Thursday, October 13, 2016

Duolingo: Learning a new language for free

Duolingo (

(This post was updated 28-30 October 2016.)

See further update in separate blog post here.

The Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, said, "To have another language is to possess a second soul." (Charlemagne spoke Frankish and Latin fluently.) The famous spy, Sidney Reilly, was so fond of quoting this saying that many people have erroneously attributed it to him. (Reilly is believed to have been fluent in English, Russian, German, French, Italian and, possibly, Portuguese.)

Duolingo is an on-line language learning app that teaches two dozen or so languages for free, although it can honestly boast only that you will be sort of half fluent at the end of a course. It does not teach any language in its totality. Although I cannot now recall how I stumbled upon Duolingo, it was probably through an ad on Facebook and happened at the beginning of September.

Duolingo was launched on the 30 November 2011. Luis von Ahn, the CEO of Duolingois a professor of computer studies at Carnegie Mellon University. He is the inventor of CAPTCHA and is a contributor to TED talks. Severin Hacker, is the Chief Tech Officer. He got his BS in Computer Science from ETH Zurich (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich) in 2006 and a PhD from Carnegie Mellon University in 2014. He was one of Ahn’s students. Ahn's initial funding was grant money from the National Science and MacArthur Foundations. The company has made money by offering corporate translation services. (Customers have included CNN and BuzzFeed.) 

Duolingo’s Investors include:

Google Capital 
Union Square Ventures
New Enterprise Associates 
Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers 
(Al Gore and Colin Powell are among KPCB’s advisers.)


Ashton Kutcher, well known actor and owner of A-Grade Investments
and Tim Ferriss, self-help author, start-up adviser and investor.

Most of these investors are venture capitalists specializing in information technology companies. People who run these venture firms have previously advised, invested in or developed such businesses and brands as Kickstarter, Uber and the Sims. 

While language courses for English speakers are popular through Duolingo, English courses for speakers of other languages are popular, as well, but English is often all that is available to them. While speakers of French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Russian, Arabic and Turkish can learn a few other languages besides English, English is currently the only course available for speakers of such languages as Dutch, Greek, Hungarian, Polish, Czech, Romanian, Japanese, Korean, Bengali, Hindi and Tamil.

The largest number of learners must be those who are studying English from another language. I am not sure why I cannot find the numbers on that in one place, but Duolingo currently claims to have about 120 million users worldwide. However, if you add up the foreign-language speakers who are studying English according to Duolingo, it comes to 213 million, including 88 million Spanish speakers learning English. The largest number of English-speakers studying a single foreign language is about 69 million who are studying Spanish. But add 69 million to 88 million and you are already over 120 million, so I cannot vouch for the accuracy of Duolingo's figures. The best explanation might be that learners are signing up for multiple languages, as I have, although, if you speak only one non-English language such as Greek, the only language course currently available to you through Duolingo is English, so you could not sign up for more than one language.

For English speakers, sixteen courses are fully up and running with an additional four in Beta and seven more on the way. I am among the alleged 41 million-plus English speakers learning French. The two least popular of the up-and-running courses seem to be Welsh and Vietnamese (with 309 thousand and 251 thousands learners respectively). Even Hebrew, which is still in Beta, has more learners than Welsh. 

For Romanian, which is nearly ready for Beta, more than 50 thousand English speakers are on the waiting list, while for Klingon, which is not nearly ready, almost 96 thousand await the opportunity to study the fictional language of Commander Worf of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Deep Space Nine.” BTW, Klingon is one of two artificial or constructed languages in Duolingo’s curriculum; the other, Esperanto, already has 564 thousand learners, and is the only constructed language that will soon become available in Beta for speakers of another language, Spanish.

Duolingo's CEO, Ahn, is a pioneer in crowdsourcing and invites interaction à la wikipedia-type input in Duolingo but with the understanding that in order to add or change content, you do need to establish that you have some expertise in the language you want to work with. To me, the Duolingo method is very reminiscent of the behaviorist psychology theory of learning. There is a lot of simple, rote learning, but when you make a mistake, you will get a do-over. Or two or three. Until you get it right. You might never progress, but you will never actually fail—unless, I suppose, you never get anything right. You will not get a chance to create your own sentences, either written or spoken. In fact, you won’t get much chance to learn to speak your chosen language, although each test sentence is read aloud by a native speaker, and, if you want to, you can repeat it to yourself, which I think is an excellent practice. 

