Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head
I had no motivation to learn Spanish until this week.
Then I tried Duolingo and I’m completely hooked. By the same life sucking, brain dead urge that has me playing Candy Crush, I’m now a model language student.
My “anything I can think of is better than studying a language” attitude is typical of a large percentage of my students over the years. Like most of them with English, just because I should or need, in some hard to define way, to learn Spanish, it doesn’t meant I want to. So if Duolingo’s website and app has had me studying (playing) for days in a row, it has to be worth recommending to learners.
I’d been recommended Duolingo a while ago but was put off by the fact I needed to register. This simple logging in with Facebook was just too much effort for something I don’t care about. But, one night, having run out of Candy Crush lives and unable to muster up sufficient concentration span to read or watch to a whole episode of Fawlty Towers, I forced myself through the ten seconds of registration with the incentive of blogging about it.
I kept myself logged into Facebook as I was fairly sure I’d be bored and want the distraction. But I was so absorbed, even just by the level test, that, as Facebook pinged away, I completely ignored it (which is an uncommon enough thing in itself) AND stayed in well beyond the thirty minutes I’d allotted myself.
Duolingo is free and works on the basis of fulfilling translation jobs – documents uploaded by paying customers for students to practise on. The translations are done by enough users that consensus and then a round of checking both ensure accuracy and give an alternative studying option for users. There didn’t seem to be any documents to translate at my “easy” level but there were a few to be checked. I did get bored doing that though as there were no gimmicks to keep me in there. That’s for serious learners.
I returned quickly to the part where I got points or lost lives, heard sound effects and watched the bar fill up as I got nearer my goal. More than once I’ve stayed on longer just to get the extra ten points to move up a level. I don’t even really know what the levels mean but there’s a virtual currency to earn so who cares?
Why Duolingo is great
What’s wrong with Duolingo
It’s not perfect. So far, in under a week of using it, I’ve found two major flaws.
The voice recognition software in the web based version lets in wrong answers (there is a read and record exercise and a translate and record exercise) while the app version refuses to accept anything I say. And sometimes it stops working altogether and I lose a life because I have to skip that answer as if I didn’t know it.
There is one terrible exercise where the cue is a piece of vocabulary in English with three **Spanish options to choose from. This would be fine but for some reason the writer has wasted what must have been hours finding pictures to go with each option, meaning that you’re just matching a picture to an English word and don’t need any Spanish to do the task.
Some people will get all high horsey about the sometimes meaningless, non real world sentences you’re translating. E.g. The mouse is on my shirt. The dogs eat rice. But I think those are outweighed by the fact you’re engaged by the activity and conjugation of verbs and lexis is a useful skill. Plus, it keeps you on your mental toes as the translations are not going to be what you might automatically expect.
How they could improve Duolingo
The exercises test your passive and active knowledge so I’d like metrics to show me the percentage of both that I’m getting correct and how the two compare over time. Perhaps even being able to choose which type of knowledge to practise would be good. They have this data so could easily provide it.
Am I learning?
Apparently this is the important question. I disagree with that. The question I is “Am I entertained?” I would bet any amount of actual ELT research that being able to answer Yes to the second question means a big YES to the first.
Incidentally to being fun, I reckon I’ve remembered lots of things I knew but had forgotten since I’ve mainly been going over the level I am at than studying new material.
I don’t know how effective Duolingo would be at higher levels, I’ll let you know when I get there. Because unlike with any other method I can think of, I probably will carry on with it.
I’ve already recommended it to my students and I’ll be interested to see how they get on with it. That’s if I show up to class and am not at home playing.
**French, German, Italian and Portuguese available.