Friday, April 17, 2015

In Praise of Duolingo

In Praise of Duolingo

I took six units of Spanish back when I was in college oh so many years ago. Back then, it was the bane of my existence, a course I wondered what use would be. After all, I already knew English and that was the language of the world, right? I cursed that I caught the tail end of the mandatory tertiary level Spanish language class.

Now, thirty years later, I am learning Spanish again. Para que? Yo no lo sé, pero siento que llena un vacío en mí. I don't really know, but I feel that it fills something missing. Perhaps a need for culture, perhaps the desire to be a little less ignorant.

After all the books and all the tutorials, I finally found a tool that suits me. Duolingo, an app that runs on the web browser and on Apple and Android tablets, is a free language learning suite that offers German, French, Dutch, English, and Spanish, among many other variations.

Duolingo throws you right into the language with translation exercises and quizzes that gradually build up in difficulty. There's very little by way of extensive explanations. At the earlier levels, it presents pictures to go with matching type questions. At later levels, it presents you with entire sentences for translation.

Duolingo allows you to "cheat." If you're not familiar with the word, you can highlight it to reveal its meaning. The trickier part is to get the sentence construction right.

I first tried Duolingo over a year ago. I made some progress in Spanish but gradually my interest trailed off and I stopped. This year, I picked it up again and saw that it had introduced a gamification feature. By achieving a certain number of points every day, and keeping this chain of achievements intact, you earn "lingots", a form of in-game currency.

Lingots don't really buy anything except for one or two cosmetic changes and a few more exercises. However, the obsessive-compulsive in me doesn't want to break the chain that I've already put together. Now I feel compelled to put in thirty minutes of language exercises everyday. At the moment, I am almost 100 days into the program, with no breaks in between.

Has this improved my Spanish? You bet! I'm not that fluent or that confident in speaking, but I can now read fairly well. From time to time, I'll still refer to Google Translate, especially for more difficult passages, but I'm relying on it less, and even the cheat becomes a learning opportunity.

So what's my ultimate goal with all this? Eventually I hope to translate stories from Spanish to English or Bisaya, or vice versa. Perhaps a trip to Madrid sometime in the future. But really, just self-improvement and time better spent than vegging in front of YouTube or the TV.