Celebrating my 1500 days streak...
Following all the positive feedback I got from writing my first celebration post, Celebrating my 1000 days streak..., and seeing how many people it helped as well as getting several requests asking me for more advice, I decided to write a follow up one on my 1500 days. I'm not going to repeat the same advice I wrote in my first post, so if you're looking for general advice on how to learn a language well, please read that post first. This post is going to be mainly a critique of Duolingo, the new features that I think are going in the right direction, and those that completely fall short and miss the whole point.
I love Duolingo. I love it because it brought an element of randomness while keeping some context (sentences) to language learning with an interface that is mostly clean (now less clean with ads). But I love it despite its shortcomings, and it has several, some so major, that I think they are preventing many would-be language learners from learning languages they think are out of their reach.
Each time I meet someone that mentions their intention to learn a language, I tell them to use Duolingo. I've been doing that for years, but the more feedback I get from those learners, the more careful I am in advising the next person into using Duolingo as their first exposure to a foreign language. The main problem learners face, especially with languages that are very different from theirs: new words just don't "stick". They use spaced repetition and all that, but none of that works in real-life situations, and Duolingo doesn't help with that at all. I recently started the Japanese course here as my first exposure to the language (I don't even watch anime) and I completely know how those learners feel!
I actually had a similar issue when I started learning Chinese around 3 years ago. It was quite hard for me to remember the sounds of those words as they sounded nothing like any other language I know. Enter podcasts.
I couldn't wait for Duolingo to support Chinese, so I looked around for the best resources out there to learn the language, and there weren't any free ones, so I got me a subscription to a paid podcast, which I'm not going to name, because I don't want people to think I was paid by them, and because several other commercial podcasts follow the same technique I'm going to discuss here, namely: sound effects and acting!
The way that podcast works, is that they offer 3 separate audio tracks per lesson: One for the actual lesson explaining a short dialog line by line with some degree of humor and cultural notes, one for just the dialog alone, and one for practicing the new vocabulary as well as using it to form new sentences. Out of all of these 3 tracks, the one that helped the most was the dialog one as it not only included spoken language, but it featured decent acting and sound effects in the background giving us clues as to where we are and what is going on, and here is when things started to click.
To help me remember words in the very beginning when the language was completely new, I used to listen to all the dialog tracks of all the lessons I've learned every day, which didn't take much time because each track consists of just a few seconds (at the newbie level). The aha moment came one day while I was walking on the street, and a speeding car suddenly stopped, making that loud squeaking sound that cars make when they break. The first thought that came to my head when I heard that sound? The Chinese word for danger!
It turns out, that in one of those dialog tracks I listened to every day, there was that same sound after the sound of someone walking to cross the street, and someone else screaming: danger! (in Chinese) right after that sound with all the emotions that such a situation demands. That sound itself became a trigger for me to remember the appropriate word in that context.
In other contexts, conversations such as:
Person A: I'm sorry
Person B: That's ok
Person A: Thanks for understanding
helped me remember those expressions, because they came in a logical sequence. I would remember the expression for "that's ok" as soon as I heard "I'm sorry" being said. Compare that approach to learning both of these expressions together using flashcards, completely out of context, and then when the situation comes for us to use them, we'd be stuck thinking: wait, which one was the "I'm sorry" one and which one was the "that's ok" one again?
And this brings me to the frustration I have with some of the directions that Duolingo is taking and why I think their pure A/B testing approach is failing to measure real-world success, but instead, just measuring success in using Duolingo and 'winning'.
As I had mentioned in the beginning, I initially loved Duolingo for the extra context it provided in the form of sentences as opposed to a pure flashcards based solution like Memrise, but when they introduced TinyCards, it made me feel like it is heading off-track. The chat bots they added to their mobile apps as well as the stories they are testing, are more of the way to go, but all of these parts, including the main Duolingo app, are missing one major requirement for real-life language success: triggers.
