I am not a big believer in New Year’s resolutions, but this year I made two:
1. Read more books
Read 12 books to be exact, 1 book a month. It seemed like a very reasonable resolution and one that could be easily achieved, but it’s now May and I’m just finishing my 2nd book. Crap! I’m failing already!
2. Learn Spanish
I’ve been wanting to learn Spanish ever since I started dating Max a few years ago. See, Max is fluent in Spanish. He grew up in Costa Rica so he actually learned Spanish before he learned English. It’s cute, I know, we are a little ESL couple (in case you didn’t know, English wasn’t my first language either). Max’s family is fluent in Spanish and they have a tendency to break out into a full Spanish conversation when they don’t want others to understand them. I hate being excluded. But it goes past that.
As most of you already know, we are getting hitched in Costa Rica at the end of this year. And it just so happens that 90% of people helping us out with our wedding are locals who do not speak English at all. I don’t have a wedding planner and I can’t always rely on Max and his family to communicate with locals leading up to our big day. I need to be able to converse with them myself. I felt stupid and ignorant not being able to speak a word of Spanish when we visited Costa Rica earlier this year. And I wasn’t going to put myself in that situation again.
So it was decided. I was going to learn Spanish.
Except it was really easy to say it, yet so hard to start. Taking Spanish classes or hiring a Spanish tutor isn’t in my budget this year. And even though Max had offered to teach me himself, his lack of teaching experience and teaching aids had really hindered my progress.
I tried to learn on my own, looking up words online and trying to read up on conjugation and sentence structure. It wasn’t fun and i wasn’t motivated to keep going. Rosetta Stone didn’t work for me either. It was clunky and I didn’t (want to) have time to figure it out. It was April and things weren’t looking good.
A few weeks ago, I accidentally stumbled upon Duolingo, a free language learning program available online and as an app. I tried the first “lesson” and was immediately hooked! I knew I had discovered a game changer!
How Duolingo Works
Launched in 2012, Duolingo applies the concept of gamification to learning a foreign language. Each lesson includes a variety of speaking, listening, translation, and multiple choice challenges which are instantly assessed and corrected when necessary. Correctly answered challenges earn you experience points (XP), with 10 XP up for grabs at the end of each lesson.
Duolingo’s approach to teaching is different, but it has been proven to work. According to an independent study conducted by the City University of New York and the University of South Carolina, an average of 34 hours of Duolingo are equivalent to a full university semester of language education. And each course can teach up to 2,000 words!
I jumped in feet first and have been loving learning Spanish with Duolingo!
What I Love About Duolingo:
Gamification = Fun
Duolingo makes learning Spanish (or any other language for that matter) fun. You answer questions, you earn points, you compete against friends and you can even unlock extra content or dress up your “Duo” character. It doesn’t feel like a dull language class and it has the same addiction factor as Angry Birds.
Each lesson introduces you to 5-10 new words/concepts, but it also continues to test your knowledge of previously learned words by incorporating them into future lessons. They call this “spaced repetition”, a learning concept widely supported by research.
I have to admit, it really works!
Practice Weak Skills
Duolingo keeps track of my mistakes and makes it easy for me to go back and review them at any point in time with the “Practice Weak Skills” module. I find myself using the module every day to review the lessons and run through previous mistakes.
It Teaches Proper Pronunciation
If you’ve ever tried to learn a language from nothing more than a book you’ll know how difficult it can be to grasp correct pronunciation. Duolingo incorporates audio into each lesson and pronounces every word/phrase you click on or type. It also uses other audio exercises to help you get into the habit of speaking and listening. But the best part about it is that audio/speaking exercises are not mandatory. If speaking back to the app isn’t always an option (say, when I’m doing a lesson on a crowded train), I can disable that type of question and the app will substitute speaking questions with writing questions of the same difficulty.
I Can Start Speaking Right Away
One of my favourite things about Duolingo is that it provides me with useful vocabulary right away. Unlike other language courses it doesn’t just start off with random words that can’t be used in day-to-day sentences. Duolingo starts off with basic nouns (food, clothing, etc) and key verbs (to eat, to want, to drink, to like, etc) and combines them into sentences, teaching you proper sentence structure and conjugation along the way.
Within a week of using the app I was able to construct simple sentences and use them in my daily routine.
“Quieres un café? Yo bebo un te” – I say to Max as I make a cup of tea. He nods in approval.
“Con leche y dos azúcares, por favor”
Of course, the best thing about Duolingo is that it is ABSOLUTELY FREE. No hidden fees, no trial periods, and no annoying ads. There is literally no risk and no harm in trying it!
Duolingo Sounds Perfect, But Is It?
Duolingo is great, but, it does have a few flaws worth pointing out:
Some words and sentences are unnatural.
Even though each Duolingo language course is written and tested by native speakers, there are still inconsistencies in what’s taught through the app and what’s actually spoken on the street. Especially for Spanish, there are some significant differences in Latin American Spanish and “Spain” Spanish, which may not be noticeable to the students until they get out and try speaking the language in the real world. Luckily for me, I live with a native speaker, so we’ve been able to catch these issues and correct inconsistencies as I progress through my lessons.
Grammar is a bit harder to grasp. Each lesson is basically a set of 10-20 questions (depending on how many you answer correctly), so there isn’t room for a lot of theories and grammar principles. Each rule is explained rather briefly, often leaving me wanting more.
But that hasn’t been a game breaker for me, as mighty Google always comes to the rescue with in depth explanation and all the theory I need (plus some) available at my fingertips. (What did we ever do without Google?)
Sometimes Spaced Repetition Isn’t Enough
I find some words, rules and concepts to be harder to remember than others. I struggle with them even with the spaced repetition. I found that writing down new words and looking back at them throughout the day has really helped me stay on top of challenging phrases and concepts. I’m a visual learner, so seeing the words written down on paper or in a notepad on my phone really helps me retain them in memory.
Despite the few flaws I have found Duolingo to be a fantastic tool that has propelled my desire and ability to learn Spanish. It seems that I am in good hands and as it turns out, my progress over the last few weeks is living proof of how amazing this app actually is. So whether you are looking to pick up another language for fun, or prepping for a long term trip to a county that doesn’t speak English, I highly recommend you give Duolingo a try.
Duolingo currently offers courses for English speakers trying to learn: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, Swedish and Turkish, with many other languages currently in the incubator (in the process of being developed).
*DISCLAIMER: This post was in no way shape or form associated with or sponsored by Duolingo. It’s a recount of my own experience and honest assessment of the app in hopes of showing others an easy way to pick up the basics of a new language.