury of time or money to move to a different country for a year.

So I took it upon myself to see if there was a better way to study a language. I decided to start learning French and promptly enrolled in classes at the Alliance Francaise. But given the lockdown which happened afterwards, I soon had no choice but to go with Duolingo. Much maligned as nothing more than a technological gimmick, I was initially skeptical of how useful it would be. Little did I know that it would soon become the only thing keeping me sane during lockdown. Like most people, I struggled to maintain any sort of routine while stuck at home. Duolingo was the only thing keeping any semblance of structure to my days. I would try to spend at least twenty minutes a day on it, give or take a little depending on how busy I was with my studies. Some days, caught in the depths of lockdown despair, I felt like I spoke more to “Duo,” the little green owl mascot, than I did to anyone else. 

More than 160 days have passed since I started learning French on Duolingo. I know because the app keeps a streak counter for everyday you complete a level on it. Though many people who have tried Duolingo report findingreport to finding it hard to stay motivated and continue learning, I had built up enough momentum around day 30 that I now feel anxious if I don’t do my daily Duolingo. Not all of my motivation has been out of pure linguistic curiosity, admittedly. Sometimes the only thing compelling me to open up the app is  the fear of losing my streak. Other times it’s the simple joy of seeing my name overtake others on the in-game leaderboard. Reflecting on this, I realise that I’ve spent more time studying French on Duolingo in five5 months than I ever did in two years of studying Japanese at USyd.  Had I taken the same consistent approach to my university language studies, I might have got more out of it.

That said, there are parts to Duolingo that I genuinely prefer over in-class learning. The freedom to learn at your own pace, and the ability to get immediate feedback are obvious ones. More importantly, the underlying pedagogy it uses to teach languages suited my learning style much better. Traditional language learning often revolves around learning rules or vocabulary and then doing exercises so they stay in your memory. Children on the other hand learn their first languages very differently —- they aren’t formally taught it, they just hear it so many times that it becomes second nature to them. Duolingo is somewhat similar to this. It doesn’t give you much guidance in terms of grammar rules or vocabulary, and instead encourages you to develop an intuitive understanding of what they are yourself through repetition. After doing lots and lots of exercises, linguistic patterns become clear to you even though you’ve never actually learnt what they are. And because you’ve actually had to make these links yourself, they’re much harder to forget. 

So how’s my French? Well, there are eight8 levels in Duolingo and I’m about to start level 5. After doing a whole heap of online diagnostic tests, it seems that I won’t have any problems passing the first level for the Diploma in French Language. This is around where I would be after a year of studying French at university. Of course, Duolingo still has it’s problems. It’s not the best at fostering listening or speaking skills, and I don’t think it’s possible to become fluent solely from using it. But for a free application, I’d say it’s pretty impressive. 

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