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https://www.duolingo.com/profile/jlee1018

Duolingo Chinese Badly Needs Improvement

I was really excited when I saw that duolingo had finally added Chinese. My experience of it has been a crushing disappointment so far.

The teaching style I can't understand. I'm just linking random sounds to unfamiliar symbols and its a very frustrating way of learning. For some reason, you're not even told what the word means in English. I recently downloaded Hello Chinese and the success of that approach shows that Duolingo's painfully frustrating attempt is not inevitable.

As much as I have loved using Duolingo for Spanish, I think they badly need to go back to the drawing board on Chinese. What does everyone else think?

June 7, 2018

42 Comments


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/piguy3

I actually think it's great. If you ever want to learn to read Chinese comfortably, the connection between character and sound has to be absolutely automatic. Duolingo is well set up to help achieve this.


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/2GreyCats

But there also needs to be some kind of connection between the word and the concept. What happened to the pictures? All the other languages I have seen on Duo use pictures to help learners connect the meanings to the words. Why not in Chinese? The pictures already exist, after all.


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/PeaceJoyPancakes

The regular Duolingo method for using pictures along with basic nouns could be applied to Chinese to some extent, but it's limited even for the languages to which it's already applied, and in any event it wouldn't work so well with individual Chinese characters, whose meanings are often abstract and/or various and contextual.

It's hard for me to evaluate the effectiveness of Duo's method for beginners because I'd studied Chinese long before Duolingo put out its course. I started, as most non-native learners do, with pinyin. I can't recall ever having pictures to assist me with learning the characters, though the characters themselves are pictographic symbols (not that most can truly be called "pictures" of anything but themselves).

That said, some extra context around individual characters when they're introduced, such as their basic meaning, if possible, and/or an example or two of compound words in which they're used, would undoubtedly be both motivating and helpful for forming connections in the mind.

For a supplemental off-screen resource that presents characters in such a way, I'd recommend a book such as Reading and Writing Chinese, Third Edition, by William McNaughton (Author) and Jiageng Fan (Editor). This edition foregrounds the simplified characters and also provides the traditional counterparts. I have an old edition that does it in the opposite way.

The book has a regular formatting throughout, with five characters per page. Back in the day I made two overlays out of card stock, one with cutouts allowing just the characters to show through, so I could learn to recognize them and say their pronunciation and meaning, and the other with cutouts allowing just the pronunciation and meaning to show through, so I could learn to write them from memory. Granted, this isn't the most natural way to learn a language, and I've never made it through the whole book, but we have to start somewhere.

Of course you can also just download a spreadsheet with a list of common characters etc. from the internet, but if you think a tactile format could help, a book like Reading and Writing Chinese might be the way to go.


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/2GreyCats

I am not asking for myself. I studied Chinese years ago, so I am not new to it. But even when we learned it in first-year Chinese in college, we had the meanings to associate with the pinyin, and not just characters alone. Of course there aren’t illustrations for every character. But basic concepts like man, woman, child, tree, mountain, ...” can certainly be demonstrated with pictures. Duo has already done it, in fact, with the Tinycards app. Adding those to the lessons would help, I think, so the learner doesn’t feel she is just matching unfamiliar sounds with unfamiliar squiggles with no idea of what they mean.


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/PeaceJoyPancakes

I don't think Duolingo has done it with Chinese, though Chineasy has some Tinycards sets.

I myself find Chineasy annoying. I'm not convinced of the power of the pictures. I find them distracting, and I think knowing the evolution of a character form is more helpful and significant, in terms of providing a psychological anchor. (My own preference, anyway.)

Meanings are a different matter. I'm all for providing the associated meanings, as I've suggested, but we're all capable of picturing a dog or a mountain in our own minds, and that's enough for me.

But maybe that's just me. More power to those who find Chineasy useful.


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/2GreyCats

No, I cannot stand Chineasy. It’s stupid. But how is the Duo learner doing Chinese supposed to know what the meaning of the word even is? That’s why I said some kind of translation would help, even using pictures is better than nothing. The last I saw, there were no meanings given at all. Just the pronunciation and the characters, nothing more. I will look again, but that’s what I remember—that I only knew the meanings because I had studied it already. A complete beginner wouldn’t have that background.

