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Huge vocabulary sections before getting to more fundamental aspects of the language

I have been using DuoLingo for a couple months now and am at Level 10 in Spanish, but I'm finding it harder and harder to keep going.

This is because of the structure of your course. Each time I log back in I remember that I stopped last time in the middle of a huge slog of fairly pointless vocabulary, in one of your mega-sections like "Places" or "Objects" -- sections where it seems the purpose is to stuff every conceivable word belonging to that category, because there's only one "Places" lesson.

It's not that vocabulary isn't important, it's the sheer volume of less-important vocabulary that we are required to get through before getting to more fundamental lessons such as the past tense of verbs, or "estar" or anything.

The Objects lessons has 92 new vocabulary words, and the Places lesson has 70 words. A great many of these words aren't found in the lists of the 1000 most common Spanish words -- axle, violin, flute, 3 words for courthouse, 3 words for prison... The point isn't that we shouldn't eventually learn these words, it's that these mega-courses feel like someone said "well, they need to lean places before learning the past tense, so let's just give them every place word we're ever going to use in one course, so we can get it over with."

It's certainly not a blocking feature, and eventually I'll motivate myself to slog through the rest of it, and then I'll finally be able to get to stuff that I will actually use in daily conversation (verb tenses etc...). I think it would be really interesting to look at your statistics, however, and see how many of your users slowed down or stopped coming back in the middle of one of these 16-section long courses.

December 21, 2012



This is a very good point that we are actively working on addressing.


Tangentially related, but; I find that on occasions the verb lessons, such as Verbs: Present 2, introduce too many new verbs in a single lesson (e.g. 14 over the course of 2 lessons, but only in a single conjugation with a couple of example sentences to go with it). I find it much easier to memorise and digest new verbs by being introduced to only a couple at a time, but seeing all of the relevant conjugations, along with plenty of different sentences/examples before progressing onto the next verb.


I agree. Perhaps interleaving grammar and vocab more evenly throughout the lessons would be beneficial, after all, what's the point of knowing so much vocab if you haven't learned basic grammatical structures in order to use the words? I've been learning Portuguese and feel like there's a noticeable lack of grammar units (plus there are no grammar explanations like in German or Spanish). I can guess a lot of the time because I speak Spanish, but even then I make mistakes without knowing why (for example, I'm now getting the occasional past tense sentence in Portuguese even though I've only just learned the present tense, so when I try to translate them, I get them wrong).


I have noticed the same thing with the German class. I am about a third of the way through and still haven't learned how to express "I want this" or "Will you do this?" or "Can you make this?". The most important part of a language is being able to express what you want/can do and find out what others want/can do. Knowing how to say that "the duck eats with the big cat" is just not as important as being able to say "I would like to make reservations for tonight".


Hmmm - this is an interesting commentary... I happen to really like the way Duolingo works. I started here with very little knowledge of Spanish and now in just a few months I have learned more than I ever thought possible (I have never been very good with languages :P) I want to learn the whole language - to become fluent, so I don't consider any words to be extraneous. But maybe there are many people who are planning a trip to a Spanish speaking country, or who are more concerned with being able to carry on a simple conversation in Spanish. I think a section for commonly used expressions early on in the program might be helpful for that. It would be useful for everyone, as I know I would find that quite interesting and helpful as well.


The point isn't that any words are extraneous, it's that some aspects of the language are more fundamental than others (so it's annoying to wait forever to get to them), and that, for me at least, learning the words for 70 different places all at once is not motivating, as there is no variety and just ends up being a big hurdle that has to be crossed before learning more things.

The vocabulary I've learned with DuoLingo is good, but if I just wanted huge vocab dumps then I may as well just use a flash-card system (which I also use). The huge advantage of DuoLingo is that we learn sentences and grammar and context -- none of which are served by cramming many synonyms for the word "courthouse."


I do agree that learning 3 different words for courthouse or prison isn't completely necessary, but honestly for me I find the multiple sections in a row of verbs/pronouns the daunting sections, because I struggle with those the most. I nearly quit at the clitic pronouns section.

think of it this way, while you're learning those "unnecessary words", you're also continuing to get grammar/pronunciation practice with the rest of the sentence (not to mention word order practice, as I'm still not used to the order that Spanish goes in as opposed to English), so it's not a total waste.

