Major improvement to Duolingo (all languages)


I love Duolingo and think its the greatest thing since sliced bread. However, I can see a way in which it could be improved right across the board ie for and in every language lesson it offers. What is more, the effort to implement my suggestion is not great, and for anyone who does not want or appreciate what I am suggesting the impact would be negligible. Thus it is a win-win suggestion!

I find myself in all of the languages I am learning, wanting to copy many of the sentences or phrases that one is asked to translate, both in the language I am learning and my native English. At present I do this by laboriously highlighting the text and pasting it into a word processor. It is absolutely invaluable for helping to fix new words and phrases in my mind and I periodically scan he lists rapidly as a method of revision. I also go back and redo lessons when the tree suggests I need to but that is no substitute for having these lists I prepare.

The thought occurs to me that a table like a phrase book extracted from the lessons could easily be made available, or better still, when each question is presented there could be a simple checkbox that could be clicked or ignored so that students can decide what translations they want to keep in a personal list on their own computers for future reference. At the end of a learning session the student could download the list on to their own machine if they so wished.

Rod Woolley (Ottawa)

February 12, 2017


> I find myself in all of the languages I am learning, wanting to copy many of the sentences or phrases that one is asked to translate, both in the language I am learning and my native English. At present I do this by laboriously highlighting the text and pasting it into a word processor. It is absolutely invaluable for helping to fix new words and phrases in my mind and I periodically scan he lists rapidly as a method of revision.

You may find that you will derive even more benefit by copying out these sentences by hand into a notebook, and writing out by hand those you have most trouble with, as your review. Electronic aids, which would seem to be so useful, actually do not (IMHO) engage a person enough w/ what is being studied. Writing out by hand coupled w/ reciting aloud is much more helpful.

If you're in love w/ doing things electronically, you might try keeping your lists by taking notes on a tablet w/ a stylus.

As to your suggestion: Duo seldom takes up suggestions made on these forums. Maybe it will take up this one (although it has been made before w/o result), but don't be surprised if Duo ignores it.

February 13, 2017


I know I'm way behind the times commenting on this, but I absolutely second this. Writing things out by hand is so overlooked these days, and while I think it's extra important when learning a new writing system, I think it has enormous value even when that's not the case.

March 13, 2017

> . . . behind the times . . .

Лучше поздно, чем никогда. As a dinosaur, see my moniker, I know all about being behind the times.

For years I've toyed w/ electronic learning aids of various sorts--e-flashcards, little programs to drill vocab. or sentences, etc. I'm a computer programmer and really expected such applications to boost my learning. But nothing yet has helped so much as writing out by hand. It's great to see that a language learner as skilled as you also values it.

Lately I've been using an Android tablet w/ an electronic stylus--still hoping that electronics will provide that boost, I guess. Don't know yet if it's been helping, but it is plenty of fun. Most likely, the next language started from scratch (if I ever get to one) will provide enough experience to judge by.

March 13, 2017

Any tips for what sorts of things to be writing out by hand? Are you referring more to lists of vocab or grammar exercise / declension paradigm type things?

I note with interest that the languages I have learned to fluency involved almost no electronic means whatsoever (I guess you could call "Destinos" electronic if you reaally wanted too...) but I've now become an electronic-centric learner. And it's working wonders for Catalan, Dutch, Latin, none of which I suspect I've ever written a physical word in. Georgian... well, reading this thread I'm feeling the call of the pencil that I'd already been getting echos of grow ever louder.

I can't help but suspect that the results of any experiment in this realm might well depend if the language used for the test is more like a Swedish, or an Arabic!

March 13, 2017

I used to copy out sentences or entire dialogues from my books with Russian and have done similar things with Hebrew - it means you get practice writing even if you're not yet fluent enough to come up with sentences on your own!

I also handwrite sentences I use a lot, etc etc. I just find it gets it into my brain better and more thoroughly than typing.

I think it's also helpful for getting to grips with reading handwritten Russian/Hebrew/whatever. You get much more of a handle on how the alphabet works which is useful for deciphering written versions, especially with languages where the handwritten version is quite different from the printed kind.

I think that if you are learning a language with the same alphabet it's not as vital, but I do still believe it has value. Handwriting sentences is slower and requires a different kind of concentration than typing. Also, different languages have different typical groups of letters. Just like English has a lot of -ing and -ion endings, most (every?) language has those sets of letters that are common and crop up all the time, and they're not usually the same from language to language. In Russian you have your adjective endings, and languages often have particular endings that are typical of how that given language forms new nouns or other parts of speech. I find they sink in best when I handwrite them.

