For the past 3½ years, I’ve been doing a half-hour or so of Spanish early every morning using the free Duolingo online curriculum. I also started Greek but ran into a wall when I was supposed to type what I heard – an impossibility, considering my keyboard isn’t equipped for a Greek alphabet. I’m assuming that’s a problem with many other tongues, too.
Here are ten things about the service:
- Originated at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in 2009 and launched to the general public in 2012, it’s become the world’s largest foreign-language instructor.
- Offers programs in 40 languages – 38 in English.
- Has 300 million registered users worldwide.
- Employs 200, mostly in Pittsburgh, and has been recognized as a best workplace.
- Is criticized for simplistic level of instruction. Much of the grammar is presented piecemeal in an optional Tips tab at each button on its learning tree or in users’ comments on each of the exercises, usually 20 in a set.
- Garners highest course enrollment with 27.5 million English users in Latin American Spanish, followed by 24.2 million Spanish users in English. Jointly, that’s a sixth of the users.
- Gains next highest English-user enrollments of 10.8 million in Portuguese, 5.72 million in Russian, 4.52 million in Arabic, 4.43 million in French, 3.19 million in Chinese, and 3 million in Turkish. So much for German or Latin.
- Offers the constructed and fictional languages of Esperanto (285,000 users), High Valyrian (584,000), and Klingon (304,000).
- Awards “lingots” for accomplishments, which can be “spent” on perks or “donated” to fellow users. Often, the number awarded at any time seems arbitrary, and the number presented for reading a story selection is highly out of line with the points granted for finishing regular lessons. Other silly motivational devices include Leagues, where you can be promoted or demoted each week. If you manage to get to the top level, Diamond, there’s no retirement or reprieve – you’re stuck facing some really competitive geeks who have nothing else to do but spend their waking hours playing with languages; expect to be quickly bounced down to a more regular life.
- The program is meant to be fun, as Duo the owl mascot suggests, but the dinging sound when you get an answer wrong is annoying, especially when it makes anyone else nearby laugh. Which it does. I’m especially irked when the laughter comes from Chinese guests in our house.
Oh, yes, the lessons work best on my screen when I set the size for 90 percent to eliminate scrolling. And remember to type what you’re supposed to hear rather than what actually crosses your ears when commanded, “Type what you hear.” And I really wish they’d change their typeface so that I can actually see the accent over the lower-case “i” – they sure count it against me when I fail to use one.