An app for language

Duolingo is a great tool, but no substitute for conversations with real Norwegians

2016-01-04

John Erik Stacy
Norwegian American Weekly

It’s easier than ever to learn and practice a second language. Why? Because of the internet, of course. But making productive use of the mass of language resources on the internet can be a daunting task for beginners.

That’s what’s so special about Duolingo. Beginners simply visit Duolingo.com or use the company’s mobile app and are guided through daily goals toward real language learning. Recently, Duolingo launched a full course in Norwegian (bokmål). Exercises include not only reading and writing but also listening and speaking. Duolingo uses your computer or phone’s sound, so you can hear a real Norwegian. You might be asked to type what you hear, or to repeat what you hear into your computer microphone.

Each Duolingo lesson is made up of several small exercises that also include matching English to Norwegian words and translating between languages. Each of these is part of a larger module focusing on a particular aspect of the language, starting with basic vocabulary and sentence structure. As you progress, more advanced themes are introduced, such as using correct tense. But Duolingo avoids using grammatical terms in favor of teaching through repetition. So as you progress through the 75 modules currently available to Norwegian Language learners, you are more likely to be working under headings like “Politics” or “Feelings” than “Present Participle.”

Duolingo is a work in progress and relies heavily on its users to give feedback and build content. The website receives about 20 million visits per month, so there’s a lot of input. Instead of slowly adding additional languages, Duolingo has created “The Language Incubator” to “empower other experts and people passionate about a specific language to lead the way.” The Incubator helps the community create courses for any language with sufficient support from an interest group. It guides developers through stages that eventually allow a “beta” release for testing by users, and eventual completion. The first course entirely created by the Duolingo community through the Incubator was learning English from Russian.

Doulingo is the brainchild of Luis von Ahn, Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. Lessons are available free of charge and there are no advertisements presented on their pages or in the app. The Duolingo business model was originally tied to “crowd-sourcing” translation, but the company is moving toward a language certification service for a fee. As of 2015, the company has been valued at USD 470 million with a total funding of USD 83.3 million.

Duolingo is here to stay. My own experience is that it is a good way to get started and to keep in practice, but will not replace the need to speak with real people and write real sentences. I started using Duolingo when it was mentioned to me by a friend at a “Meetup” group that I participate in. This was about a year ago, and I started doing the program’s German lessons at that time. Although I have completed many of the lessons, and can translate “Meine Frau isst keinen Käse” in the Duolingo environment, I have yet to form a complete sentence in conversation with a German speaker. But if you stick to it and use the other resources available on the internet, including YouTube and Skype, Duolingo can help you make real progress learning a language.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 22, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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