For me it's not an either/or thing, it's two different forms of attack, for want of a better way of putting it! I find using the language is what really makes things stick, and for some reason handwriting is using it more than typing, and is more "sticky" somehow. I can't back it up with anything more than anecdotal evidence, but it is my experience :) Handwriting is more "sticky" than typing and speaking out loud with someone who speaks the language is more "sticky" than making recordings or talking to myself, etc.

March 13, 2017

That sounds like a situation where writing the dialogues out by hand could be extremely beneficial. Large chunks of prose or dialogue seem much more manageable when you can write them yourself, even before the point where you can necessarily understand everything you've written. I think that, again, it really goes so well with languages that use different writing systems.

I am a big fan of anything that helps me learn languages better, but I am sure that I am in part biased. I learned French and Russian to some degree of fluency without really using technology to use either, and it's just natural to me to go to handwritten methods if I'm stuck or something needs practice. For example, when doing the Russian tree here, I got to participles, which I knew how to make in some distant corner of my brain but it was all a bit faded and uncertain - it was the first part of the tree where I felt actually a little stuck.

My first solution (and as it turned out, the only one I needed for revision) was just to turn to my notebook and write out the patterns and how they were formed. I didn't even think about it, it was just automatic. It's only now (which must be well over a year since I finished the tree) that it's occurred to me that it's probably not a particularly typical way, in this day and age, to solve a problem of "I need to get this through my head better" LOL My go-to way of solving anything is, apparently, to write it out!

March 14, 2017

I used to copy out sentences or entire dialogues from my books

This sounds like an incredible idea. One of my Georgian books really centers its vocab around lengthy dialogues, which the intro says you're supposed to just memorize... by some unaccountable means. Still strikes me as total lunacy, but there is useful vocab in them, and grammar being used, both of which I would certainly like to learn. And I know the word by word Memrise version is certainly not doing it for me.

March 13, 2017

This has become a fascinating discussion since you resumed it, flootzavut (late or not) and piguy3 joined it. Thanks! There's too much to reply to on this "squeezy" little forum, but I'll try to hit the high spots.

> . . . I used to copy out sentences or entire dialogues from my books . . .

Me too, and it really helps, you're right. And every so often I'll copy out by hand chapters from books or short stories that I particularly like. Maybe not so much to learn anything specific, but just for enjoyment, just to take more time w/ the material.

It also is a good check of spelling, which in Spanish or Latin (or even French) is not so necessary (except when I am marking the long vowels in Latin), but it is very useful for Russian, at least for me. (There are YouTube clips by a couple of very skilled language learners, "deka glossai" and "Prof. Arguelles, that recommend writing by hand, too, which you might find interesting.)

Something that's useful, too, at least for me, is to "take dictation" from an audiobook. Actually, usually this is written on the computer, rather than in manuscript--I'll have to try it by hand. Checking the passage is rather a pain . . . but I suppose, if it's typed in, the passage could just be dropped into a Google text box or the like that has a spell checker. (Just thought of that while writing this--I'll give it a try! Wish I'd thought of it a year or two ago, when typing in from audio a complete book in Russian.)

> . . . different languages have different groups of letters . . .

This is proving to be a benefit and a curse on the Android tablet I'm using. For Russian, it's fine when using a program that converts handwriting to digital text, as the program is quite good at it. Very impressively so. But there is no such setup for Latin, and I use English text input usually. Lots of Latin word forms end in, say, "is" or "as," and the program likes to transcribe these as separate words. :( This is not a problem, of course, when I don't convert the handwriting but save it in a graphics file. I'm still enjoying the tablet enormously, BTW.

> I find using the language is what really makes things stick, and for some reason handwriting is using it more than typing . . .

Yes. Just about all you've said about handwriting I agree with. Don't really know if it is less helpful for a language w/ a Latin alphabet, but definitely I write more in Russian than in the others (leaving Greek aside, as there was so little I could do w/ it, electronically, years ago when I took it up).

There are a couple more things I'll respond to to piguy3, too. But that will have to wait awhile, as I'm out of time now. Thanks for taking the time to write about this! :)

March 15, 2017

Essentially, I think it's accurate that handwriting gets things into the brain more effectively than typing (there's scientific evidence that this is so for student notetaking, although I don't think that directly applies here). However, I think this might be true on a "constant sentence count" basis. Handwriting 10 sentences by hand gets you more benefit than typing the same 10 sentences. However, typing can be much faster than handwriting, so an apples to apples time use comparison might be 40 or 50 typed sentences vs. 10 handwritten. But I also suspect, in keeping with flootzavut it looks like, that that handwriting "bonus" might be particularly valuable for non-Latin languages, or at least ones that are much further from English. So in short, the language difficulty plays into which effect is greater: the speed bonus of typing or the basic efficacy of handwriting.

