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Some thoughts on Italian (Beta) [long]

I've been working my way through the Italian lessons for the last few days. Here are some of my thoughts on the experience. At least for me, I think it needs more questions where you translate English into Italian. Most questions go the other way. There seem to be a few questions in the advanced lessons where you write Italian, but still not enough.

I'm generally happy with the early lessons, but the later lessons are simply frustrating. I should say, I already know a fair bit of Italian, but need practice with speaking and with the more complex grammatical constructions.

The most glaring problem is that the lessons don't seem that well thought out. For instance, after a lot of lessons using just a few verbs ("leggere", "essere", "avere"), they finally start to teach you other verbs. Along with "andare", "stare", and "dire", you are also taught "piacere", which behaves quite differently and requires knowledge of indirect object pronouns that haven't been covered yet. In the lesson on prepositions, we have "a", "da", "di", etc, but also "tranne" and "presso", which are much less commonly used. I'd rather the focus be on the more common words, and get solid practice with those, before moving on to the less common words. In general, there seems to be more of a focus on learning vocabulary than on learning grammar.

The major source of frustration, however, is the bugs. The good news is that the Duolingo team is very quick to respond to these bugs, and most of the minor ones I'll mention below have already been fixed, sometimes within 10 minutes of my reporting them.

Minor variations from the expected answers are often treated as incorrect. This leads to, for example, having to insert "the" into the English answer when the Italian has a definite article, even if the "the" isn't natural or needed in English. This applies in the opposite direction as well.

Propositions are particularly troublesome. I eventually got into the habit of writing "in the plate" rather than "on the plate" just to be able to move on. Example: "Su chi scrivi?". I translated this as "About whom are you writing?" (more natural would be "Who are you writing about?"). But this was marked incorrect. The expected answer was "Who are you writing on?", which to me sounds like a person is being used as a writing surface.

The bugs in the more advanced lessons (e.g., determiners, adverbs, present perfect) are absolutely terrible. I've had to repeat lessons three, four, or five times to get through, trying to remember which particular bugs apply to which question: Remember to write "this" for this sentence, even though it should be "that"; remember to translate "sessanta" as "seventy" not "sixty" on these two questions, but not that other one, etc. I've started taking notes on each buggy question so that when it pops up again when I retry the lesson, I can enter the desired response and move past it.

December 26, 2012



I have to say, I agree, especially with some of the buggier responses: "Su chi scrivi?", although I managed to figure it out, bugs me especially. "Who are you writing on?" is an oddly specific utterance, and doesn't seem to transform into other situations very well. The fact that the translation didn't support the preposition at the end of the sentence bothered me more than anything else, because although it's technically "correct" English to write "about whom are you writing?" people are more likely to say "who are you writing about?" which might break two rules ("who" vs. "whom" plus ending a sentence with a preposition), but it's the only real version of the sentence you're likely to hear your average English speaker say.


Agreed. But I'd rather not see the more formal usage axed. In a later iteration of duolingo, I'd love to see an option at the outset to select a preferred "style" of talking. An "about whom are you writing" person might want to learn the equiv style in another language. Or learn both.


I agree.This is kind of a confusing language. I was doing this one problem and i put in "lui e un wamo." and it said it was right. I thought that was weird. I lost all four hearts on that one. At least its not as confusing as French.


Now a few weeks passed since you posted this, and I think many of the bugs were fixed, still that is also a big problem, but not as important as the fact that the site is simply not well structured.

I think that the vast 700 word vocabulary I'm having now (according to duolingo) is exaggerated in both senses: I do not know that many words, not all of them are in my long term memory. Also, I can translate many of them from Italian to English, but not the other way round.

The other sense I am talking about is that there are 700 words I needed to learn already, but simple grammar like the forms of verbs for different pronouns are still not completely explained, and which preposition to use with different expressions...

Of course they try to make learning languages fun, and provide the feeling of success for many people so that they return and keep using Duolingo, but what I am not sure of is whether these lectures will give me useful Italian or not. I also agree that the translation from English to Italian is lacking, and I barely have skills to build sentences in Italian with proper prepositions, word order, and all.


