Although my New Year’s Resolutions state that I wanted to pick up my German this year, I have in fact been focussing more on my French. For five years, I studied French in high school and I cannot remember anything beyond: ‘Je ne parle pas français’. French has always been an incomprehensible language to me and I have never felt any kind of mastery.

The website and app Duolingo has been instrumental in my new-found confidence in the language. I’d still struggle immensely if I wanted to talk to a French person and I don’t believe I have enough basis yet to have a conversation beyond ordering bread for breakfast or asking people to speak English, Dutch or German with me, but even that small amount is more than I have ever been able to say. Phrases such as ‘Qu’est-ce que’ no longer frighten me. In fact, I can write them correctly without looking at a cheat sheet and understand the audio track when it throws up phrases like that.

Duolingo opened up to the public in July 2012 and I found it a couple of months after. Its goal is to provide free language education while also translating the internet – thus striking two birds with one stone. Personally, I don’t find the translation sections of the website that interesting, but I’m eagerly absorbing the language lessons. It is perhaps not as effective as a language class could be, but it is immensely cheaper and it allows you to practise in your own pace. It offers a variety of vocabulary grouped according to subject. It starts with some basic words and phrases, and continues to build on that often repeating words from previous lessons. It does miss quite a lot of basic ‘travel’ phrases: I can say that ‘They are eating chicken with a glass of red wine for lunch,’ but I cannot ask for directions. On the other hand, I am noticing an increase in vocabulary and confidence in my language skills in general.

Since the last update some basic grammar lessons have been included in the lessons, which is a pro for me: as a language teacher I have a firm grasp on meta-language and understanding grammar allows me to understand the structure of the language, thereby learning it faster.

Duolingo is structured like a game: you can earn points and if you’ve earned enough you go up a level. During lessons you get three hearts and if you lose them all, you’ve ‘lost’ the lesson; the owl becomes sad, and you have to retake it. Once you have completed all lessons in a subject you ‘master’ it and it turns gold. If you haven’t practised in a while, your mastery goes down a notch and you lose that nice gold bar. If you retake the lesson and practise more, you can get it back to gold.

It’s a brilliant motivator. Despite the silliness of the points and the levels (and the fact that they are of absolutely no practical use whatshowever), they work. Additionally, you can set practise reminders: if you haven’t practised that day Duolingo will e-mail you with a reminder to practise ‘to keep the owl happy’. It also reminds you that you have a six day streak and that you’d better practise to keep it up.

Surprisingly for a computer programme, Duolingo offers practise in different language skills: they play a recording of the sentence, you can read the sentence and you either translate it or pick the correct translation(s) from three options. There are speaking exercises, with a variety of success. There are listening exercises where you have to type the French sentence you’ve just heard. (The downside of that is that I am often so busy listening to the French, I forget to translate it in my head while I listen thus negating the effect of a listening exercise.)

Despite its weaknesses, however, Duolingo is one of the better language learning programmes out there. It works well enough to offer you a basis in the language and get you interested and motivated to learn more. The next step is to converse in French and actually try out my language skills in the real world. But at least I’ll be confident enough to try it.

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