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Improving the Pronunciation Component

Hello Duolingo,

My name is Joshua Smolders, and I am a linguistics professor at a Canadian University. I was introduced to your website by a friend and was immediately excited. I want to congratulate you on a revolutionary concept: the merging of social media with language learning and website translation in order to make language education free and accessible and to make the vast work of translation feasible while preserving its quality. It is an idea that I am sure will have great success. The interface of this website is very user-friendly, and the language learning experience is great. I am currently using the site to help with my French (as my profile suggests).

There is one aspect of your language learning model, however, that I believe should and could be easily improved: pronunciation and mastering the sound system. As I have been working through the French modules, I have found myself again and again unsure of which vowel or consonant was being pronounced and having to look it up in an online dictionary. While the computerized voice is fairly high quality, it alone cannot replace the training garnered by listening to and getting the feedback of a native speaker.

I believe the ambiguity in pronunciation of certain words and the absence of native-speaker training could be alleviated by adding two things to your current system: 1) an initial lesson on the sound system. 2) an option to view the pronunciation of any word or phrase (transcribed using the international phonetic alphabet).

Concerning the first, adding an additional lesson (or maybe a whole new tab/section of the learner's profile) on the sound system and intonation of the language would be very beneficial to your users. An example of this might include an interactive diagram showing correspondences between the sounds of user's mother tongue and the sounds of their target language. Using face diagrams, the site could show how one physically pronounces the vowels and consonants of their own language and then compare this to the target language, especially focusing on sounds that do not occur in the learner's own language. You could also have "hearing practice", where a vowel or consonant is given in a monosyllabic word and the user must identify the correct vowel phoneme. I believe such an addition would be of great benefit for improving the quality of spoken second language acquisition (as opposed to just written language acquisition) for your product.

Concerning the second, the website could also teach relevant symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) for the target language's consonant and vowels, and then an option to "show pronunciation" could be added to the regular phrases. Not only would this be useful to the user for understanding the difference between written and spoken language, but it would also be doing a great service to the online world in terms of the standardization of pronunciation keys. Most online dictionaries and encyclopedic websites have already begun integrating IPA, and language learning websites and programs should consider following suit.

I hope you have found these ideas helpful. Thank you for considering them and I wish you the best of luck with your enterprise.


Joshua Smolders

June 4, 2013



Thank you for this thoughtful suggestions. We are working on improving the pronunciation and I'll bring back these suggestions to team.


Awesome! Thanks so much.


So has anything changed regarding this in the last 2 years?


It appears it has since your post 3 years ago, and mine 5 years ago. I'm working on Mandarin now and the pronunciation guides in the lessons are accurate but still layman level. Nice work DuoLingo!


I definitely think that your first suggestion of a little help on pronunciation would be helpful. The way that Duolingo works certainly pushes towards the student learning the correct pronunciation instinctively however, I have no doubt that for example Spanish pronunciation would have been daunting for me without having fairly extensive experience with pronunciation prior to Duolingo.

Regarding the second point. Perhaps the IPA symbols could be included for those such as yourself who know them and are comfortable reading them though I think I probably speak for the masses when I say that I really wouldn't want them to be a prominent part of the main Duolingo learning experience. Why? Firstly, I'm no stranger to the IPA symbols having studied them for my English Language course a while back, but since then I've managed to completely forget them and the concept of having to learn them is a formidable one. Second, I think it goes against the philosophy of Duolingo to not over complicate things as they might be in a textbook and I think it goes against the simplicity of the lessons as they are now. In a nutshell, an understanding of the IPA symbols is a very big and complicated ask of the casual language user - perhaps more a power user tool.


You make a good point about the IPA being foreign to people, but that is part of why I think it should be integrated: part of the process of globalization and multilingual integration on the internet must include a standardized education on pronunciation. Making IPA accessible the world!

Having said that, I agree that it should be an optional component... maybe a "show pronunciation" button?


