Duolingo: Here Comes Everybody!

DuolingoGood news! Yesterday the creators of Duolingo announced that the site would be opened to the public on June 19th. Just to recap, Duolingo is a brilliant website where you learn languages by translating sentences in lessons and from the web. (More details in these blog posts.) You can also follow other Duolinguians and discuss language points and share things that you’ve learned. It’s been in private, invitation-only beta testing for about 6 months and has developed a lot in that time. They keep adding and improving features, and evidently the Duolingo team feels it is now ready for prime time. The general reaction of the beta users so far has been awe and unbridled enthusiasm, in four languages. There is one discussion going on about how Duolingo makes learning so effortless it’s spooky. It certainly goes against the conventional wisdom that you can learn a language without learning rules, memorizing vocabulary, and conjugating verbs, but so it is. Duolingo works.

So far the languages offered are Spanish, French, and German for English-speakers, and English for Spanish-speakers. Of course they are planning to add more languages, and I gather that Italian, Chinese (whether Mandarin or Cantonese is not clear), and Portuguese (or perhaps English for Portuguese-speakers) are likely next. If that sounds interesting, I have even better news for you. Today Duolingo has given all its beta users three invitations to bestow as we wish. If you don’t feel like waiting another 4 weeks to get in, leave a comment, and if there’s more than three candidates I’ll get out my choosing hat. Heartfelt appeals will also hold sway. I should just warn you that Duolingo is one of the most addictive substances on the planet, so don’t expect to get much else done once you start!

UPDATE: My three invitations are now gone, but if you’re desperate there are people offering invites on Twitter. Search for #duolingo to find them. Good luck!

Duolingo Update

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.

Duolingo - Translation page

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 - Skills

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.

Duolingo - French

In fact I am not reading my book because I cannot stop using Duolingo!

Duolingo: Mixing it up

Wouldn’t you know it, a day after I post all about Duolingo they start changing things! I’ve been working away on my lessons and it seems every time I look up I notice something new. The most obvious change is that the main page now has bolder graphics for the skill area “chips.”

It was fine before but this new design definitely makes it easier to see your progress in each skill area. As a person over 40, I have to say that bigger type and graphics is always a good thing.

There have also been changes to the web translation module. You can now see the previous sentences you’ve worked on, including your translations and the option to see other translations. This provides context at a glance, which is very convenient. It is also now possible to edit your translation after seeing other people’s answers. This is brilliant. Correcting your own work is a great way to learn.

One thing I didn’t mention in my previous post is how Duolingo mixes up the lessons and even the sentences in each lesson. You don’t progress by completing one skill and moving on to the next, like chapters in a book. After you get the basics in one skill, other skill areas open up and you are encouraged to work on them for a bit and then go back. Duolingo highlights the recommended area to work on and if you follow that path you will do a lot of bopping back and forth. This shows that the Duolingo people have really done their homework because it is precisely what the brain needs to form long-term memories and associations. The same pattern appears within each lesson. There you will be presented with a sentence to translate into English, move on to something else, and then get the previous sentence again but this time having to do the more difficult task of translating it into Spanish or listening and typing it out in Spanish. It is this element of surprise that makes the brain take notice and go to the trouble of putting that information into long-term memory. You know things are going to come up again, but you don’t know when or how, so you have to pay close attention to everything. Add to this the daily practice sessions and you have a system designed for learning success.

I can say a bit more about the social side of Duolingo now that I’ve found and followed a few people. Duolingo recommends people who are at about your level and when you follow them, your activity stream shows all of their accomplishments too. The top of the screen also shows how you rank in points and sentences translated compared to the people you follow. I think the idea is to motivate people with competition, but it doesn’t do much for me. There isn’t much emotional payoff when you are competing against total strangers whom you know nothing about and cannot interact with. I think those factors may change, though, since it appears there will be ways to connect via Twitter and Facebook, though those tools don’t seem to be fully operational yet. If it were possible to get to know people and when people I know are let into Duolingo, it might be more fun to race against them. However, I think Duolingo might get more mileage out of encouraging cooperation rather than competition. After all, part of the reason people are clamouring to get into Duolingo is because they love the idea of helping to translate the web together. Judging by all the desperate “Let me in!!” tweets directed at Duolingo, that motivation seems to be quite strong. It might be more effective to find ways for people to collaborate in their learning or translating instead of competing. I’m not sure what that would look like but I’m sure the clever people at Duolingo can figure it out!

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.

Learn a language while you translate the web

I was listening to Spark yesterday and heard about Duolingo, a new web project that aims to translate the entire web with volunteers who want to learn a new language. The way it works is that Duolingo presents sentences in the new language and the user tries to translate the sentence into their mother tongue. If you don’t know a word you can mouse over it and a suggestion will pop up. Computers are very good at translating individual words but terrible at putting them together into meaningful sentences, so that is what the human part of this equation contributes. How much you mouse over the words determines the complexity of the sentences you get, so the experience is always tailored to your level of proficiency.

According to creator Luis von Ahn (who also invented ReCaptcha, which helps digitize books), people are actually learning languages on Duolingo as quickly as they would using conventional methods. The system also asks people to vote on the best translations for each sentence, and they say the results are as good as you would get from professional translators.

Since I am interested in learning languages and like to play on the web I am very eager to try Duolingo, but it is still at the private beta stage. All you can do is submit your email address and get on the (reportedly massive) waiting list for an invitation. So far only Spanish, German, and English are available, but they plan to add more languages as they work out the bugs.

At this point Duolingo is entirely free with no ads, and von Ahn wants to provide translations for free at least for non-commercial content. However, Von Ahn has a habit of getting bought out by Google and it’s hard to imagine every web page being translated into every language without Google-sized computing power behind it. But it’s clear that von Ahn is not doing this to make his fortune but to allow the people of the world to understand each other. Perhaps this is the beginning of Web 3.0, where the world wide web will be truly accessible to the whole wide world. I can’t wait to try it and will report back when I do. In the mean time, watch the introductory video and sign up!

Thursday Tweets

A lot of good things appeared in my Twitter stream today and I thought I would share some of them here. First of all, two classics have been adapted into graphic novels, The Odyssey (via @rogueclassicist) and Don Quixote (via @batpoet). I suppose adventures stories lend themselves to a visual format, especially in the male-dominated graphic novel/comic book market. What are the chances we’ll see a graphic Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice?

The online book community is mourning the loss of Michael S. Hart, founder of Project Gutenberg. He is said to have invented the ebook, and began by hand-typing classics such as Homer, Shakespeare, and the Bible into his computer and posting them online. Now the work is carried out by an army of volunteers all over the world using scanners and optical character recognition. However the human touch is still required, and you can help by joining Distributed Proofreaders. If you are the sort of person who notices the typos in today’s poorly edited books, you’re just the sort of person DP needs! There’s a nice community of book lovers there and it’s a great way to give back to the world of books.

Finally, have you ever noticed that some languages sound faster than others? Have you wondered if they are saying more or if there is just a lot of “filler” in the language? Well, according to some recent research [here’s the whole paper](via @StanCarey), it seems that the information density of a language is inversely proportional to the speed with which it is spoken, with the end result that languages (at least the ones that were tested) dish out roughly the same amount of information in the same amount of time. In other words, languages that sound faster don’t really say more than languages that sound slower. I don’t know if this research is conclusive or has been confirmed elsewhere, but it makes me wonder if the brain has an optimal speed for taking in verbal information, regardless of language. I do know one thing for sure: my brain is not fast enough to take in everything on Twitter!