I can certainly identify with your problems: my general philosophy with language-learning is that I hardly ever use any given course as a stand-alone. No matter how well they say they work (and some work very well!), odds are they will never work quite as well as they say they will. To be honest I'm not sure whether Duolingo claims to absolutely teach your a language or not, but I find I prefer to use it as an additional resource to another course with more grammar and structure. Maybe this is because the Italian is still in beta, but I think this would hold true for me no matter which of Duolingo's courses I was using. It's nothing against Duolingo, or really any course. It's just my learning methods.


I'd been learning Italian for a while before I started using Duolingo, so I'm certainly not using it as my only source. I do think, though, that if you're a beginner at the language, Duolingo Italian is still pretty poor, mostly because of the organization of the lessons and the lack of tips and explanation, etc. Other languages have more of these tips, so I assume Italian will too as it moves out of beta. There's too much emphasis on vocabulary and not enough on grammar. Without the explanations, the lessons are often confusing. You can see this in the forums, where a huge fraction of the comments are "Why is it 'lo' and not 'il'?" or "I don't understand piacere".

I do think Duolingo has helped my Italian in a few ways, mainly by drilling some aspects of the language I was having trouble with: pronouns and prepositions, even if they often appear randomly in different lessons. It's a lot better than the fill-in-the-blank exercises you find in textbooks.

I do think it needs a lot more English-to-Italian translation. I've started doing the English for Italian speakers lessons, which have been useful, but they're very incomplete and buggy.


I perfectly agree with your opinion on this. I have a grammar book for grammar, I have a course book as well, not to mention that my girlfriend is Italian :) Originally I was using Rosetta Stone (don't know if you know it) for Spanish and Italian, then started using Duolingo as well for both languages, and I feel that in case of Spanish the whole thing was a lot better.

But you are absolutely right, you can't simply rely on one source, no matter how good it is :)


I am now in the later lessons and am having a bad time. Loved the early lessons though.


I haven't gotten to the later lessons yet, but I'm helping out wherever I can by filling out the "My answer should be accepted" form. I am using Rocket Italian to compliment Duo-lingo. It's far better for colloquial conversation, pronunciation (always crystal clear with multiple voices), and culture.

But Duo-lingo is better for rapid vocabulary acquisition and the rigor of the testing. (With Rocket I have to invent my own methods to insure rigor, because there is no obstacle to just passing yourself on to the next lesson even if you haven't really absorbed the current one.

Together (Rocket and Duolingo), along with conversing constantly with Google Translate on my Android phone, they are just perfect.


I am still in the early units of the Italian section. However I would have to say I had the same experience with the Spanish skill tree. I started out enjoying it and then got to mid-level sections which were very frustrating. I had to write down sentences word for word after failing some units repeatedly. Minor variations which were scored as incorrect etc. It may be a function of this learning style although the Spanish skill tree is out of Beta.


I think the problem is really that there are a vast number of correct translations of each sentence and only a small fraction of these are in their database. This is especially problematic in the more advanced levels because the sentences tend to be more complex and therefore have more possible translations. One feasible solution to this problem is to open up the database. Currently, to correct a mistake, you report it and then one of the Duolingo team verifies your correction and updates the database. Instead, the users should be able to update the database themselves, with a rating system similar to the real-world translations to filter out the incorrect sentences and abuse. These ratings could also be used for a kind of partial credit in the scoring system, since some answers, while not exactly incorrect, are less correct than others.


this sounds like an awesome idea!


That is, in effect, what's happening when you choose "My answer should be accepted". But you can only suggest that specific answer. So, it would be nice to see the other variations and be able to rank them and add new alternatives, but I'm guessing that their database doesn't have simple sentence variations, but instead has rather complex marked-up variations, that take some knowledge of their system to create. The markup would be used to handle alternatives within sentences, alternate orders, etc (Possibly a regex-style markup). So, I'm betting that it's not something they can easily open up to the public.


Agreed. I've had the same problems with the French lessons. I believe the problem is that fewer people have finished the later lessons, and fewer still have contributed alternative translations for them. So you end up fiddling around, as it seems many have, trying to remember exact translations needed for specific phrases, instead of answering naturally, because if you answer naturally you'll never get through a lesson.

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