Learning mainly consists of written translation of test words and sentences from the target language to your language and vice versa, more or less in a seventy-five percent to twenty-five percent ratio—more translating from the language that I am trying to learn into English than translating English into it. This has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that I can progress very quickly. The disadvantage is that my ability to speak the language improves only very gradually if at all. Vocabulary can easily be forgotten, and there is no incentive to remember it because, in the majority of sentences, it is possible to put the cursor over a word and get its translation. I expect to be able to read, somewhat, but not to speak French when I am done with the French course.

In each lesson, there is a “Report a Problem” button in case you notice something wrong with the program. (If, for example, you give a right answer but the program tells you that you are wrong.) There is also a button labeled “Discuss sentence” that allows you to ask questions and get answers in a discussion/comments thread.

It is estimated by language-teaching experts who have studied Duolingo that after 34 hours, I will have the equivalent of a 130-hour first year college course in the language. By comparison, it is claimed that students of the expensive Rosetta Stone method will have such an ability after nearly twice as many hours as Duolingo, although I would wager that Rosetta Stone students would have benefited from that course's greater emphasis on speaking skills. The experts also found that students tend to drop out of these types of courses after less than two hours of study. (I am a Rosetta Stone drop-out, but largely because my previous computer died and when I got a replacement computer it was older and only supported some of the features of the Rosetta Stone program; I intend to go back to it later, though.)
The focus of each lesson is a series of interactive sessions. Each lesson offers a written text describing the grammatical rules covered in the interactive sessions. You are not required to read this text, and, since it is at the bottom of the page, you might tend to ignore it and jump into the interactive portions of the lesson. However, I have found that I do better on lessons when I have bothered to read the text ahead of time. The text often contains helpful hints that make sense of irregular and idiomatic features of the language I am trying to learn.
Another feature of Duolingo is what I call the cheat factor. On many (though not all) test questions, Duolingo lets you check the meaning of each word by putting your cursor over it and, voila, you have the word instantly translated. Be warned, however, that the program is subtly monitoring how you are doing. It gives you points for correct answers and takes away points for wrong ones. It also notices your weak areas and takes educated guesses at which skills you are forgetting. It even seems to assume that, if you skip a few days, you will forget more than if you visit the site every day. This is why it will urge you to retake a few lessons every time you go back to the course, and the longer you wait between lessons, the more lessons will be highlighted for you to retake.
As you progress through levels of proficiency—very much, and deliberately so, as if you were playing a computer game—you win points called "lingots" that can be traded in for special materials at the site's store. Around Christmas, which is about two months away as I write, you can use your lingots to get information about how the culture that speaks your target language celebrates Christmas, if they do. 

Since I first wrote this, I have finished the French course. I am Duolingo-certified as "fifty-five percent fluent in French," but this is the end of the course. I do feel as if my elementary knowledge of French is much improved, but, as I expected, I cannot speak it. I am supposed to be able to push a button that automatically alerts my LinkedIn profile to my proficiency level, and I was holding off from doing this until I reach 100 percent. But I tried doing it when I got to the end of the course, and it did not worked for me; so I had to manually added my "elementary" proficiency in French to LinkedIn.

What's "Pass the popcorn" in French?

The night that I finished the French course, I decided to try to watch a movie in French. I could have watched one that was actually made in French, but instead I manipulated the language menu of the DVD for an American-made movie ("The Nice Guys") so that the actors would be dubbed in French while the subtitles would be in French, as well. This was sobering. Generally, I was not able to follow more than a small fraction of the dialogue, either because I could not remember even the vocabulary that I had studied well enough to keep up with the rapid pace of the dialogue, or because the vocabulary of the movie far exceeded that of the Duolingo course. I noticed, for example, that the verb "racrocher" was used more than once. It means "to hangup" (the telephone), yet this very useful word was never covered in Duolingo's French vocabulary. 