Please don't take me as ignorant, because I can and do actually use the IPA, but I have to say this:

The IPA is already open to the world. The world just isn't that impressed :) . I would have hated, HATED it if I was forced to learn IPA in my school French classes - and I didn't have it easy, I'm English, my first ever school year was conducted entirely in Arabic! The IPA just seems purposefully ugly, talks circles trying to explain itself on paper, and doesn't leave you any better enlightened on pronunciation than if you had simply asked someone. Because of it's obsession with corrupted latin letter forms it ignorantly fritters away what would have been a perfect opportunity to teach mainstream audiences confident familiarity with other alphabets [GREEK, CYRILLIC, I am sure the word INTERNATIONAL was in there!], an oversight that can only be considered a crime of neglect. Despite its short-sighted intentions of being as 'familiar looking' as possible, it is so obsessively precise to be unreadable to the eye without training, that new users invariably will have to wander off on a whole new tangent learn it confidently, and most will find it massively redundant for their purposes. Worse still, the readily available learning materials for it are rubbish, to be frank, which leaves one simply guessing at the sounds half of the time; and if you are just guessing the sound from the look of the letters, congrats, you have just broken the primary purpose of the IPA! So you might just as well have spent the time learning about the particular writing system you were going to learn anyway... and funnily enough, being able to write in Hindi, Arabic, Korean etc is actually a fun skill to learn, worth taking a couple of hours out of your whole life to adopt, rather than waste it on trying to make sense of a scientific alphabet that can't escape the confines of The Dictionary [which has itself become pretty much archaic], and if more people would just do that, it would go a long way to 'demystifying' foreign writing systems in the public conciousness....

Have your ears fallen off yet :) ?

I understand its scientific use, but I wouldn't personally torture mainstream users with it. Purely for reasons of principle really - the I.P.A. could have done better, shame on them. I much prefer the idea of making them completely redundant with a more modern solution. Like say... a method of converting written words on a computer into crisp, audible natural language?


@ chilvence

I wonder if you understand the difference between transcribing things phonetically and phonemically? Transcribing things phonemically is all that is required for learning pronunciation of a foreign language and it is much simpler than a full phonetic transcription using the IPA.

Reading French transcribed phonemically using the IPA is really not that hard to learn.


Maybe I just can't see the point because I can't put myself in other peoples shoes. I was inducted into french and arabic at a very young age, so perhaps I just can't see why anyone would really need the IPA. I just think is far more rewarding to study the language raw and tune your ears in yourself. Yes, it's far harder to make sense of French spelling than the IPA, but that just sounds like a good reason to need to pay extra attention to it to me. I like duolingo specifically because it says the words and doesn't make any effort to explain the discrepancy in spelling, because we all know that spelling never has or will make sense anyway :)

It's just my philosophy. I would also ban bicycle training wheels, if I had my own island. They only give the little nippers a false sense of confidence.... I learned by falling off and I liked it!


Did you happen to grow up in Morocco? French + Arabic immersion sounds like a North African childhood to me :)


Tunisie :) good guess though. Sadly, it didn't stick much after I left, I used to read write and talk and do everything in arabic when I was 6, yet the language I most comfortable talking with now is German, which I learnt when I was 25. Odd eh?


Well, to each his own I guess.

Just to put in a word for IPA: it was created for scientific description and linguistic analysis, not for aesthetics or orthography. It has the advantage of being universal (phonetic) and not language specific (phonemic)... learning it teaches exactly the same type of abstraction needed to learn another language, because you finally are given a tool to step outside your own native intuition/bias. And as for it never escaping "the confines of the dictionary", you should know that of the 6900+ living languages in the world, most of which are not written down/have no writing system, many are only recorded with audio and IPA transcriptions.

But anyways, Im not here to argue... I just love IPA and think it should be a universal skill.


Sorry, I wasn't really trying to start an argument, I just don't know how to hold back the sarcasm sometimes...it's all tongue in cheek.

Your use case of preserving languages is exactly the sort of reason why I said I can see the need for the IPA. It's very accurate and logical, and uniquely so to my knowledge, so it will probably preserve those languages long after we are all dead and our descendants in the far future are excavating our bones and naively imagining what our ancient traditions must have been based on the mountains of plastic Chinese nik-naks we are found among. I also think it is very important that it exists for people who are interested in languages, so that they can learn the diversity of the sounds of human speech if they want to, it is very good as the 'final word' when trying to master an elusive consonant. And I do think that it is very useful in the dictionary, if only because the dictionary doesn't talk.

The key point that I differ on is that I don't think it should be a prerequisite for anything whatsoever, because that would immediately create a horrible choke point that would exclude vast amounts of people. If you think it should be a universal skill, you should figure out how to get it into kindergartens all over the world rather than try and get adult students to use it, because for most people it is too late to care. If that were to happen, I'd be all for it, yay IPA, down with traditional orthography, vive la revolution!