Now, the reason I am in favor of mini photographs or even little illustrations like I see in Duo German, is that I was trained years ago in Natural Method style, which tries to avoid translating from the L2 into the L1. That’s why. It’s not that we can’t “imagine it in our mind”; of course one can. But that doesn’t help with learning the concept. Different pedagogical approach.


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/2GreyCats

Aha! Just figured out my confusion. There IS a Tinycards set for Chinese that uses the same graphics as Duolingo, but it was created by a user, not by Duo. That explains why I thought I’d seen it—I had, but Duo didn’t create it. Mea culpa.


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/bradmsanders

Keep in mind that the people who make the Chinese course are all VOLUNTEERS. They are not paid for their work, and none of us are paying to access this course (unless you're a Plus member, but no one on this thread is). If you find the course difficult to use and have suggestions for improvement, that's fine, but I think it's disrespectful to call the team "terrible." Chinese is a non-Western language, so you should naturally expect more errors that need to be fixed since it's more difficult to do 1-1 translation. But it's also important to be patient and use outside resources in the meantime. If you don't understand something, Google it. Chinese Wiki is great for grammar explanations, there are a ton of YouTube videos, and honestly it isn't that hard nowadays to find tutors online. The Duolingo Chinese course will give you a solid foundation and a structured study program, but you have to be more proactive to go from there.

I recently finished the skill tree, and I learned a lot. The errors and specific ways of wording sentences were annoying at times, but you don't have to be a genius to figure things out and power through. This is still the absolute best program I've found for building some basic proficiency in Chinese.

Also, a lot of people are complaining here and in other threads about matching the sound with the character before understanding the meaning. I know it seems counterintuitive, but there is actually research that backs up this method and seems to show that making the sound to character connection is important for long-term memory.


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/jlee1018

You're absolutely right (BradMSanders post) about the volunteer/its free point. I admire the Duolingo project and they provide an excellent free service. I don't take any great joy in criticising the Chinese programme. But, I feel there is value in Duolingo knowing what is felt to work/not work by its users. The reason I feel my expectations are not unfairly unrealistic is because, as I said in the original post, I've used apps that provide a much smoother experience of learning Chinese. Perhaps though, there are technical and logistical challenges I'm ignorant of, I have to bear that in mind. Also, as to the remark concerning complaints about it being 'terrible' as too unfair, I take your point. I tried my best in the original post, whether or not I succeeded, to walk the line between the expression of frustration and not being overly harsh/disrespectful.


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Robwith1

We appreciate the volunteers, but it is not easy to understand . Just saying.


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/waikong

I totally agree, I can read and write Chinese, was going to see where the duolingo Chinese course line up, and brush up on 'web terms', and simplified writing. Many sentences are awkward, many correct translations are not accepted, it became a game of memorizing what duolingo's list of acceptable answers. At the end of the day, after testing out the first few sections, and trying out the more advanced sections, I am deleting the language from my list. It's just too frustrating to use and spending more time fighting it than learning it.


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Inka_89

If you read this forum, you'll find that many people complain about Chinese. And I don't think responsible for fixing Chinese is reading the posts or reacting to our complains in any way. I reported some sentences 2 months ago and nothing has changed so far.


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/mendosi

I also was excited to see the language pair finally arrive, but as I work through the exercises, it can be disheartening to see answers in English which are clearly correct marked wrong and then see in the discussion that it was reported up to six months ago. Since reporting answers is the only thing I can do, it seems sad that reporting them doesn't seem to help much. It might be possible to learn the game and supply the magic answers words after working through the exercises for a while, but that doesn't help with the initial placement test.

Still, one thing I would like to give special credit for is the fact that 整體中文 is accepted in all the answers. Since that is what I use I am glad that I can practice typing these.


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Rebecca872652

Chrome has a Chinese/English dictionary extension called "Zhong Wen" that allows you to see the definition of a character by hovering the cursor over it. I love using it at the beginnings of lessons to learn meanings before they get around to giving us translations. Here's the link: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/zhongwen-chinese-english/kkmlkkjojmombglmlpbpapmhcaljjkde


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/MThoriqMalano

I think you might want to keep leveling up each skill until they are level 5 (the highest). That way, I can assure you that you will remember all of the words and characters (as well as their meanings and pronunciations), because it takes more than 30 repetitions (depends on the skill). At least, that is they way it is for me. I know it is very boring to repeat each skill for multiple times, but that way you will remember it subconsciously. It really is sticking it in after lots and lots of repetitions. In addition, you also need to write down every character you see so that your body will remember how to write it subconsciously.