I'd say at those points are best to use supplemental materials from other sources. I've been combining this with spanishdict.com which has video lessons and explains the rules of the language alot better in cases than this site does (still love you DL!).

I'm almost 2/3 through the Spanish course now, and yes I've almost stopped a couple of times, but each time I go to a Spanish language site (like elmondotoday.com) and realize I can actually understand 75% of what I read, is REALLY exciting and motivating to keep working at it.

When you learn anything new there's always going to be stuff you have to learn that's boring or seems unnecessary but it's part of the whole. Coming from English as a mother tongue, I find all the gender and conjugation stuff tedious and annoying but I have no choice.


I have to say though, this is rather how children learn their native tongue to begin with! If you listen to little children they speak with no grammar, but gather a massive vocabulary first, so in that sense personally i think this structure is more authentic to the way language is learnt. You can always buy a book on grammar to supplement learning on this website.


I'm currently going through Duolingo to immerse myself in French and so that I don't forget it but I originally learned French in the classroom. While taking French I realized that once you get down the basic grammar, for speaking purposes all you need next for fluency is vocabulary and immersion. After one year I discovered that perfecting your grammar, while great, is not nearly as effective as dedicating the time to expand your vocabulary. It seems elementary and backwards but with fluency, the biggest problem nonnative speakers have is vocabulary. Think about it, a high school graduate has learned about 45,000+ words from birth through high school. Per day, people say/use 7,000+ words with the total number of different words being 500+. Although grammar and learning "fundamentals" are important, I've personally found vocabulary to be the single most boring but necessary means to fluency. The sheer number of vocabulary you need to know to make sense of grammar and complex structure in and of itself makes those long huals or seemingly random vocabulary extremely relevant.


I agree with this post. I am currently at level 6 on Italian and I am noticing the same vocabulary over-load. I find that using another resource concurrently helps (for example, I am using an Italian step by step book alongside the lessons in Duolingo. Having said this, please keep up the good work. If you continue to work on this site and listen to the feedback of its users, you'll have a supreme language-learning site!


Just FYI - your competitor Babbel.com create more interactive and in depth programs using 3,000 basic words. My German friend has been studying Spanish using Babbel.com. (I saw him studying when I visited him this summer). Maybe Duolingo needs some improvements by reviewing words you selected and ways to allow users to remember/learn via listening and viewing words and sentences beyond 'grammar'.


Babbel.com is not a competitor for duolingo... it is a program you pay for. I saw a little bit of it, and from what I saw it was not as good as duolingo... Anyway duolingo is a growing site. They are very responsive to the participants and so it is always changing. imo there is no comparison.


I actually just tried Babbel for the first time yesterday, one thing that I DO like that it does that duolingo doesn't (well, only rarely that I've seen) is have you fill in the blank with the right form of a verb.

I'm starting to realize that duolingo is doing a fantastic job of teaching me to translate individual sentences, but if it were to say "here's a sentence, now how would you change it to from I am swimming to I have swam?". That seems to be more what babbel focuses on and at first it caught me off guard and I had to really think, but that just tells me that I'm too used to duolingo now and it's easy for me to translate sentences.

If babbel was free I'd absolutely start using it regularly, even still, it only costs $13 a month which is cheap enough for what I've seen it can do so far that I would probably be willing to give it a shot for a month as a supplementation for duolingo, and see how much more I get from it.


I was going to use babbel. I tried their free trial in a couple of different languages and was thoroughly impressed but (as I'm Scottish and some stereotypes are true) I read a few reviews and lots of people were saying that they've had trouble cancelling the subscription {the monthly fee is deducted automatically} because the customer service is practically non-existant. So I decided against it and decided that I'd get back into this.


In the 90's I became fairly good with "travelers' Italian." That means I was able to find the train station, the bathroom, bargain for stuff, etc. I am looking for the same thing in Spanish with Duolingo, but I can see a disconnect between useful sentences and things like "the dog is black." I found with Italian that to remember and use phrases and sentences, I needed to know SOME of the grammar, but not all of it. My 2 cents is for Duolingo to add a parallel "everyday phrases" component to go along with the present format/curriculum. The existing format is quite good, but I know I am a LONG way from using Spanish for anything useful. Right now, I plan to fashion my own curriculum for phrases/sentences for everyday communication. It would be really nice to have it already built into Duolingo. - that is my 2 cents - Ken


There is an easy way around this problem. It is simply to do the "test out of this skill" so that you can move on to more useful lessons. If you have learned about half of the vocabulary you can easily pass the "test out of this skill". Some would say that is cheating. I would say it is tailoring the skill tree to your learning needs, while meeting minimum requirements.