Not only are triggers missing, they seem to be deliberately removed from Duolingo by design as a way to 'simplify' the experience. Both sound triggers as well as visual cues are removed. Robotic voices are fully devoid of life, like nothing you would hear in real life, and stylized cartoon illustrations look so generic, that our brain soon learns to ignore them completely. Yes, I know Duolingo has experimented with the manual recording of sentences, and their A/B tests said that most people 'liked' the robotic voice more, but that's not what I'm talking about here. I actually think that robotic voices work great for the random style of lessons that Duolingo gives, and the main reason people had more success with them, is that they were able to slow them down. These styles of lessons are great to practice grammar rules you've already read about, but not so great to remember words and expressions that are completely unfamiliar to you, especially when you actually need them in real-life: something that is impossible for Duolingo's A/B tests to measure.
To give you a more concrete example: compare the narrative introduction of the original Beauty & the Beast (or Aladdin) Disney cartoon to the same text spoken in a robotic voice. Which one would you remember the most? Which one would you rather listen to every day?
This is especially true in the stories feature that got recently introduced by Duolingo. Stories are great to learn a language, but yet again, this feature is missing the main element it needs for it to work: emotion.
You want to know how much better those stories would be if they had more emotions? Try playing a point-and-click adventure game in a foreign language (the ones that are produced in Germany are soooooooo good in case you're learning German!) That's where Duolingo should get more inspiration from I think: more sound effects, more emotions, more triggers!
hello SamirShaker, what great points about how to learn and retain language!! I followed the link back and read your 1000-day post as well, and I enjoyed reading both.
I love your ideas about "triggers" as a useful way to absorb a new language. I never thought of it in those terms before. You explain very well how it helps learn a language when there is emotion and context. In that way learning is more organic, and access to the words when you need them is much improved.
Thank you for your posts – and congratulations on your magnificent 1500 day streak!!!
Replies like yours encourage me to share my experience more often as I see how it could help people. So thanks for that! :-)
As for "triggers", they are actually an essential first part of habit formation, not just in learning languages. So if you want to improve your learning method, not just in languages, as well as learn how to change your life for the better, you might want to read a bit about habit formation in case you haven't already and use it to incorporate one good habit in your life per month. That's what streaks are all about in the end. Habits! Good habits move us forward and bad habits move us backwards, both in terms of health and learning.
I recommend you start with a good productive habit as soon as you wake up. This "small win" will make it more likely for you to make more positive decisions during the rest of the day, as you feel that your day started productively, and inertia dictates that we keep pushing towards more wins throughout the day.
Congratulations! Really a very nice streak. I must say I agree with you about those triggers. For that reason I start using podcasts together with duo, once I have the basics down. Since I really like point-and-click games I have also tried doing some in the languages I am learning. I'm looking forward to your 2000 days post^^
Honestly, if you like point-and-click adventure games, it is worth learning German just to play the ones being made in Germany. They are that good! They are even better than the ones that were made in the golden era of adventure games back in the 90s, and playing their English version doesn't give as rich of an experience.
And I'm looking forward to my 2000 days post too! :-D
Hahaha...I have to admit, I didn't see that one coming :-D
Here are some of my favorites, but really, I have yet to be disappointed by any point-and-click adventure game made in Germany!
- "The Book of Unwritten Tales" (all 3 of them)
Pretty much all adventure games made by Daedalic. These people are pro! :-D
- "The Night of the Rabbit"
- "Edna bricht aus" and its sequel "Harveys neue Augen"
- "Deponia" (all 4 of them)
- "The Whispered World"
I have yet to play the rest of their games, but I'd buy them blindfolded! Actually, I already did and I'm going through them one by one :-D
And let's not forget that little gem made by Studio Fizbin:
- "The Inner World" (can't wait for the sequel!)
If you ever bump into any one who participated into making one of these games, give them a few hugs on my behalf, tell them Samir says hi :-D
Congrats on your streak:))
Re triggers, I find duolingo's weird and odd sentences fill that role for me. I find it really easy to learn new vocabulary using duolingo.
I suspect the reason people do better with the robot voices is that they are there for individual words and can be slowed down. This is such a huge advantage when you are learning the way sounds combine in a new language that it clearly outweighs the more pleasant sound of natural voices which afterall you can find in many other places once you have grasped the basics with duolingo. I have moved on from duolingo to being able to understand natural speech well in half a dozen languages now and am able to understand more and more of the others as time goes by. I certainly don't want them replacing the tts with recordings for all languages. And I think the stories are nicely expressive, at least the two I sampled were.