As I was watching "The Nice Guys" dubbed in French, I also noticed—although this has nothing to do with Duolingo—that the dubbed speaking script is not on the same page, so to speak, with the French subtitles, which may have been intended to go with the original English soundtrack rather than with the dubbed French one. For example, in one scene, the character Tally is dubbed saying "D'accord" (the French equivalent of O.K.) but the subtitle says "Merci."
After I started taking French, I decided to add other languages. I added German and Russian, in each of which I have only taken the basic lessons so far.

The Alphabet in French and German

I am flying by the seat of my pants here, but since this is online, perhaps someone will be gracious enough to correct me in the great likelihood that I make mistakes.
The commonly used letters of the English, French and German alphabets are similar in appearance but not necessarily in pronunciation. I will focus here on what I understand to be the French and German pronunciations of the letter names. I will not use the proper international phonetic letters, but I will loosely acknowledge them.
The first six letters as well as the ninth, eleventh through twenty-first,  and the twenty-fourth are similarly named in French and German:
A [ah] B [be] C [se] D [de] E [e (long English A)] F [ehf] – I [i (English long EE)] – K [kah] L [ehl] M [ehm] N [ehn] O [oh] P [pe] Q [ku (English KOO)] R [er] S [es] T [te] U [u (English OO)]– X [iks]

The seventh, eighth, tenth, twenty-second, twenty-third, twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth  letters are called differently in French and German:
French: G [zhe] H [ahsh] – J [zhi] – V [ve] W [doobla-ve] Y [igrek] Z [zed]
German: G [ge] H [hah]-  J [yot] – V [fow] W [ve] Y [ipsilon] Z [tset]

Saying "We must protect the environment" in twenty different languages

In the lesson entitled “Nature” I was taught how to say, “We must protect the environment,” “It is good for the environment” and similar sentences in French. Now, I had also signed up for German and Russian courses, but so far have gotten furthest in French. So I looked ahead in the German and Russian courses, and, sure enough, there are lessons on “Nature” there, too. I cannot access them, though, because you have to do all the lessons that come before that one in order to open it.

On Esperanto

Esperanto was developed in the late nineteenth century by Ludovik Zamenoff, a Polish Jew whose hobby was linguistics. It is possibly the easiest language in the world to learn, and is certainly the easiest constructed language, though one might well wonder why anyone inventing a language would make it difficult to learn, yet language inventors often do. Someone once told me that Esperanto reminded her of Spanish. This is likely because it reminded her of Italian, only she is more familiar with the sound of Spanish than Italian. Italian, you see, was one of Zamenoff’s languages*, whereas he knew Spanish much less well. Esperanto borrows its vocabulary from many languages, but the only non-Indo-European language that influenced it at all is Hebrew. On one hand, it seems to represent all Indo-European languages, but on the other it represents the European ones better than the Eastern ones.** Nevertheless, it has a tightly organized minority of speakers in places you might not expect, such as China and India.

A feature of Zamenoff's work that I particularly admire is that he prioritized his borrowing based not only on commonality of similar words in other languages but distinctiveness of sound. For example, a lot of Indo-European languages have words for the positive conjunction that sound similar to each other. English and German both have "-nd" (that is, "and" in English and "und" in German); meanwhile, French, and Latin both have "et," and Italian, Spanish and Russian have, respectively, "e," "y" and "и," which sound very much alike. Instead of using one of these, however, Zamenoff realized that these words could get lost in the middle of a sentence and might be easily mistaken for a syllable of another word. To give Esperanto a more distinctive positive conjunction, Zamenoff brushed aside the more common words and borrowed the Greek conjunction "kai" instead (only spelled "kaj" in Esperanto).

Though a recent book about Esperanto, "Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language," by Esther Schor, says that his language was French rather than Italian (at least according to Joan Acocella in her 31 October 2016 New Yorker book review), which contradicts what I remember learning many years ago when I first studied Esperanto.

** Esperanto, like many Indo-European languages has a word, "ke," for "that" or "which" that sounds like "ke(r)" or "kay." (Spelled "que" in Latin, French, Spanish and other languages.) It sounds like "kay" in Bengali, too. On the other hand, Esperanto, like most European languages, has its verbs take a conditional form. (I would have gone with you.) Most languages, including most non-European Indo-European languages (such as Bengali and Hindi, for example) do not have the conditional.

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