Learning Tool Deep Dive: Duolingo

This week on Duolingo I ended up hitting level 25, which is the max level, in Inglés para Hablantes de Español, something colloquially called the “reverse tree” when using Duolingo to help with language learning.  After completing the tree of courses in the language that one is interested in learning, so Spanish for English Speakers in my case, you then switch your language to your target and start the tree for learning your native language, in an attempt to squeeze all that you can out of the app.  I’m not done filling out my reverse tree by any means, as there is far more XP to earn than there are levels to gain, but I’ve gone through the whole thing up to level one in every course, and am working my way through getting everything to max level.

So, at this point, I feel like I’ve spent a long time with Duolingo and have a good grasp on its utility for language learning.  Duolingo is sometimes a point of contention with people, I know there’s a lively contingent that enjoys hating on it, and it also has its champions.  I’ve made no bones about it in the past that I think it’s a useful tool up to a point, but will not get anyone to fully fluent, and thus ought to be used with that in mind.  So, at this point, the question is what does that mean, really?

To lay all my cards on the table, the more I’ve read on the subject and the more I’ve added my own experience to the mix, the more strongly I’ve come down on trying to follow the Input-Based Method for language learning, and while Duolingo does some of the things that go along with that method, it most certainly is not part of it.  Duolingo is focused on translation drills more than anything else.  It gives you example sentences (many of which are wildly strange, like, “The lions owned a helicopter business,” which I think is a feature, not a bug) in both your target and native languages, and asks you to translate them.  There’s a token amount of audio comprehension it asks of a user, with recordings in your target language that you’re supposed to transcribe, and a token amount of verbal ability, asking you to speak a translation of a sentence into a microphone.  I can’t speak to that last one, as I’ve always skipped over those questions, both from not having a microphone handy and from nightmare-flashbacks to Rosetta Stone, but the rest all works pretty well for what it is.  What it is, though, isn’t Input-Based.

Where it fundamentally separates is that in Input-Based methods, there is no real correction involved, and it does not ask you at all to work from your native language into your target language.  You’re given material, lots and lots of material, in your target language, and you consume it.  No tests, no tracking, no drills, you just consume, and the more you’re just enjoying that consumption, the better, so what you consume comes down to your personal tastes.  This is obviously a rather attractive-sounding path to take, as it doesn’t ask the learner to do much in the way of making themselves uncomfortable, rather to just do the stuff they’d normally do for fun, just in their target language.  In addition to sounding nice, the research backs it up as working.

The key sticking point with Input-Based, really, is in getting to that material to consume.  When you’re first starting out in a language, it’s not like you can pick up a copy of Lord of the Rings in Japanese, sit down with a dictionary, and hope to get anything out of it.  There’s too much there to try and learn all at once, with no real way of finding any of it accessible.  It’s just a frustrating mess that’ll drive you away from the whole thing.  I’ve had moments of being driven away from different books earlier on in my language journey to learn Spanish, and with far smaller gaps between my current level and the book’s level than jumping in from nothing, too.  I had to pass by the first Harry Potter book and come back to it after reading something else, because I got too lost along the way, and that was the difference of about one week’s worth of extra work before I could actually undertake it.  When you’re working from a base level of nothing, getting to where you can read anything is a problem.

Now, if you’re working in a classroom setting that teaches with a focus on Input-Based learning, they work around this limitation by telling stories verbally, with a large book on display at the front or a speaker working with a blackboard, walking everyone through the basic vocabulary and sentence structure by telling a story, using drawings, body language, miming, and brief explanations in the native language along the way, and as a result be able to provide comprehensible input for someone who knows nothing about the new language.  With a foundation built that way, moving into children’s stories and graded readers becomes achievable in short order, until a learner can start reading whatever the heck they feel like reading.

Now, for me, I didn’t go to a class, and for others who don’t have the time or resources for doing that, either, they’re left finding an alternative to build up a good enough base to get to that children’s story/graded reader stage and work on improving things on their own.  So how do you reasonably manage that when you’re short on resources or time?  Well, Duolingo’s kinda perfect for it.

