Duolingo: First Impressions

After much begging and pleading I finally got my much coveted Duolingo invitation. In case you missed my previous post on the subject, Duolingo is a web-based application that teaches people languages by getting them to translate web pages. How this is possible will become apparent as you read on.

After playing with it for about a week my first is impression is: WOW! The user interface is absolutely flawless. Everything is clear, visually appealing, easy to navigate, and bug-free. I think the Duolingo people must be perfectionists to call this a beta. Perhaps they are not ready for a lot of traffic but the product itself looks more finished than a lot of things I’ve paid good money for.

As for the pedagogy, it is equally impressive. In the beginning you are led through a series of lessons that teach you different language skills and get you translating right away (see below—click image to enlarge).

Each lesson and translation you do earns you points and “unlocks” subsequent skill areas. You can also skip through a skill by taking a test. If you make too many mistakes you have to go back and do the lessons.

The lessons cover every aspect of language: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. They even cater to visual learners by introducing some vocabulary with pictures. However most vocabulary is presented in writing, with mouseover popups to explain each word.

Users are asked to translate from Spanish to English and from English to Spanish. When translating to Spanish it provides buttons for accented characters in case your keyboard is not set up for Spanish.

For a little variety there are multiple choice questions in both directions.

The lessons also include listening…

…and speaking.

Obviously these require the use of speakers and a microphone or headset. If you do not have a microphone you can adjust your settings so that Duolingo won’t asks you to speak. I don’t know how well it understands what I say but I find that if I speak too quickly it asks me to try again. As for Duolingo’s voice, it is a computer generated female voice with a neutral Latin American accent. It voices all the Spanish text in the lessons, not just the listening exercises, so you get a lot of listening practice. I find it quite easy to understand, though of course the intonation and rhythm are not completely natural. I can understand some Spanish already so I can’t say whether a total beginner would be able to understand it at first.

Each skill area also includes simple translation tasks from live websites. Again you can use the mouseover popups to see definitions of any words you don’t know. The more you use the popups, the less difficult the subsequent translations will be, and vice versa.

As you can see, Duolingo provides you with a link to the website so you can check the context of the sentence, and it also shows you thumbnails of any images that might be relevant. After you have taken a stab at the translation, Duolingo shows you some other people’s translations and presents you with one of them to rate.

This is where the power of crowdsourcing is unleashed. According to Duolingo’s creators, by soliciting multiple translations and then getting multiple users to rate them, Duolingo can generate translations that are good as what you would get from professional translators.

Duolingo has other features as well. It recommends daily review and if you skip a day, Duo the owl starts to cry, so it’s best to practice every day! If you make a typo or error it tells you what you did wrong, and if you make too many mistakes you have to do a little extra practice. Every time you reach a learning milestone you see a splash page with a big bright gold ribbon and hearty congratulations, with the option to share your success on Twitter or Facebook. It may not seem like much but it really is encouraging. One small detail I really appreciate is that after you type or speak a response, the focus of the page moves to the “Check” and “Continue” buttons so you can just hit Enter to proceed without having to use the mouse.

I haven’t tried Duolingo’s social features yet. The website has a section where you can ask questions that others can answer (more crowdsourcing!), and each skill area also has its own questions section. You can also follow other users and view their progress. I don’t know whether there will be opportunities for interaction as well. There is an option to enable Facebook Connect so perhaps that is where you can chat with your new Duolingo friends.

The screen scrape at the top of this post only shows a fraction of the skill areas available. There are 44 in all for Spanish, and it is going to take me quite a while to get through them all. I don’t know what happens after that or how fluent I will be at that point. The lessons do cover all the parts of speech and most verb tenses. I presume that once you get through all the lessons all you do is translate, but perhaps they have other surprises prepared.

One thing I would like to do after getting through the Spanish lessons is to try another language from scratch to see what that is like for a total beginner. I already know some Spanish so the lessons have been quite easy so far. The only other language available right now (other than English) is German, which is fortunately a language I would like to learn. They are also planning to add French, Italian and Chinese (by which I presume they mean Mandarin) in the future. I am not too interested in Italian but I could stand to brush up on my French and I’d love to learn Mandarin. I have the feeling I will be spending a lot of time on Duolingo!

If you want to try Duolingo you can get on the waiting list here. It can take a while to get in (unless you try some creative grovelling like I did), but it’s worth the wait!

For more see Duolingo: Mixing it up.

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14 comments on “Duolingo: First Impressions

  1. Stefanie says:

    Wow! It's so nicely designed! I'm really impressed. I got on the waiting list after your original post. Maybe I will hear from them soon.

  2. Yes, it really is a beautiful site. The attention to detail makes me think the Duolingo people are all INTJs. 😉 I hope you won't have to wait too long to get in!

  3. sylverone says:

    Thanks for the review/preview! It sounds like they have the interface ironed out, so maybe they just want to collect more data on its effectiveness before releasing it. See if they can improve the lessons and whatnot.

  4. You're welcome, sylverone. I think since this is a university project it perhaps isn't being rolled out at the breakneck speed of typical startups, and they may not have the resources to scale up quickly. They haven't been communicating much externally so I'm guessing they are pretty busy right now. It'll be great to see it open up and start generating a lot of translated content and bilingual/multilingual users.

  5. NuitTombee says:

    I was already thinking about doing this and have joined the waiting list. I even signed up for French even though it's not available yet in hopes of me being early on the list for when it is available. For now though, I'll wait for German. I'll stop rambling now. :3

    Thanks for writing up this wonderful review.

    -James

  6. You're welcome, James. Hope you see you Duolingo soon!

  7. iji says:

    Why i am unable to view anything in duolingo.com..

  8. You have to get an invitation to get in. If you enter your email at the bottom you will get on the waiting list. It's in beta testing right now so it's not open to everyone yet.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I just got my invitation today and i'm very impressed with the design and content of the website. I never imagined learning German would be fun lol 😀

  10. luigi says:

    Interesting and nice design, but I prefer “Studystream” by FAR!
    WOW! That's impressive, fun and I don't need to do boring translations to learn for free 😛
    Check their video in NYC BigApps3.0: http://2011.nycbigapps.com/submissions/5813-studystream-online-language-learning

  11. Hi Luigi! Studystream looks interesting but I see it's not quite complete yet. It seems to be all input and no output at this point. The thing about translating with Duolingo is that it forces you to use words and not just recognize them. That is much harder but really makes you learn better. But it looks like Studystream will eventually have something like that.

    Of course the other reason people like Duolingo is because while you're learning you're also translating websites so other people can read them. Doing something helpful while learning gives you a good feeling! Maybe it is more difficult but I think it's worth it.

  12. Congratulations! I'm really looking forward to trying the German. I know a few words and a bit about how to pronounce it but that's about it. I'm tempted to start before I “finish” Spanish but I don't want to confuse my brain!

  13. akhansson says:

    It's very neat looking. I love the design and it is a great and fair business model. 🙂 We help them with translation for free. They give us language courses for free. Awesome!

  14. Yes, it's a brilliant idea and if it works it could open up the whole web for everyone no matter what languages they speak!

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