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Tech Review: Duolingo

By Ron Scopelliti

I’m really embarrassed to say that despite two years of French classes and two years of Spanish classes, I really can’t speak either language well enough to get by. So when a friend told me he was trying to improve his Portuguese using a free app called Duolingo, I was eager to give it a try.

Opening a free Duolingo account offers users access through all their devices via iOS, Android, or a web browser. There are currently 31 different languages for English speakers, and many for non-English speakers as well. Users can learn multiple languages at the same time through a single account.

The app focuses on daily drills, and allows users to set how much time they want to devote to lessons each day. There’s an emphasis placed on consistent practice, and Duolingo encourages users to meet their daily goals through phone alerts and e-mail messages.

Duolingo uses a “gamified” reward system to help track your progress. When you meet your daily goals or complete a streak of daily goals, in addition to achieving a new level, you’re awarded gems. When you get an answer wrong, you lose health. The gems you’ve earned can be used to restore health. You can also replenish your health by repeating past lessons or by simply waiting a day for it to regenerate.

Though the app is free, there are ads interspersed between the lessons. Users are often given the option of watching an extra ad to gain health, or to get more bonus gems at the end of a daily goal. There is also the option of signing on for Duolingo Plus, for a monthly fee ranging from $6.99 to $9.99. This removes the ads and lets you download lessons onto a mobile device to work offline.

I decided to test Duolingo out by taking German lessons, since I’ve always wanted to drive the Autobahn and the Nurburgring. And I chose the “medium” daily goal level which sets that bar at earning 20 experience points (XP) per day. The “basic” level sets the XP goal to 1, while the “insane” level sets it to 50.

I found that a combination of using my phone for daily drills, then occasionally logging on through my web browser worked best, since there are tips and notes available through the web browser that go more in depth than just the daily phone lessons.

I also found it helpful to occasionally visit the web site’s discussion boards, which range from users sharing language tips to an ongoing discussion of the cost/benefit tradeoff of joining Duolingo Plus.

While ten minutes a day of instruction obviously isn’t enough to become fluent in a language, dabbling with the app for just a couple of weeks has given me a new insight into how the German language works. And I’ve noticed that as I’ve been re-watching “Babylon Berlin” on Netflix, I’ve managed to recognize a few phrases without looking at the subtitles. I can see it being a valuable tool for anyone serious about learning a new language.

Duolingo could use a little more instruction about the interface in the beginning, and some guidance about using the app’s various features. But sticking with the daily drills has gradually helped me get the hang of the app, as well as the language. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t give Duolingo bonus points for including the uber-nerdy options of learning Klingon and High Valyrian.