Of course all these effects would vary across people, so what's optimal for one might not be for another. And just how much a person enjoys things might well matter most of all: if one hates writing out or using handwritten flashcards (me, for whatever reason, so I've only ever done a few dozen in my entire life despite having formally, i.e. college class, studied five languages at one point or another), one is probably just not going to do it much or find it very useful when actually doing it.

March 13, 2017

piguy3 . . .

writing-out tips/techniques . . .

This is what worked for me (espec. working from books). It is REALLY old fashioned (way pre Internet) but it was enough to get a good start:

  • memorize paradigms by going over each one until it can be said through from memory w/o looking at it written out, and then writing it out 3 times (saying each form while writing, and not looking at the exemplar); at the end of this, if there is more than one paradigm, making sure they all can be repeated from memory
  • memorize the vocabulary in much the same way as with the paradigms, by writing out each word and its definition 3 times, saying everything aloud, and then at the last going over the list again like flash cards, counting those words as satisfactorily learned (for the moment) that can be repeated w/ definitions verbatim from memory, and writing out again (usually 3 times) any words not remembered
  • write out all the exercises, check them, and write out any answers a time or two that were not right; if having trouble, go through the exercises backwards (from answers to questions) where that is possible.

The material I'd review once the first day and on the second day, and then a time or two more w/in the first two weeks, and anything mistakes I’d write out again properly.

This was when working from old-fashioned primers, like:

  • 3rd. edition of Wheelock's Latin Grammar, which has rather less vocab. per lesson than the current edition--there are exercises at the back of either edition that have a key
  • Teach Yourself French, by N. Scarlyn Wilson (all exercises have a key)
  • New Testament Greek for Beginners, by J. Gresham Machen, for Koine Greek (no key, but I had a friend to make corrections :))

And, as flootzavut already suggested, copying out long passages (or short passages, at the beginning) is really helpful.

What is described here is just how I used Wheelock. You’ll prob. really enjoy the essay, and he has lots of really good suggestions in it and on his website. (I like this by him, too). Right now to make my Latin more fluent I’m doing lots of extensive reading, having bought and/or found online quite a bit of easy material, espec. kids’ books translated into Latin, and am doing a lot of listening. There are several other good YouTube clips that I can list if you like.

But if what you’re doing for Latin is working well, don’t switch to something new! Save it for later. What is the Memrise course you’re using, or any other material? I found a Wheelock Memrise course, but it may not be what you’re using.

There’s more you and flootzavut have said I’d like to discuss, but this is enough for now. Any suggestions for more Latin material (or anything else) would be great.

March 18, 2017

@ slogger

Thank you! At this point my Georgian endeavors center on a book with clearly typeset by typewriter (I was alive at a time when typewriters were still used "non-ironically" and have never seen a book like this!) so "old-fashioned" anything seems quite on point!

I've been saying for a year or two now that I will at long last get around to reading Harry Potter when my Latin's up to the task :) For now I really should get around to finishing Familia Romana.

The Latin Memrise courses I've been using are these: * Familia Romana

I suspect most of them would appeal to someone at a lower level than you're at (although "hard little words" is living up to its name for me at least :). They all have strengths and weaknesses. That particular Familia Romana course has no typing, which I view as a drawback. The ecclesiastical Latin one makes typing demands that can be a bit arbitrary and/or beyond my competence (like having to type all four principle parts of verbs), so I normally use the app version, which is a good deal more straightforward. The Wheelock one has sound, but the speech is insufferably (to me) slow. I have probably gotten by far the most bang for the (time spent) buck from the grammar one. I knew most of the declensions, more or less, and large chunks of the paradigms, but there were definitely lacunae has greatly helped fill.

Perhaps there'd be something in this course of interest to you: I haven't really started it and presume I'll skip the first half with it's explicitly reading focus. It seems to be largely arranged in difficulty order, which makes it a touch more convenient. I think three into Latin courses is enough to cover the first thousand or two words well enough! But this one has a thousand more. Ironically, the only 5000 word Latin course I've come upon as yet is from Polish. But that was a random find; I hadn't really had non-English based Memrise courses on the mind (although having enjoyed them greatly on Duo, so you'd think...) maybe there's something there from French or Spanish.

