Follow Up: Learning a Language

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how learning a second language can boost your career and earning potential. (You can read that fantastically written piece here.) I suggested you take some classes or look into Rosetta Stone to facilitate your learning — great suggestions that require a financial investment. Since then, however, I have stumbled upon an exciting and FREE way to learn a language.

It’s called “Duolingo” — a free app for your smartphone that you can also access online. It really is free — “100% free forever” as they say on the website. I looked into it, and apparently the program was created as a way to give non-English speakers in impoverished areas free access to a language learning program so they have a fair shot at getting higher-paying jobs. To fund the program, there are various documents posted on the website as “immersion” activities. The documents range from newspaper articles to form letters to Wikipedia pages and are translated, one sentence at a time, by advanced Duolingo users. The documents are crowd-sourced work that Duolingo sells — providing the needed revenue to keep the program alive. It’s brilliant.

Ok, so it’s free, but does it work? I was kinda skeptical at first — I mean, how effective can a free service be? To test it, I started the German program. As an English teacher who once lived and worked in Germany, I figured I could pretty easily judge the quality of the instruction. I was pleasantly surprised. The course has really refreshed my knowledge, and the app itself is addictive. It’s set up like any other gaming app, bells and whistles included — I have been sucked in for over an hour more than once.

While I was re-learning German, my ten-year-old son started the Spanish program. He has absolutely no experience learning a foreign language, but since most of his friends are native Spanish speakers, he’s pretty motivated to do it. He’s about 1/4 of the way through it and already able to carry on very basic conversations with his friends (“My name is…”, ‘I like to eat apples..” etc). That a 10 year old is catching on quickly is a great testament to the accessibility of the program. If he can do it, so can you!

Duolingo is effective because it integrates reading, writing, hearing, and speaking, which is awesome because in order to learn a language you need to be able to both understand and replicate what you are seeing and hearing. It also focuses on the basic outline of the language, rather than extensive lists of words to memorize. In other words, it shows you how the language “works” — how sentences are structured (the proper order of nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc.) — and it gives you the basic vocab you would need to tell someone about yourself and to get around in the country as a tourist. The creators of Duolingo claim that by the time you complete the program, you will be functioning in the language at a “high intermediate” level (able to read with a dictionary, converse slowly and simply, and pick up words watching TV programs or listening to native speakers). From there, your fluency becomes a matter of adding vocab and increasing speed.

Duolingo is a great place to start learning another language, even if you’ve never tried before. Check it out.

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