Better Language Learning Through Technology

Posted on March 8, 2015 by Paul Thurrott in Mobile with 0 Comments

For the past several months I’ve been using an amazing free app called Duolingo to learn Spanish. And while it’s been tough-going at times—this 48-year-old-brain just isn’t as limber as it used to be, I guess—this is easily the best and most convenient language learning solution I’ve ever tried. And I’ve pretty much tried them all.

Heading into Junior High School about a million years ago—the building has since been razed and renamed to Dedham Middle School—I faced a choice between French and Spanish. On the advice of my father, who correctly noted that I’d be far more likely to run into Spanish in and around Boston, I choose that language over French. And I then proceeded to generally fail at learning Spanish over the next 6 years of school.

Looking back, I wish I had tried a bit harder. Spanish is a lot simpler than French—sort of like Visual Basic compared to LISP, for you geeks—and at that time in life I’d have had a much easier time of actually making it work. I also wish I had chosen French, both because it is harder to learn, and because in my adult years I’ve fallen in love with France and have spent a lot of time in the country and intend to keep doing so.

Over the past ten years or so, my wife and I have discussed the possibility of expanding our yearly home swap of about three weeks—often in France, including this coming summer—into longer stays. And perhaps living overseas for part of the year after the kids are out of the house. So we’ve both spent a lot of time investigating and experimenting with different ways to learn the language.

My wife is far ahead of me in this regard (as she is in many others): She took French through college and she’s been instrumental on various trips in getting us over whatever language barriers have gotten in the way, often humorously. I’ve evolved to the point where I can order off a menu in France quite comfortably, but that’s about it.

Anyway, over the past decade or so we’ve tried virtually every language learning solution imaginable, including in-person immersive class lessons once or twice a week at the French Cultural Center in Boston, which is actually a pretty excellent resource to have. The problem, of course, is that it’s in Boston, which means at least an hour and a half commute in either direction, and involving car, train and walking. So a one-hour immersion class, while useful, is also a major chunk of the day that neither one of us can really afford. It was also expensive.

I’ve tried all the packaged software solutions, like Berlitz and Rosetta Stone, the latter of which is very expensive. Neither is as effective as a real immersion class, however, and if you want to go that route, I recommend Livemocha instead. It’s free and it works just as well.

With the smart phone revolution, of course, things have changed. Traditionally packaged desktop software (Rosetta) and web apps (Livemocha) are all very nice, but the ability to find moments here and there to learn a language is very enticing. But before mobile apps were even a big deal, one of the first things I tried—and this dates back to when I was actually going into Boston for classes—was of course podcasts.

There are many choices, of course. But I have used and do recommend the Radio Lingua series of podcasts, including Coffee Break French and Coffee Break Spanish, both of which are excellent. They of course cover other languages as well.

But it may very well be the emergence of high quality—and, curiously, often free—mobile apps that makes language learning truly accessible. My wife had been using some flash card apps on her Android phone to quiz herself on French terms in free moments, and then a sort of tiles matching app that added game-like elements to the experience. And then Duolingo happened.

Sometime last year, my wife happened upon an app that she liked quite a bit. I recall her talking about an owl, and how the owl would get sad if you didn’t do well, but it didn’t really register with me. A few months later, after a trip to Spain, I decided that the best way to jumpstart my language learning was to learn a language—Spanish—that was both easier than French, and with which I had had some prior experience. Maybe there would be some deep-seated memories I could fall back on.

So I began exploring the mobile app situation. I did this on Android and iOS because a quick scan of the Windows Phone Store revealed nothing of high quality. And while there were a lot of choices, I quickly settled on something called Duolingo, which was then available on the web and on Android and iOS (iPhone and iPad).

As it turns out, my wife and I had arrived at the same conclusion, separately and at different times. Duolingo is indeed the app with the owl, and yes he does shed a tear if you do poorly. The app is set up somewhat like a game, with a nice variety of exercises, a real sense of learning progression as you. It’s a little bit addictive: unlike exercising, it’s something I really do want to do every day.


And I do. Indeed, my track record with Duolingo is much better than with just about anything else I do that could vaguely improve my life, and it’s arguably a great mental exercise. It’s also hard, go figure. Even Spanish—and yes, I do have some nice deep-seated memories which helped early on—has its share of special cases and difficulties, and my recent foray into past tense was, shall we say, unpleasant.

Duolingo on Windows Phone

Duolingo on Windows Phone

Duolingo is now available on Windows Phone, too, which I love. But it’s best on iOS, with more options and exercise types. So if you have the option, go iOS first, then Android. And the web version isn’t too shabby too.

Right now, I’m at Spanish level 11, and I have moments of both great insight and great frustration. But if you’re interested in this sort of thing, I highly recommend this app, which, by the way, is completely free. I have no idea why: by this point, some four or five months into using it, I’d be happy to pay.

Going forward, I’ll stick to Duolingo—it really is great—but I’ve also started back at episode 1 of the Coffee Break Spanish podcast and have signed back up with Livemocha to see whether I can bolster the learning through a few other means. As with losing weight and eating better, language learning really is a lifetime commitment, and there will be ups and downs. But I feel like this is an area where there can be great success. And everything I’m using—amazingly—is free. (You will need to pay for Livemocha after a while.)

Maybe I should pick up the piano next.

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