March 18, 2017

Re: the "stickiness" of handwriting and whether/how much it is useful for languages, and the whys and wherefores therein:

I have cerebral palsy, so I handwrite very (very) slowly. So slowly, in fact, that by the age of eight, I was coming home with 5-6 hours of homework (read: classwork I hadn't been able to complete in class) per day... homework that I could have completed in class within 30-60 minutes by other means. Eventually, my parents managed to save up enough to buy me a typewriter and fought the school system until I was allowed to use it. That worked until the age of 11-12, but when I entered high school (a bit early), I quickly found that while I could complete the work just fine on the typewriter/word processor, retaining large chunks of information for tests was far more difficult. I fought the notion of having to rewrite reams of notes by hand on my own time just so I could remember the content, but eventually I gave in, switched to a tape recorder for class, and with the tape recorder running, developed my own illegible/incomprehensible-to-everyone-but-me "shorthand" for handwriting my lecture notes. Eventually, I could get about 60-70% of the information that way during class. The other 30-40%, I filled in at home at night, listening back to the lecture at 2x speed until I got to the bits I'd missed. It worked, but I earned every last point of my (quite good) grades the hard way.

With that background, you can imagine how very much I didn't want to mess around with handwriting Irish.... but after years of fighting with the language, I bit the bullet. Anything I don't understand, can't remember, find confusing, etc gets written down... in context wherever possible. (If I'm going to spend a significant amount of time sloooowly writing, there's no point in it being single words divorced of any real meaning, especially in a language like Irish, where many verbs have 5, 10, or even more commonly used meanings which may or may not have anything to do with one another.)

When I get really desperate, I've even been known to copy passages directly out of grammar books/websites, provided they're explanations I understand and just can't get to stick.

Once something gets written down by hand in one of my notebooks, I tend to drill it elsewhere - I've typed all of my Irish language books into Learning with Texts, so I see them there as I read, or I'll do some exercises out of my grammar books (by hand again), or I'll rewatch an Irish language tv show I've already seen after writing down the unfamiliar vocabulary, etc. So I do still use a lot of "tech-y" methods for review, but I'm no longer shy about handwriting anything that's giving me problems.

After a week or so, I'll check my notebook again and look for anything that's still not solid. Anything I still don't "get" gets handwritten all over again - often in a different context, or if it's a grammar issue, I'll find a different explanation and write that whole thing.

It's an incredibly laborious process, but I knew it was working when I was watching rapidfire Irish language TV with English subtitles on one night and found myself not only understanding enough to not need the subtitles, but also critiquing the quality of the translations.

So for me, it's not that writing it forces me to slow down and think about the text - I write so slowly that I have to think letter by letter when writing, making it an incredibly boring and context-less exercise in that respect! - but rather, that there's something in the physical aspect of writing that seems to flip the "this is important, you need to actually remember this" switch in my brain. That same switch doesn't seem to get flipped when I type, no matter how hard I concentrate or how slowly I force myself to type - and I type relatively slowly, anyway.

Whether that's a broadly applicable theory or just the way my brain works, I don't know... cerebral palsy is congenital brain damage, so it's possible that for others, it's the slowing down itself that does the trick, and my brain has wired itself differently.

March 19, 2017

> Any tips for what sorts of things to be writing out by hand?

My answer is pretty old fashioned: paradigms and vocabulary (as well as sentences). That is, information to be set into memory for later, long-term retrieval. Once such material is memorized, then electronic means can be useful to practice retrieving it.

For Latin, Koine Greek, and French a set method involving plenty of writing out by hand worked for me when I learned the basics, and information memorized long ago is still fresh in my mind. (If you're really interested, I can go into details of the procedure.) With Russian, using different approaches, learning has taken much longer. There may be other mitigating circumstances such as age, but only upon beginning to learn a new language from scratch will I be able to judge about that.

> . . . might well depend if the language used for the test is more like a Swedish, or an Arabic!

That's interesting. How so?

What electronic resources are you using for Latin, BTW? I'm always up for suggestions. What are the languages you're fluent in, and what would you like to learn next?

(Any fluency, BTW, I may have is really in reading. For many years pre Internet there was for me almost no chance to use what I learned actively, and now I find that I don't have any great desire to converse or correspond! Is this a function of age or of my basic nature? Who knows? (Who cares? ;)) Again, it is something maybe to be worked on w/ the next language taken up, which prob. will be German or Swedish, unless I decide to make a big effort at Attic Greek.)

March 13, 2017

If you're really interested, I can go into details of the procedure.

If it's not too much of a hassle, sure!

