Reward us for progressing through the tree?

Hello. This is going probably going to come off very spoiled and greedy of me, since duolingo already is the best free thing I have ever seen, but bear with me because I am going somewhere with this;

I think the biggest problem any language course has in motivating people is that it is always 100% demanding and almost never rewarding - by that I mean rewarding as an activity in itself. Duolingo is very good at breaking this pattern, but there is still more potential I think. I can obviously enthusiastically study because I know every level I add gets me a little step closer to better understanding French, Spanish and Portuguese films, and I know that duolingo is first and foremost a tool.

However, I read somewhere that it is trying to 'gamify' the process of learning, and this reminded me of a personal viewpoint. Games have rewards, and usually the reward is the only point in playing the game. What exactly is a reward in a language game though?

I was an expat kid in Tunisia, so I absorbed a bit of French as well as Arabic because it was all around me and I spent some time in an ecole. Even though I liked these languages, after my parents moved on they became less and less useful to me (the languages, not my parents), and so I forgot them - my French only kept on life support by the stalwart British curriculum. I finished school, went home to the UK, got a dull job and thought of all the places I would probably never see again. A lot.

After 20 odd years I found myself suddenly thrown into South America and French Polynesia, and all those times I dismissed people telling me to keep studying and that one day it will come in handy came to haunt me, when I realised I couldn't even tell some Francophones we met in a bar that we had arrived on a sail boat.

But neglecting my language skills also made me realise one thing. You could do anything you want to me, hit me over the head with a spade until my head is flat, lock me in a room for ten years with eminem records, force me to try and learn russian using only the medium of sign language, feed me nothing but burgers and chip fat until I had a stroke, convince me that Fran├žois Hollande just decided to annex Kent by military force, I don't think any kind of abuse would ever be able to dislodge these words from my head:

"Alouette, gentille alouette, Alouette, je te plumerai."

There is something so darkly humorous in those words, and the tune is so infectious, that I think that it single-handedly anchored the French language in my mind even after years of apathy and neglect - the fact that the song goes on to mention all the constituent parts of the pour tortured gentille alouette one by one as they are being plucked is just an educational bonus. A simple song has actually made learning a list of parts amusing.

So it struck me that one of the most fundamental things that all parents do for their children is continuously sing them funny songs, tell stories and jokes, catch them out with word games, and that it is possibly these kinds of things that do so much more to cement the words and the soul of a language in a person than them knowing how to say 'Je voudrais un cafe au lait sil vous plait' ever could, and that these are precisely the kind of jokes and games that adults completely ignore when they are trying to acquire a second language

I know where my heads, shoulders knees and toes are. I know the days of the week thanks to Sting (and that the moon has low gravity!). I know that I do not like them Sam I Am. I know what the Hokey Cokey is about. I can remember the number of days in each month, what a pointless piece of information to remember when you are 5 without having a song for it.. I know where to put the I in relation to the E (except sometimes I still get confused after C). I know onetwothreefourfive - sixseveneightnineten - eleven twe-e-ee-eeh eh elve (damn you sesame street!).

This doesn't end after you are 5 years old:

Thanks to Tom Lehrer, I can recite all the elements of the periodic table. I can't play the piano tune, but ne'er mind... Thanks to Animaniacs, I know all the countries in the world and where they are [or were, c 1990]. Thanks to TV in general, I don't, like, freak out when I gotta talk to Americans, I get what they're saying pretty much all the time, even if they don't understand a word I say ;). Thanks to every musician that has ever had talent, I know how to use my language with complete and total confidence - after all how else do you get kids to 'drill' phrases and learn obscure difficult words, other than write them to a good tune?

I think all of these things are far more important than they are normally given credit for, which is why I will finish this essay with a suggestion: Instead of just getting a badge and a trophy after each stage, which is kind of hollow, why not pepper the end of various levels of duolingo with jokes, tunes, stories, or even just insightful musings, that the learner should be able to make sense of with the vocabulary they have learned? Phrases not to be tested on, but just nuggets to be absorbed voluntarily. I'm not suggesting make anything up, just draw from the worlds of the respective languages available. Everyone likes quotes, jokes and clever word tricks. In other words, why not amuse us while educating us :)?

May 25, 2013


Do you use only Duolingo or do you supplement? Personally, I use whatever I can get my hands on. Including whatever games, jokes, and music I can find. Cartoons and television shows as well.

Your post reminded me of this book I once checked out called Let's Sing and Learn in Spanish by Neraida Smith.

I can still sing "Como te llamas tu?" and some of the other songs on the CD that were so catchy.

I also use Genki which has Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Thai, German, French, and English. Genki is a learning program based mostly off of songs and games.

I learned about Genki when I was studying Japanese three years ago. I watched the video to learn how to count in Japanese and I still get that song stuck in my head to this day! Don't think I will ever forget how to count in Japanese.

