Duolingo is bursting on the internet scene to simultaneously help users learn new languages and translate the web. English speakers can learn German, French, or Spanish, and Spanish speakers can learn English (with more language options on the way). Creator Luis von Ahn claims that if one million users spent 80 hours each on the program they could translate the entire English Wikipedia into Spanish. How does it work? First, users are asked to practice translating sentences from a foreign language into their own; simply click on unfamiliar words to reveal the English meaning if they don’t know it. Duolingo seamlessly fuses these translations with small language lessons, adding these “unfamiliar” words to each lesson. The program matches simpler sentences with beginners and allows more fluent speakers to translate more complicated sentences.
Considering all of the possibility, I got myself on the wait-list for early entry along with 300,000 other hopefuls. As soon as I was accepted, I signed up and gave the much-anticipated Duolingo a try. I’m quite near fluent in German, and I am hopelessly ignorant of the French language. The site proved itself to be user-friendly, fun, and instructive for beginners and advanced learners alike.
Duolingo is a lot like Rosetta Stone–only it’s free. It fuses listening, reading, writing, and speaking without a hitch. As a beginner practicing French, I spent 90 percent of my time practicing small sentences and developing my vocabulary. When I did translate for the program, it showed me the percentage of users who matched my translation and the “best” translation, so I was always gaining something from what I gave. Among the phrases I learned in one night: “je mange une pomme” (I eat an apple) and “Au revoir l’eau, bonjour le vin!” (goodbye water, hello wine!).
For the more advanced learner, I found Duolingo just as entertaining and instructive. I had to “prove myself” to pass through the first few levels, but I was able to accumulate points very quickly and match my skill level without frustration. Unlike when I learned French, I found myself leaning toward translation as a more useful tool to practice my German. Because Duolingo allows you to check your translation against others, it sharpened how I define certain words, introduced me to new vocabulary, and allowed me to encounter quite a lot of idiomatic German. Rosetta Stone, which cost me about $600, felt limited in its pool of vocabulary. Duolingo has the same “learn a language through use” approach, but draws from the internet, making its pool for learning virtually limitless. So far the only down-side I’ve seen is the barrage of reminder emails: perhaps designed to keep readers engaged and motivated, but no one likes two daily emails.
The creator, Luis von Ahn, built the site under a MacArthur grant (also known as the “Genius Grant”), which was awarded to him for his brain-child, reCAPTCHA. reCAPTCHA prevents spamming programs from abusing the internet by having users retype images of distorted letters to prove they are human. Despite the hype surrounding both von Ahn and the MacArthur grant, I was surprised how smoothly and naturally the site functioned.
In short, I give Duolingo five stars and recommend that you sign up right away! The site functions immaculately and never have I encountered a language-program so effective. The site officially launches June 19, 2012 (eliminating the wait-list issue), so language barriers be prepared! Duolingo is truly working wonders.
Liebe Grüße et au revoir!