I would say I speak French and Spanish fluently and have "basic fluency" in Portuguese, i.e. I can say what I want, if perhaps haltingly, understand the vast majority of what I hear, read fiction well enough, non-fiction very easily.

Russian is the longstanding far-from-complete project, Latin the much-faster-moving project. "next" is sort of hard to say. Duolingo has made the entry barriers ever so much lower, but learning e.g. another Romance language is a pretty straightforward matter [I could pretty much speak Portuguese with just one college semester, although when I was in Portugal I couldn't really understand anybody... until I found a Brazilian guy at the bus station :) ] so I don't worry so much about sequencing. I'm happy to just throw stuff in my brain at various times. It seems to stick to at least a useful degree. I'm already doing somewhat well watching Catalan dramas, and I haven't even regilded the tree all the way yet.

Then there's Georgian and Arabic, endeavors of a different order. My comment about relative efficacy of electronic means is highly informed by my much greater success with Memrise Latin courses vis à vis Georgian. Specifically, the "Latin grammar" course has been really, really great for me. I could already kinda sorta read Latin (at least with the help of the "dictionary" of side-by-side texts to check out the words I don't immediately get), so I have done pretty well understanding many of the conjugations, but I certainly couldn't produce them, and I'm kind of weak on future yet since it doesn't show up nearly as much as the past in what I've read. I've also gotten a lot of the way through the top Wheelock's Latin and Familia Romana Memrise courses. Looking into options for vocab past the first couple thousand words. There are some, but I'm not sure if my vocab is at a point where they'll be quite as effective. The more basic courses have lots of words I recognize or kinda sorta know but need reinforcement on. Further along, there's words I just don't know, and I've found Memrise to be a much less effective modality for such words: partly why Georgian is so tough, but even for new Russian vocab. I sort of wind up with words I suddenly would recognize as having learned but not actually knowing the meanings. Also, both Latin and Russian have verbs that correspond to odd clusters or sub-meanings of English verbs, so I think word-level flashcard modalities might just be a lot better for nouns and adjectives.

March 13, 2017

I've gone back up the response tree to leave this comment, since things were getting a little squashed and it's a more general thought; one of the things I like about writing out by hand is that when one learns to read the printed version of an alphabet but write the cursive version, to some extent one gets the 'other' version for free.

Printed versions of the alphabet are most usually quite similar to the block letter versions; if you can fluently read and type Russian or Hebrew printed material, you can almost certainly produce a print text that will be legible to others, it may not be exactly how one might be taught to print, but it will be readily usable.

Similarly, if you learn to use/write the cursive version of an alphabet, you will also, almost without effort, learn to read it - depending on the alphabet it may be a bit slow (in Russian you have the joy of words like лишь, and in Hebrew you have those fun words where the vowels might be different and you have to know from context what they will be, like רוצה being rotze or rotza, לך as both lach and lecha), but being able to write it makes reading it a thousand times easier.

Effectively, if you learn to type/read print, you get writing print more or less for free, and learning to write cursive, you get reading cursive more or less for free. To me that just seems like a much more logical way of going about things, especially if you want, in the long term, to be able to use the language in situations where being able to type it may not suffice.

March 17, 2017

Sounds right to me. For Russian, another advantage of learning to write the cursive "hand" (as they used to say) is that you become much more able to read easily Russian italic typefaces, since Russian italics, as you know, are more like cursive handwriting than is the normal typeface. It can make a big difference when reading several pages of Italics, such as you sometime run into in fiction.

A forum search on Russian AND Italics AND cursive will show up some good discussions of this, which you may recall having participated in, as well as a bonus about "Let's learn Latin!" :)

March 19, 2017

I'll be interested to hear how you get on with your tablet/stylus combo, but honestly "it is plenty of fun" is already a point in its favour for me; I'm pretty sure that being relaxed/having fun is conducive to retention!

I feel like particularly with languages that use a different writing system, there's something about the challenge of physically getting my hands around new words and letters that just gets them in my head better. I always start with the proper handwritten alphabet, i.e. not just handwriting printed letters - I think long term, it is more helpful and useful, and also 'translating' back and forth between handwritten and typewritten alphabets makes it familiar to me more quickly. I can only explain it as, although for example Hebrew is quite different in its handwritten versus printed forms for some letters, handwriting it still feels like it familiarises me better with the printed one, too.

March 13, 2017

I've been doing the same for a while in Russian - that is, handwriting each sentence of a lesson in a notebook and I find it a great GREAT way to learn faster and better. There's brain memory at work, and muscle memory in the hand at the same time... Also very useful to quickly review the lessons/training from the day before.

+100 for the above

March 14, 2017

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