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Duolingo — A Wonderful Tool in Target Language Acquisition

In today’s day and age, information that was once difficult to obtain — perhaps even requiring more effort to obtain it than it was actually worth — has now become accessible to nearly all, thanks to the internet. All one needs to discover something new or answer a question that’s been nagging them is an internet-accessible device and a connection to the internet itself. The internet has turned over a new leaf in research and information gathering, and acts as a metaphysical library filled with news publications, research and magazine articles, and even recipes. However, one of the most fascinating features of the internet is the sheer amount of free language-learning applications available for use, which combine linguistic information, exposure, and practice to enable any person with access to the internet to study a language. Although many of these linguistic apps are available, one program’s fame soars high above the rest — meet Duolingo, a free language-learning application with over 500 million registered users.

Duolingo, an educational passion project of computer science professor Luis von Ahn and graduate student Severin Hacker, offers 95 language courses in 38 different languages. Although an ad-removing subscription service is available for Duolingo, the program itself is free, and all language courses are able to be completed without a subscription. It’s a great learning alternative to those who might not be able to afford formal language classes or a private tutor. One of the best features of Duolingo is its accessibility — you don’t even need a computer to complete its language courses! The application is freely available for download on both iPhone and Android devices, and is listed in both the iOS App Store and Google Play. With the Duolingo app, it’s possible to sneak a little bit of language-learning into your everyday activities, from commutes to waiting in line, and even lunch breaks.

The Duolingo language courses feature individual unit lessons, filled with mini-games designed to interact and motivate the language learner. Duolingo claims these lessons are “based on a methodology proven to foster long-term memory of what’s being learned, machine learning technology that personalizes learners’ experience, and curricula informed by national and international standards” (The Duolingo Method for App-based Teaching and Learning). The lessons are fun, bite-sized, and work to slowly expose the language learner to the nuances in vocabulary and grammar of their target language. After new words and sentence structures are taught to a learner, review lessons are offered to further cement the new concepts in the learner’s mind.

However, even with all of Duolingo’s strengths, the application itself has some — perhaps unavoidable — flaws. As with any technological application, there are some human aspects that are simply difficult or even impossible to code into a program. Although language can act formulaically in many ways, it is a human construct, so language will always have its nuances. Language itself can be illustrated as a triangle with three different sidessemantics, syntax, and pragmatics. Without all three linguistic aspects present in one’s language, their understanding of it will be incomplete.

Language-learning programs such as Duolingo are very skilled in teaching semantics, or the meaning within language — often expressed through vocabulary, implications, reference, and more. They may also cover syntax fairly well, or the grammar of a language, which may be expressed through sentence structure, word order, tenses, and conjugations. However, most language-learning programs struggle to teach the nuances of pragmatics, or the context of language. Some sentences may mean one thing in a certain context, but can be implied or interpreted quite differently in another context — idioms also fall under this linguistic category.

A good example of pragmatics can be found in the following exchange:

A teacher is meeting with a student’s parents. The parents ask, “Is our son a good student?” The teacher responds, “well, he always shows up to class on time.”

In this example, although the teacher affirms the student for showing up to class on time, the lack of other positive features — for example, he studies hard, he actively participates, he gets good grades — implies that the boy isn’t really a good student at all. The nonverbal pragmatic implications of this exchange and others aren’t necessarily taught in technological language-learning apps, and a non-native language learner might not understand the implications in layered phrases such as these the first time around, even if they understand what the sentence itself means.

To combat this flaw, in addition to using programs such as Duolingo to study languages, it’s also important to immerse oneself in a targeted language’s media. Movies, books, and TV shows in a foreign language can expose a person to that language’s idioms and pragmatic nuances, such as the one illustrated above. A language’s media can also enlighten one on the culture and tendencies of the language’s speakers, allowing them to not only further understand the language, but also the people who speak it.

All in all, Duolingo is a wonderful tool for learning languages, which is best accompanied with exposure to media in the target language as well. For those searching for a fun, convenient way to fit language-learning into their daily routine, perhaps this application is the way to go. It’s free, interactive, and only a click away on application stores! Just grab your phone and immerse yourself in a target language today.

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