Learning a language the Duolingo way

Duolingo — a popular language-learning software — allows users to work towards learning a second language for free, and has managed to introduce innovative approaches to both educational technology and mobile app development and marketing.

Duolingo is available on iOS, Android and Windows Phone 8.1, and can also be used on a desktop or laptop computer through an internet browser. The app has over 40 different courses across 23 different languages. It is completely free to use, with no advertisements or in-app purchases.

Through the app, users develop language skills by working through a series of activity-based lessons, organized by topic. The topics of these lessons range from “adjectives” and “nominative pronouns” to “food” and “animals.” Each lesson builds on the previous ones; for example, a lesson on food nouns may also give an opportunity to practise various adjectives and verbs that were learned in previous lessons, as a user’s language skills gradually accumulate.

The activities within the lessons vary, and include typing out translations, choosing the proper words from a list, matching images with words, and even speaking into a microphone (which can be disabled for users in public spaces). However, most of these activities are largely based around an immersive atmosphere in which users are presented with phrases or words and have to figure out the meanings themselves.

“Something that is difficult about the app is that it doesn’t ‘teach’ in the traditional way (i.e. you are introduced to a word and its meaning and then you do vocabulary to strengthen your memory). Instead, the app throws you into a situation where you try to figure out thduolingo2e meaning based on context” said a recent Brock Concurrent Education Graduate (who wished to remain unnamed for this article). “While I think it is more representative of how one actually acquires a language, it might be frustrating for someone who has no previous knowledge of the language.”

Duolingo’s immersive approach – in which users are not explicitly ‘taught’ the meanings of words, but instead guided towards discovering the meaning themselves – introduces an unconventional approach to language learning. As the Brock graduate suggests, this new approach may actually more closely reflect the ways in which languages are often acquired outside of a classroom setting. Another major component Duolingo introduces is an emphasis on competition in learning.

“I think the way in which it emphasizes competition would be great for students” said the Brock grad. “I think that it would be great for a language teacher to encourage out-of-school participation. You can see how many ‘levels’ your friends have reached and which skills they have unlocked. Anything where students are able to track their own progress (and the progress of their friends) is useful. Sometimes I think students forget how much goes into the grades they get.”

In addition to innovative approaches to learning, Duolingo has introduced an unconventional approach to mobile apps. In a market in which apps are typically characterized by profits from microtransactions, in-app purchases and advertisements, Duolingo does not contain any of these things. In fact, the app seems to almost parody the concept of in-app purchases through their virtual currency of Lingots.

Lingots cannot be purchased with real-life currency (it is impossible to spend any money on aspects of the app), but only through completing lessons, and they are used to purchase further lessons and learning opportunities.

“I love that the reward for learning is more learning” said the graduate. “The more ‘levels’ you reach the more points you gain and skills you can unlock. For instance, when I reached 10 basic skills I could unlock a “fun” language skill, learning how to flirt in French (something I think students would appreciate).”

This app is particularly relevant to students because it provides a cost-free way of learning an in-demand skill. The app is also of particular use to Brock students who are interested in participating in one of Brock’s many international exchanges, as many of these students would benefit from some level of proficiency in a language other than English.

Students who are enrolled in one of the many language courses offered through Brock’s Department of Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures could also benefit from using the app as a supplement. The Brock grad who was interviewed emphasized that students in a language course can combine the competitive, interactive and immersive experience of Duolingo with the more conventional approach offered in the classroom. By learning through both approaches at the same time, students may be able to enhance the overall speed and proficiency with which they develop their new language skills.

Duolingo is available through internet browsers at duolingo.com. The app can be downloaded to mobile devices through the Apple App Store, Google Play or the Windows Store.

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