Staff Picks: Brush up on your language skills with Duolingo

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I don’t like not knowing things. In part, it’s to avoid embarrassment: Like any good geek, if I’m venturing into something completely new, I want to do my research. While I’m unlikely to become an instant expert in something, it’s nice to have some familiarity. It’s why I really dig apps like Duolingo, which helps you learn foreign language basics with fun quizzes and challenges.

I’ve been using Duolingo on and off for the past year: I downloaded it last April before a trip to Italy to learn some basic phrases and vocabulary, then picked it up again recently to rejuvenate my long-neglected French. The app splits each language into skill trees with various mastery levels; to improve, you can either brush up on a current skill, learn a new one, or challenge your friends/the Duolingo robot (Duobot) in a quick skill competition.

I love Duolingo’s no-nonsense dive into learning phrases, sentences, and vocabulary—tap a lesson, and you’re instantly expected to translate or match foreign words with their English counterpart. It’s immersive in a way that many simple flash-card apps aren’t, though it doesn’t throw you completely into the deep end: There’s no time limit, and you can tap on any of the French words in the phrase to see their proper meaning. Should you goof on a phrase, you won’t fail the lesson, either—you have three chances to make mistakes before you’re asked to repeat.

The reason behind the app’s immersive design is two-fold: Yes, immersive education generally tends to be more lasting than traditional memorization, but Duolingo also uses your translations to expand the Web. Every Duolingo phrase is originally from a website written in the language you’re studying; when you translate, you add to Duolingo’s database. From there, the service uses these stored bits of translation to decode parts of the Web. It’s a brilliant way to help both you and the Internet at large, and also one of the primary reasons that Duolingo is free from payment and from ads.

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There’s also a fairly comprehensive audio portion, too—all the challenges offer audio of their phrases, training your ear to map certain sounds to words. This is really important when you run into audio-only challenges, which prompt you to transcribe the speaker’s words—all too reminiscent of oral quizzes in my high-school French class.

If there’s one thing that bums me out about Duolingo, it’s not having access to a standard vocabulary list. The app really wants you to focus on learning nouns, verbs, and adjectives within sentences—great for overall knowledge, but sometimes you just want to look up whether a noun is masculine or feminine. I also wish that the app’s explanatory information was a bit more detailed: When going over a French lesson on questions, I had to exit the app and Google the differences between “que,” “quoi,” and “quelle” (all of which can mean “what,” depending on the circumstances).

Quibbles aside, the app really is quite excellent at immersing you into a particular language. I love the emphasis placed on reading, writing, and speaking; even if you don’t walk away with mastery, it gives you a great feel for the language you’re learning.

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