It’s hard to believe I’ve been on Duolingo for over three months now. It still seems so shiny and new, but perhaps that is because they are continually adding features, improving the system, and tweaking the graphics. One recent improvement has been the translation interface, which now shows you all the sentences from the web page being translated. You can click on whichever sentence you want to work on, and the bar expands to show the text window where you can enter your translation and then rate other translations. As you can see, it even shows the difficulty of each sentence and the number of points you will get for translating each one. You can do as much or as little as you like. Another interesting feature is that you can now comment on other users’ translations, for example, to suggest a correction.
Another social feature recently added to Duolingo is the “Stream” tab, where you can post messages in the language(s) you are learning, and others can respond. There has been “following” since the beginning, but there was no way to interact with other Duolinguites (Duolinguinos? Duolinguians?) unless they linked to their Twitter or Facebook accounts. Now you can leave a message on their stream or comment their posts. Much silliness has ensued, let me tell you. There is a playful vibe on the site (including among its creators) which makes it all the more enjoyable.
The graphics on the Skills pages have been updated to show the lessons as a notebook and the translations as dossiers. I think the new graphics lend a sense of concreteness to the work. As an added touch, when you mouse over one of the dossiers the flap opens up to reveal the pages inside. Cute!
Duolingo is expanding rapidly. Not long ago they added English for Spanish-speakers, and last week they invited 50,000 new users to the private beta test. I love following the Duolingo buzz on Twitter when they add new users because people are so enthusiastic about it. You see the words “impressed” and “addictive” a lot. Users are simply thrilled to bits. It’s fun to be a part of something so happy.
The latest addition happened just a few hours ago when Duolingo enabled French for English-speakers. I’m particularly pleased about this because I would very much like to knock the rust off my French. I was in French Immersion for several years and became nearly fluent, but in the intervening decades my French has lain dormant, for the most part. I can understand most of it (especially Continental French), and speak fairly well, but writing it is another matter entirely. I need help with the finer details. So naturally I jumped right into Duolingo in French. It only took me an hour to zoom through 5 levels (there is an option to test out of each skill and bypass the lessons), but I definitely made a lot of mistakes. The interesting thing is that I can feel that the French is coming from an older part of my memory. It feels physically different, and I know things without knowing how I know them. With Spanish, the knowledge is quite fresh and mechanical, but the French is organic. I suppose that is what comes of learning something as a child. There isn’t as much conflict between French and Spanish as I thought there might be, perhaps because they reside in entirely different areas of my brain.
It remains to be seen what will happen in my brain when I try to learn German, which I’m still planning to do when I finish the Spanish lessons. That could be a while because after 3 months, 12 levels, and 5,875 points, I am only about half way through the skills for Spanish. Duolingo keeps adding skills and adjusting the levels (it’s still a beta), so it’s difficult to know where you are, but it’s so enjoyable that it hardly matters. My Spanish has certainly improved dramatically. I have noticed that when I hear Spanish soccer players interviewed (which happens a lot in my world!), I can understand them a lot better than I used to. The same is true of Spanish web pages; I don’t need to look words up as much as I used to. I’ve also noticed that I can type much faster in Spanish now. At first I was quite slow but now I can type in Spanish almost as fast as in English. My fingers are learning Spanish along with my brain! I haven’t tried writing any Spanish by hand—I think it would make an interesting research project to find out if there is any difference between learning a language by typing versus writing.
If you are interested in following the Duolingo news, you can follow them on Twitter and subscribe to their blog. If you’d like to join the fun, sign up for an invitation. It’s hard to guess how long Duolingo will be in its beta phase, but considering what perfectionists its creators are, it could be a while. I think it’s pretty obvious that when it does open up it will trigger a massive stampede, so they will want set up some pretty skookum infrastructure to handle the load. And it will probably crash anyway. It’s so heartening to see such hunger to learn languages out there. I think it bodes well for the future of life on earth.