Lingo

I’ve just finished Lingo by Gaston Dorren, a wonderful recommendation from a good friend.

It’s a “pop linguistics” book, by which I mean that it explores matters of academic interest to linguists, in a way that is accessible and interesting to a layman.

It covers European languages, and focuses heavily on the Indo-European root that they mostly share, so it’s definitely left me with a thirst to learn about African and Pacific languages at the very least (before we get onto the fascinatingly different way that languages indigenous to the Americas are constructed). But it was a well-written, healthily educational book that felt sufficiently well researched. And for lovers of etymology (and who DOESN’T love learning where stuff comes from?!), it’s a thrilling ride.

Duolingo

I’ve been using Duolingo for a few years now, studying Italian throughout and making aborted attempts with Danish and Dutch.

I’ve never used Rosetta Stone, so I can’t make a comparison – but it would also be unfair to do so, when RS is a costly software (even after the seemingly endless promotional discounts), and Duolingo has always been free.

What I find most helpful about it is the variety of exercises. Depending on what audio & mic settings you have, the following exercises are available on the mobile app:
– read home language, choose picture with associated foreign language translation
– read one language, write translation in the other (both directions) – either manually, or by selecting word “cards” from  deck
– hear phrase in foreign language, write transcription
– read & hear phrase in foreign language, speak phrase back
– read incomplete phrase in foreign language, choose appropriate case of word to fill the gap

In addition to all the above, the full website offers:
– read home language, speak foreign language translation

In all exercises, if a word/tense/construction is new to you in the programme, there will be a way for you to learn the translation before being tested on it.

There is also a collaborative translation area called Immersion, where users pick sentences from documents to translate, or review others’ translations.

All the above activities earn you points, and you set how many points you want to target each day. You get notifications encouraging you to do more exercises if you haven’t hit target yet on a certain day, and the emphasis lies firmly on maintaining an unbroken streak.

As the little owl says, “learning a language takes practice every day”.

The variety of exercises means I’m learning words & conjugations in a way that sticks. The ability to access one account from my phone or computer at any time means I’m rarely unable to set aside 10 mins in a day – even if I have to turn off speaking exercises because it’s my lunch break at the office!

At first, this programme was funded academically – it is the brainchild of Carnegie Mellon University professor Luis von Ahn (creator of reCAPTCHA) and his graduate student Severin Hacker, and then developed along with Antonio Navas, Vicki Cheung, Marcel Uekermann, Brendan Meeder, Hector Villafuerte, and Jose Fuentes.

As it grew, the collaborative translation area was positioned as a revenue generator, by allowing clients to upload documents to the area for a fee. At time of writing, this service is no longer on the table, and presumably this means that documents available on Immersion are selected free of charge. That makes sense to me – in the course I’m doing, I’m getting a lot of Italian Wikipedia articles to translate into English. I struggle a little, as it wants American English and I usually forget to modify my British English. But others change my slip-ups as they review, and earn points for doing so.

Unsurprisingly, the website offers a more comprehensive course than the mobile app, and I’m really trying to spend more time on that at home, where I can do the speaking exercises.

Overall though, my skill and confidence has increased dramatically.

I’d recommend anyone of a beginner level to use this app. If you get more serious, you can invest in the bells-and-whistles software later – and save yourself a bit by cutting out the intro courses.