Duolingo gives a user tons and tons of material built with increasingly complex vocabulary and grammar, all inside an interface that lets you quickly and easily look up answers as you go.  It doesn’t do much in the way of punishing you for mistakes, while giving you some general feedback in the early going that let’s you know if you’re on the right track.  It builds up vocabulary, introduces new sentence constructions and verb conjugations, and offers brief explanations for what could be sticking points in the mechanics of the new language as they come up.  And, on top of all that, it’s pretty fun to use.

Which, ultimately, is where I think Duolingo’s utility really lies.  It’s a fun way to get someone up to speed to where they could start reading or watching more complex material that could then be allowed to compound and develop through more standard Input-Based channels.  It’s a stepping off point, not an all-encompassing tool, and I think it’s probably best to be used and then abandoned as quickly as possible.  Were I recommending a path toward learning a new language for a beginner, I’d say to start with Duolingo if it’s available for the language you’re learning, try to work through as many different courses as shallowly and quickly as possible, until they feel like they’ve got a nice, basic notion of how the language they’re learning works and feels.  Once they’ve gotten that toe-hold grasp, rather than digging through Duolingo more deeply, I would suggest to then move away from it and into reading and watching stuff that’s aimed at a very beginner level as soon as they can.  Finishing the tree, hitting max level, and doing the reverse tree aren’t really the goals to be aiming for, moving onto consuming media is.

Which begs the question, having hit level 25 in the reverse tree, why have I bothered?  And if that’s my advice, am I stopping Duolingo now?  Well, for me, it kinda comes back to the final point of how it’s useful at the beginning.  It’s fun to use.

I’ve always been a sucker for games built like Duolingo, with a “daily check-in” sort of setup with slowly building milestones and advancement.  I find them entertaining and end up coming back to them for a long time, even after I’ve run through the basic structure of them and don’t have much to do anymore.  I played a game called Fallen London for close to two years, maxing out my character levels and playing through all of the stories that were really available to me in the first seven or eight months, and I only really stopped after it started to feel more like a daily chore than something enjoyable to do.  In the case of Duolingo, it hasn’t turned into a chore yet.  I enjoy clearing levels in different courses and keeping my streak going, I like the routine of it.  It’s long since become clear to me that it isn’t something all that useful anymore, but it’s still fun, and it isn’t really cutting into my time spent doing other, more valuable things to help with my learning.  And if I were giving advice to someone else, and they said they’re having fun with Duolingo, I’d tell them that it wouldn’t hurt to keep going until it stopped being fun.

When I finish off the full reverse tree, I probably will drop Duolingo from my daily studying, as I don’t find the review lessons all that engaging, but for right now, I’m still having a good time with it.  But, at the end of the day, I’m sure I’m wasting my time with it at this point, insofar as it would be a much more valuable use of my time to read a chapter of a book or watch an episode of a tv show in Spanish.  In my case, that’s not something that bothers me too much, as I waste half hours of every day on different stupid stuff.  This is just a stupid thing that at least gives me some Spanish practice, which is better than none.

So for my part, I have a hearty, thumbs up recommendation for the app, and I’m glad it’s a resource that’s available.  If/when it’s time for me to set down Spanish as the language of focus and start in on a third language, Duolingo will be my first stop.  I’ll probably try and drop it more quickly the next time around, though.  It has its place, and its place belongs in the kiddie pool.

Well then, let’s look at this week’s numbers.