I actually reviewed Genki on my blog (There's a review of Duolingo on there, too.)

Languages Online is based on songs and games and includes Chinese, ESL, French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Macedonian.

Lyrics Training is a great tool that uses popular music. I also review it on my blog. You can listen to music and play a fill-in-the-blank game where you have to type in the missing lyrics.

When I was studying German I made two courses on Memrise based off of music videos. Sissi is a young German girl who sings some very catchy and cute songs.

For television two good things are The Angry Family which is a funny cartoon that goes over vocabulary and grammar. You can find them on Youtube. They are also on the Linguacast website.

Then there is Extr@ which is also on Youtube and has French, Spanish, German, and English (that I know of, there may be more) which is a hilarious sitcom about an American visiting his friends from the country (of the language he is learning)

A fun game for people who like scary stories is Destination Death which can be played in Spanish, German, or French.

If you can't tell I have a slight obsession with languages and internet searches. :D

May 26, 2013

That is a good thing, when you post a treasury like this! Thanks.

May 26, 2013

Glad to be of some usefulness. :)

May 27, 2013

I certainly do supplement, I have only recently found Duolingo, but I have found it brilliant because its the ideal tool to fill the 'maintenance' role. I've not seen many things that can sit in your pocket and feed you tailor made statistically generated phrases with one button press...

I will definitely check out genki and those other things, it sounds like exactly the thing I was thinking about. Songs are the most sublime and underrated memorisation tool if think about it; have you ever actually consciously tried to remember Lady Gaga, or is it just stuck in your head like crude oil on a baby seal?

May 27, 2013

I think Duolingo is the best free tool on the internet that is actually a language course, and does not just teach you bits of the language. LiveMocha is probably the second best. I've noticed that there are people who expect to get everything out of one course, and subscribe to the myth that a language course is only good if it does EVERYTHING.

I have always been big on supplementing and the main things I would look for are songs, rhymes, and jokes. On my Facebook I search the "like pages" and subscribe to ones like Chistes and then I get new Spanish jokes in my feed that I can translate with Google translate. I also try to do as much reading as possible in the language.

And listen to the music.

That is the most disturbing metaphor that I have ever heard, but you reminded me of one language course's explanation of why they chose to teach through music. Your brain only remembers about 20-60% (some researchers claim) of what is spoken while it remembers 98% of the music you hear. Music sort of "drills" itself into your brain. That's you can remember Lady Gaga, but not that presidential speech you are supposed to recite for history class.

May 27, 2013

Actually I need to thank you as well, for in a roundabout way you have helped me discover this cool trilingual list of proverbs with your links: - Which is almost exactly the sort of thing I was talking about at the end of my original post.

May 27, 2013

You're welcome.

That is an awesome link. I'm going to have to add that to my "database."

May 27, 2013

Ending each section with a quote or a saying or pun or what-have-you in the language being learned would be kind of cool, I agree, even if they are simply drawn from a random pool and you maybe won't understand them until you've seen them several times and progressed further.

May 25, 2013

Gold Stars? As an adult piano student, I made my teacher laugh by asking for gold stars...till she realized I was serious. I got my gold stars when merited, BUT she made me perform in the Xmas concert in return, with all her young pupils! Be careful what you ask for.

BTW, I agree with your thesis overall, and France annexing Kent seems like a great idea as long as they take Eastbourne too. Have a gold star *.

May 26, 2013

This is actually one of the coolest ideas I have seen suggested for Duolingo--outside of ways to technically learn the language better. It would be very nice after you finish a lesson to have song lyrics, facts about the country of the language you're studying, idioms, maybe even pictures of building from that country, anything that has anything to do with the language and lesson that you just completed. That would be a great motivator to complete lessons that you otherwise would just give up on!

May 26, 2013

Maybe not as an award, but as a bonus to see if we know enough. I agree, as you mentioned, that we could learn a song in German. I tried, but I couldn't motivate myself. As for facts, and history of Germany, you could probably just look that up.

May 26, 2013

I think this is a good idea. Having it as a bonus feature, and yes, google is very available for the facts look up.

May 27, 2013

I am well familiar with google, and sometimes the multilingual wikipedia keeps me awake until the small hours of the morning, if I get caught in a train of thought; I am not suggesting that people cannot research for themselves, I just suggest that sometimes it is healthy to get a prod in the right direction, to keep you focused. Sometimes you need a little reminder of what you are working for, after all, and to the unlucky souls that have grown up with only one language, learning another one is work....

