For that reason, the way I’m personally using the app is voice-only. When it wants me to type anything, I just use Siri to speak it instead. The app is intelligent enough to auto-select the English or Spanish keyboard as required, and Siri uses that to determine the language. Though despite coaching from my girlfriend, who is fluent in Spanish, Duolingo persists in insisting that I’m saying carro (car) when Steph confirms I’m very definitely saying caro (expensive).
Lessons are grouped by topic. In Level 1, for example, the lesson topics are: Intro, Phrases, Travel, Restaurant, Family, Shopping, Present Tense, School, and People. In the free version, you have to complete the lessons in order; with the paid Plus subscription, you can jump a little way ahead, but not too far.
My comprehension skills are currently some way behind my own speaking, but I’m told that’s perfectly normal, too, and Duolingo gives you the ability to slow down the speech to make it easier to understand. Indeed, most sentences I don’t understand immediately, I do make sense of them when slowing them down – so asking someone to repeat very slowly is top of my target vocabulary!
There’s a badge/shield icon that shows you where you are ranked against other people of the same level. Although I’m not really a competitive person – I’m motivated by my own goals, rather than comparing myself against anyone else – it still provides a meaningful measure of progress. When I can see from the “points” that just one more lesson will move me up the ranking, then I tend to do it.
I’m still taking note of the written language, of course, but focusing on the spoken word.
The all-important question: Does it work?
The app is free to use. There is a subscription option, Duolingo Plus, which gives you access to some extra features. For me, the three most useful ones are:
- No ads
- Mistakes Review (practicing the mistakes you made during lessons)
- Progress/Mastery Quiz (showing you the percentage of the course you’ve learned)
For these questions, I took to covering the lower half of the screen with my hand while I tried to work it out without prompts. I really wish this were a feature, so you start with the multi-choice options hidden and then tap to reveal them if required.
Most importantly, however, I have the answer to my original question: Can the Duolingo iPhone app help a language dunce learn some Spanish? The answer is “yes” – both by teaching me a surprising amount itself, and by giving me enough encouragement to seek other avenues too. If you too had given up on learning a language, I recommend giving it a go.
For those who have the ability to learn languages, absolutely. My girlfriend has used it for years, and is fluent in three languages and is currently learning two more. Friends have also reported great success with it.
An apple. I cannot even begin to tell you how many times Duolingo had me talking about apples. And not in normal, plausible contexts — not “I’ll have an apple, please,” or “Do you want my apple?” The circumstances in which Duolingo envisioned my needing to speak about apples were either too fanciful (“The bird is eating an apple: L’oiseau mange la pomme”) or vaguely threatening (“My pocket contains an apple: Ma poche contient une pomme.” I translated apple from English to French and back again. I spoke it aloud. I typed it out when it was spoken to me. “I GET IT,” I screamed at Duolingo. “UNE POMME.”
Audio Lessons are listening-only modules, where two actors play out various conversations using language you have learned – again, these have to be unlocked through the appropriate lessons. These are great when you can listen but not speak, like using public transit – though the content is a bit cringeworthy to British ears at least!
For someone like me, who has a terrible track record at languages, it’s obviously hard to judge just three weeks in – but the very fact that I’m still using it on a daily basis is itself quite telling. I feel like I’m learning, I feel inspired to supplement the Duolingo work with other tools (much of our apartment is covered in Post-It Notes with the Spanish words for things), and I’m pleasantly surprised by how much I can already say. The app claims I’ve “mastered” 4% of the course at three weeks.
Duolingo aims to teach both written and spoken language. However, my personal view is that spoken is far more important and relevant to me. This is for two reasons.
Duolingo is one of the world’s most popular apps, consistently ranking in the top two or three educational apps, and a hugely popular way to learn a language.
There’s also a web version of Duolingo, which pretty much mirrors – and syncs with – the app.
Speaking and writing
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*Hello, Goodbye, Yes, No, Please, Thank you, one of those (as I could then order anything I could point to), bathroom, airport, and taxi.
Tango and COVID-19 conspired
I dance Argentine tango, fell head-over-heels in love with Buenos Aires, and plan to spend one month a year there (one week of holiday, three weeks working in the mornings and dancing in the afternoons and evenings). So being able to speak at least a little Spanish would be enormously helpful.
There are Stories, which are short dialogues to help you recognize things in the context of conversations (you have to unlock each level of these by passing the relevant lessons first).
First, all of the flattery does make you feel like you’re making progress from the start, so encourages you to continue.
Second, because each individual lesson module is sooo short, taking just two to three minutes, there is zero barrier to opening the app. I found myself opening it intending to do just one module and then ending up doing a bunch of them.
First, most of my interactions in Buenos Aires will be in person. It’s far rarer that I’ll need to write to anyone in Spanish.
For me, the app is well thought-out in several key ways.
I agree with both points, as you’ll see.
My impressions of the app
Somehow the two factors conspired to have me try Duolingo Spanish.
The Duolingo controversy
There’s a Practice Hub, where you can work on your lesson mistakes. In here, you can do Mistakes Review (where got the vocabulary or grammar wrong), Perfect Pronunciation (where your answers were correct but your pronunciation was not), and Listen Up (where your listening comprehension failed). This is a great way to ensure that mistakes don’t get ingrained.
Finally, there’s a blog section (called News).
The main weakness, for someone like me, who wants to pick up just a smattering of the language, is that you get no say over the vocabulary you learn. So I can do something useless, like say I have a brother and a sister (or order an apple sandwich…), but haven’t got as far as being able to direct a taxi driver to go left or right, or ask a kiosk to top up my metro card, or tell a clothes store my size. So now my mission is to identify the most useful vocab for me, and to learn that elsewhere, before resuming my Duolingo lessons.
I’m not normally a competitive person, but even the rankings against other learners worked. If I could see that just one more three-minute lesson would move me into the top 10 for my level, for example, I’d do it. If I got to the top spot and someone knocked me out of it by a few points, then I’d do one more lesson to regain my place. All meaningless, but all effective.
Duolingo is structured into tiny, bite-size lessons. Each one takes me two to three minutes, though I’d expect the time to increase as they get harder.
Duolingo was started by a Carnegie Mellon University professor and one of his post-grad students, with the aim of bringing free language learning to the world. Today, most of the features remain free.
Alongside each lesson, there are associated Tips. These help with things like working out whether a word is masculine or feminine (which, in Spanish, is sometimes clear from the ending of a word, and sometimes random).
It has been criticized as limiting the learning process by making its tests unrealistically easy, and by its sometimes bizarre choice of vocabulary.
Duolingo is pretty much the ultimate example of the gamification of the learning process. It has animated characters that dance with joy when you get something right; fanfares of trumpets; points, gems, crowns; achievement levels; the ability to unlock content by succeeding at earlier levels; rankings against strangers and friends alike… you name it.
The app is incredibly flattering. At beginner level, it uses the same, very limited vocabulary over and over again, and the grammar exercises will frequently show you the correct form, and then the very next question ask you to immediately repeat it. The earlier comment about “apples” is spot-on. If I learn nothing else, I will never forget that apples are manzanas.