Tuesday 1/22

  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 6 chapters of Derecho de Sangre, ~100 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Carmen Sandiego, 1 episode of Little Witch Academia, 1 episode of That ‘70s Show, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Wednesday 1/23

  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 5 chapters of Derecho de Sangre, ~60 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Caermen Sandiego, 1 episode of Little Witch Academia, 1 episode of A Series of Unfortunate Events, ~90 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Thursday 1/24

  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 3 chapters of Derecho de Sangre, 2 chapters of Latidos Mortales, ~100 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Carmen Sandiego, 2 episodes of Little Witch Academia, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Friday 1/25

  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 4 chapters of Latidos Mortales, ~80 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Carmen Sandiego, 1 episode of Violet Evergarden, 1 episode of A Series of Unfortunate Events, 1 episode of Daniel San GMR, ~100 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Saturday 1/26

  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 5 chapters of Latidos Mortales, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Carmen Sandiego, 1 episode of Violet Evergarden, 1 episode of Dragon Pilot, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Sunday 1/27

  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 3 chapters of Latidos Mortales, ~60 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Carmen Sandiego, 1 episode of Violet Evergarden, 1 episode of A Series of Unfortunate Events, ~90 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Monday 1/28

  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~30 minutes
  • Reading: 7 chapters of Latidos Mortales, ~100 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 2 episodes of Violet Evergarden, 1 episode of Devilman Crybaby, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes
  • Total Duolingo: 1400 XP, 210 minutes
  • Total Watching/Listening: 21 tv episodes, and 1 YouTube episode watched, 520 minutes
  • Total reading: 35 chapters read, 590 minutes
  • Total speaking: reading out loud, 210 minutes
  • Total Time: 22 hours 0 minutes

The good weeks keep on coming.  As I mentioned last week and started to put into practice right at the end, I’ve changed up my scheduling a bit on my listening practice by trading around what I was mentally expecting of myself between listening and reading, switching day to day when I was spending around an hour on one thing and an hour and a half on the other.  I’d considered trying to just move up the listening practice to meet the reading, but it just wasn’t really fitting into my schedule as doable ever.

This doesn’t end up changing any of the time-per-day from what it was, while putting the two numbers much closer together than they have been.  Seeing as a week doesn’t have an even number of days, the two will end up switching on and off as which one gets the most attention.  Well, mostly.  I still seem to end up reading more than I watch, if only because it’s a lot easier to plan out a nice, round listening number based on the length of shows than it is to plan for chapters in a book.

Anyway!  As for what actually happened this week with learning, I finished off Derecho de Sangre and moved into Latidos Mortales in Dresden Files, as ya do.  I’m super bummed that I ran out of Little Witch Academia, it’s one of my absolute favorites now and I can’t wait for more.  I also finished up the season of Carmen Sandiego that’s available, enjoying it thoroughly, and picked up a handful of different shows to try.  Violet Evergarden is immediately intriguing and I plan on following that through all the way, while Dragon Pilot was strange and I’m less sure about.  Oh, and I tried Devilman Crybaby, hated it more than I’ve hated most things I’ve seen in the last several years, and never plan on watching it again.

One major benefit of the switching schedule is it’s given me better chances to watch longer-length shows like A Series of Unfortunate Events, which I often ended up writing off because they were long enough that watching one episode and then maybe a short Daniel San GMR video would be all that would fit within an hour, and I was more interested in watching an episode or two of other shows.  It was either watch the other shows and put it off, or take up a week or two working through it and not watching much else, like I did with Maniac and Watership Down.  Watching episodes on my long-watching days feels a lot more comfortable and I’m enjoying working through the show like this.

Well, that ought to do for this week.  TTFN.

2 thoughts on “Learning Tool Deep Dive: Duolingo

  1. I love Duolingo too in spite of the limitations you wrote about. In the last years, they made many changes though. Some available activities were suppressed and other added. There were also modules added to the trees.
    I was wondering about the way you learn the grammar. Do you work on grammar exercises too or do you rather focus being able to speak and understand Spanish?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t put a lot of focus on grammar study formally, though I have a Spanish grammar reference book that I consult occasionally when I come across something that I can’t figure out on my own and need an explanation. It’s very nice to have and has been a great help with wrapping my head around some of the major differences between Spanish and English grammar, especially in the early going, but it’s not something I look at very often. Especially now, when I have a very solid understand the grammar and syntax of what I read or hear, and it’s just vocabulary that I need to look up here and there. For the most part, though, I’ve just been letting the grammar understanding come naturally through exposure.

      Liked by 1 person

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