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Does Duolingo actually help you SPEAK a new language? My personal language philosophy.

I've read several articles about people's experience with trying to learn a language with Duolingo. Although I always welcome new tools to help people learn new cultures and languages, I'd like to share my personal language acquisition philosophy and why we need to rearrange the very paradigm we have about language learning.

Language, words, sentences, sounds, signs, and any other medium by which we attempt to communicate our thoughts and emotions to another person, is connected to personal experience and senses. If a person has no sense of taste, for example, trying to explain the meaning of "salty" is not exactly possible. It depends upon mutual experiences and an agreement on a meaning that is attached to a word or phrase.

This is why I feel the "translation method" that we have had of learning languages has ultimately been ineffective in achieving the goals of language, namely communication of the thought and emotion. In Japanese, it is simply impossible to perfectly translate 頂きます (Itadakimasu), a common phrase said before eating a meal, to an English speaking audience because there is culture, experience, religion, and so much more packed into this one word. There simply isn't a mutual, or equivalent, experience to attach meaning to an English word.

Perhaps some may feel that programs like Duolingo and Rosetta stone offer great ways to learn vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation of a language. But that's just it. I had studied Japanese for six years before ever actually conversing with someone in Japanese, and I along with many other people wondered the same thing. "I studied all this grammar and vocab, so why can't I speak the language?" Learning a language is a skill, not a fact read in a textbook alone. Language has rules, yes, but because it is a skill, it must be practiced. It is muscle memory as well. You cannot become a pro soccer player by reading a book on bicycle kicks alone. You have to immerse yourself in the game, practice, practice, practice, make mistakes, and get used to it in both body and mind. It wasn't until I spent two years in Japan that I realized the whole key was to actually practice all four points: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

In Japanese schools, they often only emphasize those last two, and so if communicating with an English speaker, having almost no conversation practice and just rote-memorized "I'm fine, thank you"s, is the goal, it will not help even in translation. Translation means to move a shape from one place to another in geometry, and likewise, it means to do one's best to convey the thoughts and intents of a person in one language into another. Sometimes, the receiver simply has not experienced the same things, and therefore, the translation cannot be perfect.

Therefore, when you were a child, you either learned to communicate your needs and wants by speaking or signing. You and your parents formed an understanding of the assigned meanings to such symbols or sounds. This became an outlet for your heart. If you want to learn a new language, go with a mindset of learning your FIRST language. Learn to think in that language, culture, etc., by being immersed in it and practicing it as well as observing its rules and patterns. I promise you, changing this basic paradigm will increase your effectiveness in communicating with new people in a new language.

I want you to know that language can be such a blessing in your life. If I had never attempted to learn Japanese or other languages, I would not be able to exchange my feelings and thoughts with another 100 million people, especially my dear girlfriend. If you want to learn a new language, experience new things, meet new people that you couldn't before, then by all means, utilize Duolingo, but also remember not to depend solely on it.

Please let me know if you feel that Duolingo is helping you achieve your goals in language. I would sincerely like to know. :)

P.S. Get into the habit of not saying "What is ____ in (language you want to learn)?" but "Why would a native speaker of (the language) likely say in this kind of situation?"

June 10, 2017



Short answer: no, and it isn't meant to.

Longer answer: Duo is designed to teach the basics of grammar and vocabulary. That, it does quite well. The real meat of language learning- speaking and listening -need to be done elsewhere. I always recommend that people find a speaking partner as soon as they can comfortably form basic sentences, as conversation will strengthen every other skill.

As for the 'translation method', as you call it, it has varying degrees of success. The closer a language is to one's mother tongue, the more effective it will be. Most languages fit complex ideas into single words like itadakimasu, and many of them are untranslateable in other languages. It's a useful method for absolute beginners, but as you said, learning to think rather than translate is more effective.

Hopefully, this is something that comes naturally to us as we progress. :)


I agree. I use pimsleur and find it much better for actually speaking the language. I came to duolingo to learn the spelling, rules and grammar that pimsleur pretty much ignore, because that is important to me (understanding 'why', not just 'what', that's just me). I also bought rocket because of the cultural discussions and deeper grammar lessons.

It's a long journey, and I figure on spending about 3000 hours learning Italian, not including the time I'll spend using it in Italy. That's a lot of time, and duolingo is good, but is just a start imo.


That was an interesting read, thanks.

And I totally agree with you, without immersion in the culture one's language knowledge is bound to stay pretty limited and too scholar. It's way easier than Japanese, but I actually became truly efficient in English when I began practicing outside of school, by reading books and watching series, and dived into the English-speaking side of internet.


Well, it seems you succeed because your English sounds very natural. :) Exactly. I posted this a lot because I often tried to figure out what people meant by "So, are you fluent yet?" or "Are you proficient in that language?" People seem to all have a different idea in mind when they think "So-and-so knows this language." What does know mean in this case? What defines fluent? On one hand, I can likely converse with a Japanese person better than someone who took a few years of that language in college or high school. On the other hand, I have difficult understanding the news and more technical words. I was immersed in daily conversations with people, so I can converse. Likewise, by diving into and immersing yourself in the English-speaking side of the internet, you likely got to understand that culture of the English speaking community. So yeah, I don't know if I'm "fluent" or not.

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Duolingo offers a great way to learn the basics of a language. I would always recommend it to someone who wants to start a new language since combination of Duolingo tree and a memrise course will give you great start (there are memrise courses for many duo trees). I started to learn German 15 months ago, finished the German tree in about 4 months and has been building up on it ever since. By watching shows and reading I got to the point where I am very comfortable on the comprehension side and I know I wouldn't be here without Duolingo, since it would take me much longer to acquire that basic vocabulary. When it comes to speaking.. no software or even class will teach you to speak comfortably, you have to "live" the language, finding a native speaker around you or finding one online for video chatting can help but the best way of course is to move to the country of language you're learning. And even then it still takes a lot of practice and hard work, it can be very frustrating since you're saying something, you know what you're saying and nobody understands (because your accent sucks). Eventually though it can all be done and you feel better than if you just graduated university :-)


Thanks for your post.

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