A tip for those starting out
I've been noticing that a lot of people struggle with certain things that I consider to be prerequisites for learning a new language. And to me, one of the most important tips for those that are starting out is the following:
Accept first, question later.
It may seem counterintuitive, but the more initial resistance you build in accepting how a language is constructed, the harder it is and the longer it takes to learn it. And the more contact you have with a language and with different sentences and words, the easier it'll be to detect the mistakes, instead of wasting time discussing each phrase you encounter. I see people commenting with conviction things like "if there's no article in the English sentence, there shouldn't be one in Portuguese either", or "if this is singular in English, it should be singular in Portuguese too". And even if sometimes Duolingo really makes mistakes (and please don't forget to click the button to report mistakes or suggest translations when that happens), most of the times it's you who are wrong.
If a sentence has a certain meaning in a language, and its translation in another language keeps the same meaning, it is right, no matter how different the translation is. And that's what matters, the meaning, because oftentimes the literal translation is actually wrong and makes no sense.
I'm not saying to not ask any more questions or clear up doubts in the discussion threads, not least because this is also very important for one's learning. I'm saying to, when you stumble upon a new sentence, think "So that's how they say it in this language? Does the adjective always comes before the noun? I'll ask to be sure." instead of "This sentence is wrong because in my native tongue the verb always comes before the object.".
You need to accept that you will not only have to learn how to speak and write in a different way, but also to think differently.
Good luck and enjoy your studies! :)
PS: If you want to practice your Portuguese now, try this: http://www.duolingo.com/comment/794601
Very good advice indeed; the main thrust of your argument is compelling.
I believe one thing that may have prompted you to write this piece is "noise" in the discussions. I think that, to a certain extent, is an inevitable result of the lack of context associated with Duolingo's sentences. Sometimes, it really does come down to the lack or presence of an article just as much as a difference in the way the language works. Although I do understand your point.
Another difficulty is that, as a learner with native English skills, it is very easy to spot problems in the English sentences, but it is often not possible to simply hit the "report problem" button when you suspect an error in the Portuguese sentence. It is natural to seek reassurance from a native speaker even if it turns out to be a trivial mistake on Duolingo's part. Of course, this is compounded for many by the fact that they are neither a native English speaker nor have any familiarity with Portuguese. You also have to remember your edict about meaning is really difficult to adhere to unless you already know both languages well.
One thing that could help is some kind of FAQ where a lot of basic wisdom could be written down. I don't mean a complete Portuguese Language Reference Manual. I mean something more Duolingo specific. I know that would be difficult to put together, but it could help, and I'm sure one or two contributors here know the points that cause the most confusion. At the moment, on the one hand, lots of good advice is virtually inaccessible in discussions about obscure sentences. And on the other, the same question is answered over and over again in separate sentence discussions. (If a FAQ was created it needs to be pinned so that everyone can see it. A real problem with Duolingo discussions is that they disappear without trace unless they get a very large number of upvotes.)
I definitely agree that some kind of FAQ or a more organized discussion forum for general questions (so that important topics wouldn't disappear from the main page so easily) would be a great addition, but the seeking reassurance that you mentioned doesn't bother me at all, nor does the repeated questions since it's not easy to search for similar answers on Duolingo.
What bothers me is when native speakers disregard their own tongue in favor of literal translations that doesn't make sense (strangely enough, that happens very often). I see native Portuguese speakers trying to translate sentences like "I like apples" as "Eu gosto maçãs" (because there's no "of" in the English sentence), and that concerns me because it's an approach that hinders learning. By favoring basic intuition - getting the general meaning from the English sentence and translating it the way you would naturally say in Portuguese or vice versa - instead of literal interpretation, you can advance much faster. So I was advising to adopt the mindset that, when you see a phrase that sounds strange in your tongue, assume first that it's simply the way they say it naturally, and that they think differently which is why they speak differently; not that they somehow speak in a broken language, with prepositions that shouldn't be there and adjectives in the wrong places.
Another thing that bugs me is when someone asks a question, someone else answers it, and then a third person asks the exact same question, sometimes with the exact same words, right below it. That simply makes no sense...
I’ve been studying Portuguese for 4.75 years and been to Brasil 15 times and I still can’t converse yet or make out what people say. I can’t read much either. I translate everything which hasn’t worked well. When I see a word I know I still have to translate it in my head to the English meaning. I think what you said is what I did early on in my learning. How can I learn? Any ideas?