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Mtyx.

I think it’s quite decent if you’ve already been learning chinese for a while. I’ve been learning it for 3 years at uni, but forgot quite a lot since then. I speed through 4 sections a day (reaching level 1 and remembering all words - pronunciation, how to write it, sentence structure - in one go). I try not to read the sentences since my listening comprehension is not that good. I don’t really mind if some answers are not accepted (yet).

However, I think I can understand how challenging the whole course is for an absolute beginner due to lack of translations and explanations.


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/jlee1018

Interesting. Perhaps I'll try and revisit it in the future after studying other sources to see if it has more value then. Still, when you start a simple Duolingo tree, the assumption is that you are at an absolute beginner level, as is the case for all the other languages, hence the problem. But yes, it would be interesting to revisit later.


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/JeffreyWu25

I agree with jlee1018 and I have also encountered a few audio mistakes while learning chinese thru Duolingo as in the words, when clicked, emit the wrong pronunciation...


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/LukeWeng1

I've been trying the Chinese course on Duolingo for a while, trying to get used to the way they teach. I even installed a Simplified to Traditional converter because I'm from Taiwan. But the grammar they teach is nothing like what we learn in school. Sometimes, they would even mix up the sentence backwards! I think Duolingo is a great app for fun, and to learn. But for me, I take language learning seriously. I'll have to change apps, until they improve it.


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/dspencer124

I have found the Chinese course to be fine - yes there are some problems, but if you're trying to learn Chinese (or any language) with DuoLingo alone then you're doing it wrong in my view. With Mandarin in particular you need to learn the characters as well (personally I use Skritter, which is an excellent app) and also speak with a Chinese teacher as well to practice what you are saying as, especially if you are from a non-tonal language background, you will need lots of practice to get the tones right and make things sound reasonably natural. Listening practice is also important, so I would recommend the Coffee Break Chinese series as well (although that does have some flaws too). ChinesePod is also great as a supplement.

There are definitely some problems with the Chinese programme; the biggest being that they don't explain what new words are when they are introduced, so you have to figure that out for yourself, however in some ways that has challenged me to learn what they mean and that in itself is memorable.

TL/DR - no programme is perfect, so use a combination and I'm sure you'll do excellently!


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/jlee1018

Yeah, I agree 100% that Duolingo can't possibly be your only source for learning another language. Multiple types of learning are good. The problem with the Chinese tree however- I don't know if I even want to include it as one of the sources! My expectation was that it would be supplementary to other forms of learning, as you suggest, but its limitations make me doubt the value of including it.


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Donna108

I echo other people's comments...Duolingo for Chinese is good, but you will need other resources. I used Memrise for a while to practice vocab (I dug through the layers to figure out how to use it for free). There was another post by a student who described how to learn chinese. I didn't bookmark it, but you might look for it in the Discussons to find the other resources he suggests. Duolingo has taken me from deer-in-the-headlights (i never thought I would get the hang of it) to being able to read a fair number of characters and pronounce them, etc. Given that it's free and convenient, I am quite happy with the course.


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/NydeligRev

If HelloChinese can make it easy enough to get through the course without other methods then Duolingo can too. They just didn’t design Chinese to be easy like they did other courses.


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Robwith1

I am thinking of giving up Chinese it is too difficult.I thought I was the only one.


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/DorisDC

Because I recently began learning Chinese I am using other materials with Duolingo because I am noticing that I am learning little and not knowing what is going on. I use it for Spanish which does stray from Latin American Spanish ( there is a difference between this hemisphere and Castillo Spanish) but I took two years of Spanish prior to my experience of Duolingo. This also goes for French. Because I am totally new and only knew of two sentences in Mandarin I have to learn outside of this because I did one lesson of names and I was completely lost. We ( my son and myself) are learning through L Lingo which gives you the characters, how a native speaker would say it as well as the meaning. That is helping me to get it along with Duo and if there is any conflict I am going to go with the L Lingo version and have it disputed here. The more people dispute, the better this will be for people in the future who want a better learning experience. No, I do not work for Duolingo but new is not always better. We have to make it better.


https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Donna108

One other tool that I used to use for the Mandarin course was Google Translate. In a lot of its simple exercises, Duolingo tries to teach us the connection between characters and sounds, but I struggled because I didn't know the meaning of the word, so I started to look the meanings up on Google Translate. I copied and pasted text to create little dictionaries for myself with the words I learned in this way. It was definitely uncomfortable for me in the beginning, and our brains that are used to western languages take a while to re-program/re-wire themselves, but then it gets easier after the brain has adapted.