At this particular point at present though, the only people who understand the IPA are teachers, professors, experienced students and other extraordinarily interested parties. To the rest of the world, it just looks like mad squiggles, and forcing any material to be dependant on it would be like kicking those people in the teeth because they weren't smart enough. Some people like alien writing systems and wouldn't see what the fuss is about. Other people find it an impenetrable barrier, and damned if they should be excluded on the basis of intellectual snobbery. For most people, it is best to just look at the traditional page one that has the alphabet all over again and describes the sounds that the letters now mean. Then you can go straight to learning to read your new language, without any b- ...roundabout intermediary distraction, which is all one really cares about.

Ideally, language teaching would be done without any reading and writing at all, it's a mouth and ears skill, not a hands and eyes one. I blame the Romans for all this mess personally. What have they ever done for us?



I bet 90 per cent of Duolingo's German learners are utterly unaware of the following phenomena.

  • the < r > in "Realpolitik" is the same as the French [ʁ] and using the English [r] would be completely wrong

  • the last sound in "hier" [hi:ɐ̯] is a vowel

  • "zu" is pronounced [tsuː], not [zuː]

The IPA is an excellent tool to point out these things. It's best to teach these details as early as possible. Otherwise fossilisation will kick in and you're forever stuck with a heavy foreign accent.

If you don't want to bother with the IPA, you shouldn't have to, but I'm pretty sure there are lots of learners out there that would appreciate having an accurate phonetic/phonemic transcription.


"The key point that I differ on is that I don't think it should be a prerequisite for anything whatsoever, because that would immediately create a horrible choke point that would exclude vast amounts of people."


I used the IPA throughout a university degree in linguistics. The IPA definitely has its place. But Duolingo is not that place.

Even as someone who knows the IPA, I'd prefer to learn sounds in a new language by listening to them over and over again rather than looking at a description of how my mouth moves to form that sound. Some of the Australian Aboriginal languages we studied had 3 different coronal plosives. Did knowing the exact tongue position for each one help me distinguish them when I heard them...? Not at all. The only way your ear gets better at picking up sounds that aren't in your native language is by repeated practice.

Hearing practice to help you with sounds that aren't in your native language would be useful that's for sure... but the IPA isn't necessary for that. Pushing people though learning and getting their head around a complex system when all they want to do is start learning a bit of German/French/whatever is only going to put them off... (and if this chart doesn't look complex to most people, I will eat my hat - http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/15/IPA_chart_2005.png/791px-IPA_chart_2005.png)

In general (but particularly on the internet) you only get a very short window to capture someone's attention. If you can't hook them into your idea/product in that time chances are you've lost them forever. Duolingo is clearly doing a good job of hooking people in already - by January of this year (roughly 7 months after launch) Duolingo had over 1 million active users and 100,000 daily users. Clearly they're doing something right...

(I don't know what the current stats are - all the stats I could find in my >2 min attempt at searching are for Jan or earlier)


There's no need to know the full set of IPA symbols or even the names of the symbols. I really don't think this looks too difficult. http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Appendix:German_pronunciation

Also, they could make each symbol clickable and play the sound.


@Christian, it's ironic that you pick German, because that is a prime example of a language that really doesn't need spelling reform. It is French and English that are the real troublemakers, because they both cling very strongly to archaic spelling. Without them, even just the concept of needing an auxiliary alphabet would seem a bit daft. Who would need a whole separate writing system just to unambiguously spell the pronunciation of words? Isn't that what your primary writing system is supposed to be for :o)?

My point still stands, you can devote the time learning the IPA symbols for the words, symbols that are useless in the 'wild' for actually reading German text, or you can just look at exactly the same table you have linked do but with the German latin alphabet variant instead of the IPA, and have something that is actually immediately useful. If you can't spare an hour to learn the basic orthography of a language, then why even study it?

What is the practical benefit that the IPA has to offer casual learners? How can you accurately convey the sounds of IPA to people with massively ranging dialects and accents? How can you be so convinced that the average person doesn't just find it maddeningly confusing, because they did not spend their life studying languages? Why be attached to the IPA, when the real prize to fight for would be an international spelling/alphabet reform [I vote hangul :p] ?


christian's point:

> Otherwise fossilisation will kick in and you're forever stuck with a heavy foreign accent.

is a very important one. Pronunciation mistakes made early on get locked in and become very hard to change later on. Particularly when you yourself remain oblivious to your pronunciation quirks but every native speaker can hear them.

