I've been meaning to learn Spanish for awhile now. I took German in high school and college, and dabbled in Korean while living in Seoul. I love languages, but at the moment, I don't really have time to enroll in any formal classes and I don't want to shell out the cash for Rosetta Stone.
Language books are OK, but I don't really retain much. I'd like to watch more Spanish TV, but I need just a little more foundation. Enter Duolingo.
Duolingo is a free language learn resource and translation tool. Users can learn Spanish, French, German, Italian and Portuguese, and many more languages are set to be added into the system.
How it works
I created an account, picked a language (Spanish), and started out with the basics.
Each lesson has a few tips to read about the vocabulary, articles, conjugation -- whatever it is you'll be learning. You can refer back to the tips at any time.
I just dove in.
The lessons include different approaches to learning the language -- things like identifying the correct vocab word with a picture, translating a word or phrase into Spanish, selecting the correct word from a dropdown menu, or listening and transcribing a word or phrase in Spanish.
It's oddly compelling. And there's plenty of tips and hints along the way to help you out.
Learn through context, get points
A lot of the learning is guesswork -- guessing what makes sense and learning from the mistakes. But don't worry, if you don't have any idea, you can always "peek" without penalty. Those little hints help you figure out a new word, all within the context.
Sometimes you fail, but that's what learning is all about. You can always check for tips or hints, or even check the discussion. But you lose a heart each time you get an answer wrong, and when you run out of hearts you have to start the lesson over. Also it makes the cartoon owl cry. Es la vida.
But if you finish with some hearts left you get bonus points (yay).
I like the points system only because it's actually helped keep me accountable since I don't like "losing." The points look like coins, which is a ridiculous, but effective incentive for me. You also get extra skill points for signing in each day. I vaguely remember getting some emails about keeping "the owl happy" or something if I missed a day of practice, but that whole guilt angle doesn't really work. It's all about the coins.
There's an app for it
Want to practice on-the-go? You'd better bet there's an app for that. In addition to my semi-daily log-ins to the Duolingo website, I also use the iPhone app (there's also an Android version coming very soon). The app keeps track of your progress and syncs with the web version.
I actually like the app better than the website. Maybe because it just feels sleeker. You get the same process of learning new words and grammar structures through context, but with some other cool features like dragging and dropping words into the correct order, and speaking phrases into a microphone.
I was so nervous the first time I spoke into my phone, watching as it "graded" my speaking. But awesomely enough, it understood me just fine.
Don't worry, the Duolingo app is something you could practice on-the-go -- just use headphones so as not to bother other people around you when you're doing the listening execises. And you can skip the microphone until a time when it seems less crazy to say things like "Nosotras lemmas el diario" to your phone. Simply hit the "I can't use a microphone right now" button and you're good to go.
Oh, and don't forget to set up your phone's International keyboards so you can type in Spanish (or whatever language you're learning).
There's also a social component. You can connect with other friends who are learning too and compete with them. Which is fine, but doesn't interest me.
What does interest me is the community translation features. Once you get to a certain level in your progress you can opt in to try translating real sentences from around the web. I've not made it that far, but according to some reviews, the translations are really hard and the interface is still a bit buggy.
I wouldn't mind sitting down with a Spanish-English dictionary and giving it a try sometime. I mean, there are some serious points to earn there.
Todo está bien
I love the process of learning through Duolingo because it feels very natural. I feel like I'm committing a lot more to memory than just vocabulary words. I feel like I'm learning the process of how the Spanish language works. Instead of just repeating phrases by rote, I'm learning how to speak a language.
And that my friends is fantástico.