Mastering a foreign language can change your life. It can open the door for a new career, or even a new country, not to mention an entire culture you would now be able to enjoy in its native tongue. But it’s not easy, either: Learning a new language takes time, persistence, and constant practice. While high-profile language learning systems like Rosetta Stone can cost hundreds of dollars, Duolingo is a system that works to make you proficient in a second language without spending a dime — it’s completely free, and has no ads, either. We’ve covered the Duolingo website before, and briefly mentioned the companion iOS app. Today, I’d like to show you Duolingo’s Android app, which is just as free as the rest of the service. With over 100,000 installs and a 4.7-star average out of almost 12,000 reviews on Google Play, Duolingo is definitely worth a look.
As for the scope of the review and what I’ll be looking at: Obviously, learning a new language takes months, if not years, so that wasn’t very practical for the purposes of the review. What I’ve done instead is work through the first batch of lessons for German, to experience the Duolingo system and interface. There may be other types of questions and exercises later down the road, but this should give you a clear idea as to what you can expect and what the language translation app looks like.
Learning As a Game
Just like MakeUseOf uses rewards to make using the website more fun, so does Duolingo: You get virtual “coins” as you work your way through the lessons. The better you do on a given lesson, the more coins you’ll get for it.
Each lesson consists of a series of questions you must answer correctly. Just like a computer game, you can only make so many mistakes before you strike out and have to start over: Early levels start you off with four lives, while later on you get just three lives per level. This is what it looks like when you lose a life:
Note that Duolingo also tells you what you got wrong (the spelling, in my case). And when you make enough mistakes, it’s game over for this lesson:
Lessons are grouped into levels. To unlock the next level, you must work your way through all of the lessons on the current one, or take a test showing you already know the information and don’t need those lessons. Once you pass, you get a nice little trophy:
All of this shows Duolingo’s overall “flavor:” It feels like a game, and there’s a great emphasis on breaking down the material into manageable chunks and generating a sense of real progress.
A Typical Lesson (Exercise Types)
Now that we’re done looking at Duolingo’s general vibe, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of actual learning and dig into one of the beginning lessons. Duolingo offers several types of questions, testing reading, writing, and listening. Later levels may also include speech recognition, but from what I’ve seen on the Duolingo website, speech recognition is iffy at best. So let’s look at a few of the question types you’ll be getting when you start your learning experience, starting with the simplest single-word vocabulary building:
This is as basic as it gets: When you tap “der Mann” you also hear it pronounced. The beginning Duolingo German lessons cover much of the same vocabulary you get on the beginning Rosetta Stone lessons: Man, woman, boy, girl, child, eat, drink, bread, water, and milk. Of course, just because you know the words doesn’t mean you know how to use them in a sentence, which is where this next question type comes in:
Here, you get a sentence in German along with a limited set of words in English, and you must drag the words to order them so they say what the sentence means. There’s another question type that has you do this the other way around:
For listening comprehension, there’s a question type that has you listen to a spoken recording and type in the words yourself:
Another type of question displays a sentence and has you pick its correct translation from an existing list:
Note the nonsensical “He is a ten” — we didn’t even cover numbers so far.
The questions became a bit trickier when I got to level 2, as you would expect, but the basic types did not change: There were more words to choose from, and trickier grammar issues to work through (die or der?).
Design and Polish
Duolingo doesn’t feel like a native Android app, and doesn’t follow the Holo design guidelines. Sometimes this results in an ugly app, but not in this case: Internally, Duolingo feels consistent and thought-out, and the interface is both aesthetically pleasing and sensible. The skill map makes it easy to see where you stand and what you still have to learn (everything, in my case):
The Settings screen is sparse, and only lets you control the reminders and sound effects. I wish it let me decide at what time of day I wish to be reminded of my lessons, though:
Why Duolingo Is Worth Your Time
Learning a new language is a bit like dieting or getting fit. The eventual benefits are clear and compelling, but getting there takes a long time and the road can be tedious. The important thing is to just keep going, one baby step at a time. This is where the Duolingo language translation app for Android comes in: Because it’s on your smartphone, you don’t have to sit in front of your computer when it’s time to learn. Chunks of dead time suddenly become opportunities to improve your knowledge, and it’s easy to do a little bit every day.
Because Duolingo is completely free, getting started isn’t scary: You don’t have to spend a lot of money on something you may or may not like. Just download it now, pick a language to learn, and get going! Your future self will thank you.