New app helps people learn new languages

by Andrew Tie

To learn a new language, you used to have to take a class or travel abroad. Now, people around the globe have access to a free app for learning languages. The app, called Duolingo, can teach nine different languages, and while teachers say it’s not quite as effective as sitting in a classroom, it is changing the way people learn.

For nearly three years, people around the globe have had free access to Duolingo to learn a new language. English speakers can learn up to eight languages, and English is also available for non-speakers. Duolingo has increased in popularity and though students and while some teachers agree it’s not quite as effective as learning in a classroom, it has changed the way people learn. (Photo courtesy of Duolingo)

UNC senior Tanner Smith listens, contemplates for a moment and then recites the German sentence. Smith knows some German from a course last year, but he’s brushing up with the app Duolingo. After he heard about this free app that allows anyone to pick up a new language, he decided to give it a try. It’s different from his classroom experience, but in some ways, Smith likes it more.

“I would have to say that Duolingo is a lot more entertaining and it’s a lot more fun,” Smith said. “I use it on my computer and on my phone. It uses like a scoring system that is just a lot more entertaining than taking a quiz every week.”

Smith really likes the app, but he said it’s not much more than a nice supplement to traditional learning. That’s how some teachers feel too, like Melanie Ungar, a PhD candidate at UNC who has taught German since 2010. Ungar doesn’t think there’s a replacement to in-classroom learning but gave Duolingo a chance.

“The major shortcoming is that early on in learning a language, really translation is not at all in vogue in language pedagogy anymore,” Ungar said.

“We don’t want you to be constantly translating in your head. We want you to be thinking in German. The other problem is that some of those sentences were just dumb.”

Here’s how the app works. There’s a flowchart of lesson plans ranging from easy basic phrases to the more nuanced, conditional perfect tense. Each lesson has 20 questions and you’ll pass as long as you miss three or fewer questions, or else you have to redo it.

The good news is you can work at your own pace. A study from professors from the City University of New York and South Carolina found students would only need on average 34 hours on Duolingo to learn the equivalent of one semester of Spanish, which at UNC might require more than 48.

Since the app launched in late 2011, it’s experienced significant growth with about 15 million active aspiring polyglots, and good publicity as the iPhone app of the year in 2013. You can pick up Spanish, French or German.

Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, Irish, and many more languages like Esperanto are in the works.

But it’s not just about teaching Americans a second language. Duolingo spokeswoman, Gina Gotthilf, says the app’s main mission is helping people around the world learn English.

“Teachers are great, but not everyone has access to great teachers,” Gotthilf said. “As we all know there are a lot of mediocre teachers out there. There’s a handful of great teachers out there.”

And Gotthilf said Duolingo has made tangible, positive differences for some users.

“Recently, I got a letter from a guy who was making minimum wage and now that he learned English, he can work at a different restaurant where they gave him a lot more because he can service the international clients.”

Though Duolingo might not be able to compete with traditional learning in some respects, Smith said it has a big advantage in entertainment.

“It’s fun,” Smith said. “It’s like entertaining. You’re learning a new language but it feels like you’re playing a video game or something.”


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