Professor Smolders elsewhere on this page makes mention of the different 'u' sounds in French eg. between 'tu' and 'tout'. I myself never realised, or heard, this difference while doing high school French. It was only years later, while reading the wikipedia page on French phonology, that I learnt of the difference.

Finally, all this discussion of the merits of the IPA is becoming a bit of a derail. Using the IPA was only raised in Professor Smolders second suggestion. His first suggestion can be implemented along the lines he suggests without introducing or teaching IPA transcription for that particular language.


@chilvence: the IPA is unambiguous. None of the spelling conventions currently in use is. True, the problem is a lot worse with English than with German, but it still remains an issue. We duolingo users probably won't bring about an international spelling reform, will we? So, why not stick to the IPA and use it? It's there, works fine and – I agree with christian – isn't as hard to handle as it may seem on a beginner's first glance.


Well, this is a real debate now!

What I mean by IPA being a universal skill is that IPA should be used as a "central station" to which all orthographies are related, an "unambiguous standard" as others mentioned.

Also, like others have said, you don't have to memorize names and face diagrams, you just need to know the basics to get by. If you're only learning European languages, no need to get into ingressives, clicks, and lateral ejective affricates... just front rounded vowels and the occaisional palatal fricative :)


@chilvence... I totally agree with your last point about "picking it up by ear" if you never knew how it was spelled. That is a clearly superior way to learn language. However, it requires an immersive context, which not everyone has access to and which Duolingo can't provide. I would WAY rather learn languages that way and learn the orthography afterwards, so as not to construe the two.

However, the Duolingo model is based on a learn-through-orthography model (with interactive spoken language features as a supplement)... and while we're working with orthography we can use IPA... IMHO :)


This really must be where I am simply different to everyone else then. I never consciously studied German orthography, and I never trust spelling in general, I just picked it up by ear. To me, the 'french' R, the tsu vs zu, and the sound of final r's all stick out like they have bright orange flashing lights all over them. To my mind the only thing that could possibly cause any confusion is trying to learn from a book on your own, guessing the pronunciation from the spelling, which really does seem to me a completely daft thing to do in this day and age, when even youtube is inundated with learning language stuff. If you didn't know it was spelled 'zu', how would you miss the sound? It doesn't sound anything like 'zoo'

The french R is a case all on it's own, its one of a few consonants that need special explanation, but that's far more effectively done at the beginning. Pragmatically, even if you get it wrong, its not going to stop anyone understanding you. Maybe if you have ever mocked peoples English accents, you might have a different point of view...

I still don't see why the IPA is needed to point any of this out. It's still a niche tool, if you know it great, if you don't know it, it sends a big flashing warning of 'Abandon hope, all ye who enter here'. No one is paying attention to my only solid objection, the fact that if it isn't already universally known, it's not Duolingo's responsibility to promote it. They may or may not choose to use it, that doesn't really bother me either way, I just want to make my point :)


Yeah, the first time I tried learning the IPA, my mouth was sore as well as my throat.


I don't think IPA is complicated at all.


I agree with .Ryuzaki.

An early lesson on pronunciation is definitely a great idea. Explaining the difference between this language's sounds and the sounds in your native language, audio so that you can hear what they mean, etc...

Adding in IPA symbols is in my opinion, unnecessary and overly complicating things. One of the great benefits of Duolingo is its simplicity. There's no need to learn anything to get you started - you can just jump in and get going. If you don't understand something, you can always ask the discussion forums - for example one question I answered recently was "what does Duolingo mean when it says you used the direct 'il' instead of the indirect 'un'?" I think the simplicity of Duolingo is a great part of its appeal.

I can't speak for the French audio, but having a decent background in Italian (3 years of fairly intense Italian study, about 8 years ago) - I can say I haven't found many pronunciation errors in the Italian audio in the lessons I've done so far. Many people have complained about the Italian audio - and while I've noticed that the audio isn't the best - I'd say 90% of the time the audio pronounces the sentence the way I'd expect it to be pronounced (based on my previous study). I've been telling people to just accept that training your ear is an important part of learning a new language - and trust that Duolingo is probably right. Particularly at the lower levels, which have been checked much more often than the higher levels. (And if it's wrong, I report it)

ps. I have a degree in linguistics by the way - and I still think that the IPA would only be of benefit to a very small minority of learners. But a lesson of pronunciation, near the start and easy to refer back to - definitely a great idea.