I can't help but think that the "real" answer is for Duolingo to make it possible for there to be recorded audio: for both whole sentences AND individual words, reinforced with TTS (where available) for the turtle mode, assuming it's not feasible to get voice actors to reliably talk slowly enough.
Weird and odd sentences are something else, they aren't triggers. They only work when you understand them, because the brain remembers weird things better. Triggers are more about using a familiar element, for example sound effects, to remind you of a word. This can also be used with weird sentences or weird stories. The point is that the sequence has to make sense and come in a logical order. A story can be weird while making sense in the context of the story, and sound effects along with good acting can be used in it to make it even more memorable and interesting to the brain.
My point is that triggers would help people remember words in real-life when they need them, not just while using Duolingo.
Would you say that using Duolingo alone helped you remember words quickly while speaking to someone in a language you're learning?
As I haven't had the opportunity to speak to anyone using them I don't know about that specific point but I don't have trouble recognising their meanings when I hear them or see them. And not just translations, but meanings independent of the English equivalents. I am more interested in understanding than producing language at this stage. Duolingo does this part brilliantly. Again there are other resources to use after it if you are more focused on speaking. But even for speaking the tts is brilliant. By slowing it down so you can hear the parts you learn the component sounds better than from natural speech. I went from not hearing differences between sounds at all to having a very good ear for different sounds and from pronouncing everything incorrectly to being able to copy sounds in many different languages. I think speaking before you can even hear a language properly is back to front and likely to cement bad habits. You also need to be able to hear a language properly before you can read it properly. I really value the way duolingo ties the text to sound all the way through. Long live the robot voices!
The problem with fully relying on the robotic voices and slowing things down, is that it gives the illusion of being able to understand the language in real life, when in fact, the language sounds different when spoken naturally. I completely agree that one needs to distinguish the sounds of the language before producing it correctly, and I have expanded plenty on that point in my first celebration post, but if you really want to develop useful listening skills, you really need to listen to a lot of audio material, podcasts for example, and learn to follow the language at it's natural speed before you even understand it. That is actually how I learn to passively understand languages. It's getting it from the passive to the active stage that is the challenging part, and this is where Duolingo helps by giving us a platform to practice on, which also corrects our mistakes.
Absolutely, I don't regard the turtle voice as a substitute for that, but as a precursor. I listen to lots of audio books and watch lots of tv in my target languages after I complete the trees on duolingo. I sleep with an audio book playing every night and have several times had the wonderful experience of a language coming into focus over the course of a night. That competes with the experience of feeling a baby quicken in a way I don't think anything else could.
I don't rely on the slow voice as much as I used to as my ear has improved so much but it was invaluable for the first half dozen or so languages. The first time through German, French and Spanish I needed to listen to it repeatedly for every question. I just couldn't distinguish any sounds. If you already spoke other languages pre duolingo you might not appreciate it the way I did as a mono lingual English speaker. And I still appreciate it for Russian and Welsh, although Hungarian is doable without it as it seems very regular.
I appreciate the slower pace too from time to time, even if I grew up multi-lingual, and I'm glad to hear that you listen to a lot of audio material, but you actually do it in the opposite order that I do it in. I consume a lot of this material before I start with Duolingo. I absorb the sounds before the meaning. This is a slow process at the beginning, but in the long run, I end up progressing a lot faster and reach a relatively high-level in the language earlier than expected.
As for listening at night, I would surmise that this would do you more harm than good. If this is making you dream in your target language, it means that the audio playing while you sleep is disturbing your sleep, and that's why you're remembering your dreams. We don't remember our dreams when we sleep well. Dreams are a sign of poor-quality sleep. If you are willing to experiment, try sleeping early, waking up early and listening to your target language as soon as you wake up when your mind is still clear. If you already have a feel for the spelling of the language, you could even quickly lookup keywords that pop while you listen in an offline dictionary (for speed) even if you don't understand what is being talked about. That's one way to actively listen.
Great post, congratulations! I totally agree about the robotic voices. I loved the courses with normal human voice and some of the TTS's make me sick. Now I'm doing Dutch for example and the voice is just awful. The robotic voice may give better A/B-test results because it may be easier to understand in the exercises (and it also allows the "turtle speed"). But getting used to a real human voice, although maybe harder, is definitely much more beneficial for your learning in general. And it's much more fun to do courses with real recordings.