[deactivated user]

    I honestly think Duolingo's style is effective if used correctly. However the biggest flaw I see with Duolingo's Chinese course is the course feels like it was built using Google Translate and Google Translate alone.


    https://www.duolingo.com/profile/5g1UUXDs

    I love the Chinese course. It has helped me learn to read Chinese characters. I hate straight memorization so this format works well for me. I also subscribe to the English for Chinese speakers. Yes, there are awkward English sentences, but overall the lessons are great. They teach me useful phrases that so far have not come up in the Chinese for English speakers.


    https://www.duolingo.com/profile/lh07MABr

    I think its only useful if you want to learn to be better at sentence structure or read little things here and there. But it's very frustrating when half of my translations are not accepted. And it doesn't teach you meanings of words or how to properly say the words with the correct tones (but it's not like it could teach you, Duolingo doesn't have that for any of the other languages, you could I guess if you really invest your time into paying close attention to how the voice says it). So I suggest to do with what you learn in Chinese here is just to use your knowledge to read things, maybe impress your friends with how much you learn, but don't talk to anyone who's fluent or semi-fluent because you'll sound stupid.


    https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Reetunen

    I just joined Duolingo in order to learn Chinese. I'm trying to study "names" but I'm not making any progress because I don't know what the symbols I'm supposed to link to these sounds mean. That's why I'll get stuck when I'll have to form a sentence myself. I might need some help.


    https://www.duolingo.com/profile/WaqarAnwar

    I just started it and I am feeling the exact. Spanish was done so well.


    https://www.duolingo.com/profile/PeaceJoyPancakes

    It's challenging because the characters aren't phonetic, but don't forget that you don't have to know what "Juan" means to know it's a Spanish name.

    For Chrome and Firefox, you can also install the Zhongwen Chinese Popup Dictionary, which translates words and individual characters when you hover your mouse pointer over them.

    And it's not a bad idea to have a Chinese-English dictionary and/or Google Translate open in another tab while doing the lessons.


    https://www.duolingo.com/profile/Comitatensis

    I have to add my 50 cents here. And please remember that I am not trying to hurt the people working freely for this. But at some point someone has to step in and say it. This is a BAD course. I mean I'd love to learn Mandarin obviously but... well. How can I say it?

    • The method is bad. Just applying what works with other langages is wrong in Mandarin. Simply because, from an european point of view, learning anything esle like Spanish or german or french or wahtever : we already know the script beside maybe one ore few characters or accents. In Mandarin we don't know anything. And basically what we have here is a way to learn TWO different scripts (characters and pinyin) and ONE spoken langage. IE we are learning THREE things at one. The method that can teach me one thing CANNOT be applied in this case.

    • the English used is BAD. I am sorry, again not trying to be hurtful or to llok down on peolpe, but I am French and though I have decent level in English I am easily confused what I can read in lessons or exercises. Obiousvly many parts of this course have to be re-read by someone with engough knowledge to make them readable once and for all.

    • So many charaters that we come accross have different pronconciations or sounds that they should have, and I am NOT talking about the one that suppose to change (like two third associated together, or yi ) I am talking about mistakes strewn all other the place. I have seen 个 written, or said with no less taht 4 different tones! And I can add that it is impossible so far to report an error in a lesson...

    There is more that could be added. Again I do not want to ❤❤❤❤ on anyone, but the course is not in a good shape and needs more people to work on it. Unfortunately I cannot add my piece since I do not speak that langage. I do hope someone can help make this better


    https://www.duolingo.com/profile/JoAustin7

    I am using this as a refresher course. I am a middle school music teacher, and next year, our school will be offering Chinese language! I want to make sure that I am beyond our students an d can be helpful from time to time. :)

    It's been very useful to me for that purpose, but I can't see how anyone with no prior Chinese language study would be successful with this program. I think it's a good companion study tool.

    Learn Chinese in just 5 minutes a day. For free.