I only look at it from this perspective; Duolingo is going to blow everything else out of the water as far as digital language materials go, because it doesn't ask for $500 just to look at its ankles, and it gives the whole of itself away only with the message that using it can only improve it. This is going to allow a flood of casual patrons to partake in some serious learning activity that they otherwise would not have bothered with [I really have not ever before seen anything that offers so much for so little upfront, so please inform me if I am in a bubble];

The thing I fear about the most, is that for these people, it will fail to show the "fun" side of language learning, if it limits itself just to exercise, and not to payoff. I think Duolingo in this scenario would have a duty to enlighten people a little bit about the proverbs and wit of each language, that they could otherwise miss, so that they can become familiar with the language instead of simply 'grammatically accurate'

So I don't really think bonus is strong enough a word...

PS: to Nyletak:

May 27, 2013

Hi. I looked at your link you left for me, and I can see that it's something in German, but is it a German band, or what? I'm probably right, but I just want to make sure.

June 3, 2013

It is indeed, just promoting one of my favourite German bands. You mentioned finding it hard to get motivation; Trying to rap in German is pretty brutal exercise, but if you can manage it, the language will start to roll off the tongue a hell of a lot easier. It forces you to overcompensate for all the consonants you are not used to using, and therefore makes ordinary speaking seem easy in comparison. It sounds absurd? Well that's why it works ;) (make sure you find a very, very quiet place though...)

June 3, 2013


May 26, 2013

The world today expects to be rewarded for every little thing. I am not saying that this is a bad idea, if it helps some to progress further then by all means, but why cant people motivate themselves? People are sometimes so short sighted and can not see how learning new languages can help them. I have learned both classical Latin and koine Greek, now I will teach myself German and Italian...and I don not plan to stop there. I probably have higher aspirations for my language use than most though, I am aiming for a PhD where I will need to know a minimum of 4 languages. The badges in the program mean very little to me. If you make it too much like a game it may deter those who are more serious and focused. So, I guess all I am trying to say is there are pros and cons to interesting the reward system.

May 26, 2013

I'm not really sure why the game elements would deter anyone as long as the learning in still fully intact.

May 26, 2013

I should be more specific, I worry about the game element becoming too childish. If it begins to have the feeling of a program designed for a four year old then I know people who would be deterred from it. It can help more people than not if it is done correctly. But still, for some, there is no need for a reward system. When it comes to getting quotes and sayings that you get for a reward they do have the immersion section, but I can understand wanting interesting sayings. I am sorry if anyone feels like I am trying to ripe apart an idea, that was not my intent, I just wanted to bring another side to the topic.

May 27, 2013

I think you might be focusing too much on the 'reward' aspect of this idea, which is my bad, since it was in the title. I couldn't care less about the badges either, but they don't do any harm. It's actually ratcheting up another 'unit' that duolingo has somehow made quite addictive. If you read between the lines, what I was really suggesting was to 'reward' people with more study material. It's really just a psychological trick. The difference is, which is more interesting to study:

"What time is it? It is a quarter to twelve"

"My black cat is eating the apple",


"Paddy and Murphy were in a round room. Paddy tried to sit in the corner"

"To be, or not to be, that is the question. Whether 'tis Nobler in the mind to suffer ...."

This is a trap that all language courses fall into, they use sterile material that leaves you feeling bored, and while you can overcome this if you are exceptionally motivated, I don't personally think that second languages should be the selfish property of only the exceptionally motivated. Being a snob about it just perpetuates the myth that languages are only for smart people, which does more damage than anything. I only learned German because I found a way to make it entertaining, now people look at me like I am some sort of savant, when I am really a moron. Now I can see German as a beautiful language, but its usually taught in a humourless way putting the innumerable grammar quirks as priority one for beginners, instead of giving people credit that they will make sense of it in time, once they can see it in action. Guess what effect this has on its popularity in schools.

I want the course that I can give to my mate at the pub and say 'ave a go at this Barry, it's like crack', so that next time he goes on holiday to Magaluf he isn't completely reliant on the long suffering locals ability to understand 'Geordese' through the distortion filter of 10 pints of lager. I want people to finally realise the obvious fact that you are much more likely to take something on board if you find it entertaining, and I want the entire attitude of language teaching to change from being perceived as unnecessary torture in elementary classrooms to something that is a welcome diversion and cooler than the other subjects, like Art and Music has always been. I want people to admit that you need crutches to remember some things, and that you would have found it much more painful to learn your own language if these crutches didn't exist.

So not really a lot then :)

May 27, 2013

Sounds absolutely brilliant! Although some of the sentences are an absolute joke so maybe Duolingo was slipping humour in anyway?

May 27, 2013

Well, personally when I was rating Duolingo in my head, I was using the operative word "some" - I am more impressed by the new angle it takes, it seems to randomly find phrases that have words that you are probably on the verge of forgetting. This is something that is new, and worth overlooking a few mistakes for in my opinion. It is almost as if it cares about your development, not bad for a bot :)

May 27, 2013

Thanks for your stories and thoughts about learning languages! They're very interesting.

May 29, 2013
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