Monday, 20 April 2015

Learning Portuguese with Duolingo

I mentioned in my new year post that one of my goals for this year/the future is to learn another language. As tends to happen with ambitious resolutions, that one has been quietly left on the back burner since January as I've struggled to find the time even to read more in French or get through the first few chapters of my current Italian novel. But after a Skype chat with a fellow language geek friend who raved about the addictiveness of Duolingo and a trip to Porto on the agenda, I decided to give learning Portuguese a try.

For those of you who aren't familiar with Duolingo, it's a website and app that teaches you foreign languages. It can be used by speakers of lots of different languages, but I have the impression that choosing to work from English gives you the greatest choice of languages to learn. The courses are divided into short sections and you can set yourself a daily goal for the number of sections you want to complete. As you progress through the levels, the language is recycled, so you are continually revising what you have already learned.

What I like about Duolingo:

- It's grammar based. You start by learning a few nouns, verbs and articles and immediately combine them to make sentences. I much prefer this to communicative approaches which teach you hundreds of supposedly useful phrases without developing your understanding of how the language is actually structured and how to build sentences of your own.

- It's quite intuitive. Maybe it's because if you speak other romance languages , Portuguese is quite easy to understand, at least in writing, but I felt that the words and even conjugations were introduced quite naturally. That said, I think if I'd been tackling Turkish, I might have preferred a bit more input and explanation.

- There is speaking involved. This is one of the great advantages of recent language-learning technology: you can say a sentence into the microphone of your computer and the programme will tell you if your pronunciation is accurate enough to be recognised. That said, watching what Duolingo did with my mangled sounds, I wonder if the speech recognition software isn't more understanding than an actual person might be!

What I dislike:

- There's no context. Apart from a few pictures to guide you along the way, you're basically learning language the way a computer does. I suspect that in the long run this makes it much harder to retain the words, never mind actually use them in the real world. To see what the programme is like for learners with a higher level of language, I tried out the Italian course and it had me translating sentences like "The cow does not eat the butter", which is not a sentence I have ever uttered in English, never mind in a foreign language.

- It's very translation-based. With no context for the language, it has to be. And, as anyone who has ever used a foreign language in real life knows, translation will only get you so far before you start saying very strange things to people. I remember the time I tried to tell my French friend that I needed to buy boots for hiking using the word "bottes". This is indeed the French translation of the English word "boots", but hiking boots in France are actually called hiking "shoes", and even smart leather ankle boots are not "bottes" but "bottines". Needless to say, I learned my lesson.

- I wasn't a big fan of the placement test which I took in Italian, as it seemed to be more a test of knowing the exact content of Duolingo rather than my actual level of Italian. Not quite having a few colloquial phrases to hand and forgetting a couple of vocabulary items set my level much lower than it should have been compared to the objectives of the lessons. (I don't think that's just injured pride speaking!)

So, will I be continuing with Duolingo? Yes, to pick up a bit more Portuguese and because it appeals to my inner geek. But as a way of actually becoming able to communicate fluently with real people, I suspect it has its limitations.


  1. Thank you for the feedback! I remember considering it at one point to improve my Spanish, but I'm not sure I want to conjugate "The cow does not eat the butter" :-)

  2. Totally agree with you about the flaws of Duolingo! There's a funny twitter account called "sh*t duolingo says" that gives a good idea of the weird sentences they come up with that you will never actually say.

    But it can be a good way to keep a language in your brain a little bit.

  3. Ha, yes the weird phrases are a bit annoying when you know you will never use them. I wish you could have access to more levels instead of having to unlock everything so you could jump around and work on the things you know you need help with.

    It placed me into a ridiculously high level for German (one below French!), but it's actually a good thing since it unlocked so many lessons for me and I find it more enjoyable to jump around randomly rather than having to sit through apple, water, bread, in order to get to basic phrases like I have to for every new language I try out.