This is the way I have been progressing. I am now at level 12 in Portuguese and feel very happy with this. Eventually I will get to a level where the so-called "mastery" is not well enough "mastered". That will be fine with me. I'll be forced to practice at the level where I am unable to "test out of this skill". That's where I should be all the time ideally. At least that is how I learn best.


For the time being, that is a good suggestion. I've done it myself with Italian, since I already knew the basics, to diversify the lessons.


They say "Great minds think alike" :-) I'm glad my strategy is working for other people too.


I have not done a detail analysis but in the top 50,000 word list from Spanish movie subtitles ,in the most common 1000 there are few object nouns. So if you want to use objects in sentences early on you have to get them from less common words.


I agree. I'm enjoying Duolingo very much - I'm learning both French and German. I have been stuck on the large blocks from time to time and, particularly in German, have really had to push myself through some of them. I do find I have to spend some time revising these blocks too because, when they are words I'm not coming across elsewhere in my reading, they don't "stick" as well. I'm just about to do that with one section now


While I agree in principal with the original commenter, I thought to point out that even minimal fleeting exposure to words is still education. And I see Luis has acknowledged here. I can imagine addressing this may take some time in the programming.


I think that it is easier for the programmers to give groups of nouns that are related to each other as those words can be swapped within sentences. That might make it sound like you will never be able to learn a language in depth, but I think that you can still learn quite a deal. Even if you are not interested in the translation of "turtle", a sentence like "the turtle drinks" helps you to remember the form of "to drink" as you will repeat it in "the cat drinks" or "the dog drinks". I hope they keep adding new words, but it might be impossible to satisfy everyone as not everyone is interested in the same subjects. That also applies to type of language you want to learn. A written language can be quite different from a spoken language as it is less influenced by colloquialisms and dialect. You know what you want to learn, so you should try to have an active part in what you learn. Try to find someone to have a conversation with if you want to practice actual speaking or search for texts in your subjects and try reading them while picking out the words that you do not know to practice them. I never came here with the expectation that I would learn a language perfectly. At some point you will have look for real-life language samples to keep learning new things.


Absolutely correct. I find the same problem with French. I am itching to work on grammar to construct more usable sentences. I enjoy learning vocabulary, but not the same words over and over again ad infinitum. I do like being able to improve my pronunciation by listening to the "teacher/speaker". Nice. But if there is a keyboard stroke (rather than using the mouse to hit the speaker icon) to repeat the vocalization, PLEASE let me know!


control + space


I know this question is a few days old already, but the easiest possible solution seems to be to just break these lessons up and move the more knitty-gritty, super specific words further along into the courses. This way we get the basics during the basics sections, do some more grammar maybe some tenses, then when we get a little more advanced grammatically we are introduced to another portion of the originally overwhelming vocabulary. It helps break the learning process up instead of learning 70 new vocab words and then spending days on grammar.


Duolingo seems to be focused on translating sentences which is what I want. It does this job incredibly well.

I think that people who hope to become expert at speaking French (my course) should look somewhere else. The only way to become adept at speaking a foreign language is to speak it with other people.

If you learn only one word for prison because that is all you think you need then you will be at a loss when someone speaks or writes about a jail or a lockup or custody or any of a great many similar words that might come up in a conversation about the news.

If Duolingo does decide to try and offer proficiency in speaking other languages I think they should offer it in a separate stream.

Learning to read a language and understand it when spoken is a much different process than speaking it on the fly. It even operates out of a different part of the brain.

Please don't dilute Duolingo's superb ability to provide a valuable service in teaching novices to read, write and understand spoken foreign languages. Becoming fluent at speaking a language is something else entirely.


I myself GOOGLE other website to strengthen my vocab for both German and Italian. One of the descent sites is about.com. Some of the university based class notes are excellent but not sure those are for beginners. Good luck.

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