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Brush up on your language skills with Duolingo

Serenity Caldwell | May 2, 2014
Want to learn a new language or brush up on one you already know? Our staff pick, Duolingo, provides a great foundation for doing so.

duolingo courses

I don't like not knowing things. In part, it's to avoid embarrassment: Like any good geek, if I'm venturing into something completely new, I want to do my research. While I'm unlikely to become an instant expert in something, it's nice to have some familiarity. It's why I really dig apps like Duolingo, which helps you learn foreign language basics with fun quizzes and challenges.

I've been using Duolingo on and off for the past year: I downloaded it last April before a trip to Italy to learn some basic phrases and vocabulary, then picked it up again recently to rejuvenate my long-neglected French. The app splits each language into skill trees with various mastery levels; to improve, you can either brush up on a current skill, learn a new one, or challenge your friends/the Duolingo robot (Duobot) in a quick skill competition.

I love Duolingo's no-nonsense dive into learning phrases, sentences, and vocabulary--tap a lesson, and you're instantly expected to translate or match foreign words with their English counterpart. It's immersive in a way that many simple flash-card apps aren't, though it doesn't throw you completely into the deep end: There's no time limit, and you can tap on any of the French words in the phrase to see their proper meaning. Should you goof on a phrase, you won't fail the lesson, either--you have three chances to make mistakes before you're asked to repeat.

The reason behind the app's immersive design is two-fold: Yes, immersive education generally tends to be more lasting than traditional memorization, but Duolingo also uses your translations to expand the Web. Every Duolingo phrase is originally from a website written in the language you're studying; when you translate, you add to Duolingo's database. From there, the service uses these stored bits of translation to decode parts of the Web. It's a brilliant way to help both you and the Internet at large, and also one of the primary reasons that Duolingo is free from payment and from ads.

There's also a fairly comprehensive audio portion, too--all the challenges offer audio of their phrases, training your ear to map certain sounds to words. This is really important when you run into audio-only challenges, which prompt you to transcribe the speaker's words--all too reminiscent of oral quizzes in my high-school French class.

If there's one thing that bums me out about Duolingo, it's not having access to a standard vocabulary list. The app really wants you to focus on learning nouns, verbs, and adjectives within sentences--great for overall knowledge, but sometimes you just want to look up whether a noun is masculine or feminine. I also wish that the app's explanatory information was a bit more detailed: When going over a French lesson on questions, I had to exit the app and Google the differences between "que," "quoi," and "quelle" (all of which can mean "what," depending on the circumstances).


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