I love both of these suggestions. The benefits of the first are obvious. The second, about learning the IPA is just brilliant. Knowing the IPA would make it easier for us to learn new words outside of Duolingo. In addition, if we try to learn other languages it will make the pronunciation a little easier. I recognize that some may not want these components so make them voluntary. A website from University of Iowa gives some very useful information about how some sounds are made. http://www.uiowa.edu/~acadtech/phonetics/#


I'm going to attempt to wade into this discussion. As an individual who has poor auditory discrimination skills, I was thrilled when my college linguistics class introduced IPA. Suddenly, all of the English pronunciation complexity could be detailed into tongue position, voicing, etc. So, IPA has a value, and it's not just esoteric.

There are at least two populations that would want additional content on pronunciation in Duolingo: non-auditory learners and those who don't want to have a heavy foreign accent.

Most Duolingo users, I expect, don't care about phonics.

So, of course, phonics shouldn't be a mandatory portion of Duolingo, but I will be thrilled when its added.

PS Adding native speakers to the auditory portion of Duolingo will be great, but please always keep the computer synthesized voice. Its lack of variability is great for me and I'm sure for others, too.


You rock, this idea rocks, go linguistics!


dictionary.com has come up with a phonetic non-IPA way of showing pronunciation, it's easy to read and almost flawless http://dictionary.reference.com/help/luna/Spell_pron_key.html (I've seen other phonetic spellings but they're often not that good)

If duolingo altered this system to work with foreign languages it could work really well, a button could be offered to switch to IPA spelling if needed


I don't think this system can work, even altered. Non-English speakers don't pronounce those letters/sounds like native English speakers, it would not work for anyone that does not speak English at an advanced level. And even if you speak it, how do you implement the sounds of the foreign languages? The ones given there are obviously for speakers of English/for the English language (no one that speaks French would say [bawn] for 'bon"). Since the goal of a large amount of people is to learn a language that is not English, this system is pretty useless for the purposes of duolingo in my opinion.


okay bad example of what I was trying to say here's a better one that shows english pronunciation for german words: http://german.about.com/library/anfang/blanfang_abc2.htm

I know it has flaws, for sounds that aren't present in the learners native language it's an approximation at best, but I found this sort of thing quite useful as a beginner, and it is the only way I can think of showing pronunciation without IPA (which I wouldn't want to learn)

e.g. the German word 'Auge' sounds just like 'ow-guh' in English so the system works fine, for 'ich' the closest English spelling is 'ik' but it's not quite right the 'ch' sound is more like that in 'loch'. If duolingo wrote the words that work fine in black, and the words that are approximations in grey (perhaps with a link to explanations like the loch one I gave) this would help


Why not allow native speakers to offer pronunciations? Forvo already does it. http://www.forvo.com/word/ma%C3%A7%C3%A3/#pt

Maybe even partner with them.

Or maybe a Chrome plugin to do it on the client side, hmm... The Duolingo markup isn't that messy (though it has "spanitis".)


I agree that pronunciation on this site is a problem. I am a broken-German speaker and learner with a native-born wife and mother-in-law living in my house. The lady in the exercises speaks a dialect that is sometimes confusing. When I hear her say "er" (which I am used to hearing as in English "air"), it sounds like "ihr" to me. As a matter of fact, when she says "er" or "ihr", they are almost indistinguishable to me. Germany has a lot of dialects and students need to be exposed to them, for sure. But some guidance on a particular speakers pronunciation and dialect would help a lot. Thank you.


I'm not worried about having phonetic spelling but I would like a clearer speaker and speaker system. There are some words I get wrong simply because I cannot understand what she is saying. I had trouble this morning with j'aime. Sounds simple no? But it sounded as though she was saying jeune. Because that didn't make sense in the context I eventually gave up and passed. Other than that I am loving the whole concept. Thanks, much appreciated.


If improving pronunciation is the goal, I think it would be best to only use human voices and drop the computer voices. Ideally both a male and a female human voice.

I would welcome any IPA transcription, though, but you'll have to deal with different pronunciations in different accents.

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