Recently available to the public, Duolingo is a free web app that features simple language learning online. It all started as a project at Carnegie Mellon University, but quickly picked up steam when a variety of investors, including Ashton Kutcher, jumped on board. The site doesn’t have any ads, that I could see, and it doesn’t prompt or even offer a “premium” subscription service. So how does it stay free? Crowd-sourced translation services.
Remember back when ReCaptcha started using the internet to translate books and simultaneously thwart spam bots? Duolingo does something similar, except it’s translating websites while users learn how to read. In fact, the translation engine is so effective that Duolingo administrators say if 1 million people were using Duolingo simultaneously it would takes less than four days to translate the 4 million pages that comprise the entire English Wikipedia website. Duolingo offers these translation services to webmasters looking to present their sites in multiple languages. Like ReCaptcha, in the long run everybody comes out ahead.
Duolingo currently supports learning four different languages. English speakers can learn Spanish, German and French. Or, if you’re fluent in Spanish you can learn English. Hopefully within the next six months you can expect to see support for Chinese, Portuguese, and Italian as well.
The basics are what you start out with. Duolingo asks you who you are, and what city you’re from. Then it has you repeat that information in the foreign language as it lends you a helping hand in introducing some basic words.
That’s right folks, skill points. DuoLingo turns learning a language into a game. With each section you complete, you go higher and higher up a skill tree. A certain amount of skill points are required to enter the next tree, preventing you from jumping ahead to a part that would be too difficult.
The Home Control panel features an overview of your progress, daily tracking, and a social implementation for learning with friends. As far as the social goes, it can also hook up with your Twitter or Facebook account to bring even more friends in who might be interested in learning a language.
Each skill level gives you a few choices on how you’d like to learn. Starting with the Basics, you can choose the built in Duolingo lessons, or you can jump to a partially translated page on Wikipedia that the words found in the lessons as well as a few more advanced ones.
During the lessons, Duolingo is a picky teacher. Some exercises will ask you to directly translate a phrase into English, but even if you are 90% correct it will still mark you wrong. Then again, if you hover the mouse over the French words it will display the translation along with a “you peeked” message, but peeks aren’t counted against you from what I could tell. Note in the screenshot below that this is also how some new words are presented for the first time.
At the top right of the screenshot, there’s four little hearts. These hearts represent chances, or “health” as they would in a video game. In total you can make five mistakes per lesson (the four hearts + 1 more chance), and if you mess up more than that the lesson will automatically restart from the beginning. But, to keep it from getting boring, the lesson is randomly generated to keep it different each time you take it.
Some new words are introduced with pictures to help you associate the sound with the physical entity. Also, if you mess up with a particular new word and have to try again you will usually see the lesson shuffle. The more difficult word will then be presented with pictures rather than just the hover-over intro shown above.
The most difficult, for me anyway, was the “Listen and type” exercise. Maybe I’m more of a visual learner than a verbal one, or maybe the French women who says the words is just difficult to understand. Half the time I couldn’t figure out if she was saying “Je” or “Tu”. Thankfully there is a small button that if pressed will slow down the pronunciation, and that helped immensely.
At the completion of a lesson, you see the gratifying “Good job!” page. You’ll receive your skill points, and be prompted to write a new status update with the words you just learned. By default the status update is only posted on your duolingo profile, but if you’ve connected it to Twitter and Facebook you can post it on those social networks too.
I’ve used Duolingo for a few days, and my overall impression of it is positive. It reminds me a little of the Rosetta Stone software, but I think it packs a lot more potential. Because of its crowd sourced engine, the vocabulary is updated frequently. And it offers its own internal forum for each level of skill that allows you to ask questions to other learners and fluent speakers of the particular language.
What I’d like to see from this service in the future is more languages, and multiple narrators for each lesson to help me see how different native speakers pronounce the same word. Other than that, it’s a groovy service and I find it hard to make any complaints. If you want to learn a new language, I think you’ll be happy with Duolingo. Have fun!