Screenshot anime Osaka-okan

To someone from Osaka, there may not seem to be much difference between Jalapeno and Frappucino. Today’s topic: Learning languages for free on the Internet!

When I wrote about the Khan Academy, I mentioned that it was very good for math but you would have to go elsewhere for languages. Well, I’ve found one place you can go, but the range of languages is a bit limited yet. Still, the idea is very interesting. And, it is free!

One day, one of those university intellectuals was pondering the troubles of the world: Not only was learning a new language too expensive for most of the human population (typically costing $500 for a self-learning kit, and most of the world does not have hundreds of dollars lying around – let us not even talk about going to a school that teaches foreign languages). But in addition to this, most of the world did not have all the information of the English-speaking Internet in their own language, either. Spanish is a big language used in rather advanced nations, but the Spanish Wikipedia is only 1/5 of the English. Life is unfair, and then you die. Intellectuals know this.

But this particular fertile egghead came up with an idea: How about we teach people a second language for free, and in the process make them translate the Internet? And so, Duolingo was conceived. Some months later, as is good and proper, it was born. It’s been going through some childhood diseases, or at least warts, but it is thriving now.

The website presents you with a range of exercises, starting at the most basic with words like “the” and “woman”. As you begin to get an idea of the language, you get to translate expressions and short sentences between your starting language and the target language. You translate both ways as part of the basic training. Several possible translations are often possible. You get used to all that. As you gain confidence, you learn to translate longer sentences.

At some point in your linguistic ascent, some of the translations you are given are actually from the Internet, not from your teachers. The website then uses “crowdsourcing”, in this case a kind of election system, to determine what translation is best. If enough people try to do the right thing, the right thing will likely emerge, if it is within their skill level.

(We are not talking about religious truth here, where it is an axiom that the majority is always wrong…)

The learning process is “gamified”, much like at the Khan Academy, with skill points and small data sets which you complete to “level up” to more advanced sets. At the beginner level, you typically go through around ten words at a time. Or at least that is the case for French, my test language.  (English is already my third language, so I am doing this just for the test. The only other language I want to learn right now is Japanese, since it is the only language I don’t understand but still hear pretty much every week, besides being almost impossible to translate by machine.)

The available languages at the moment are Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian and German. Or English for those who speak those other languages. Thus the “duo” – it works both ways. This will come in handy when we translate the Internet, since it is always easier to translate into a good-sounding form in your native language. (For instance, I doubt a native English-speaker would say “good-sounding form”! ^_^;)

The languages just happen to be those used by the imperialist powers of the 19th-20th centuries. This may sound like a bad idea, but it has some benefits. Remember, the problem was that the developing world could not afford expensive language training? Much of the developing world is former colonies, where one of these languages is used either as the national language or as a second language. (Actually, I am not sure any of the former German colonies speak German anymore, and if any speak Italian, it is probably just one or two countries. But still, they are among the more popular second languages.)

One benefit of having only European languages is that they are very similar. They may not look that way to you, gentle reader, but if you have ever tried to learn more than a dozen words of Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Korean, Hebrew or even Finnish, you will realize that all of the big European languages are siblings of English on one side or another. English is originally a Germanic language (actually more related to the Scandinavian languages than to High German) but with a large vocabulary from the Latin-derived (or Romance) languages, most of which are quite similar to each other. Again, they may seem alien to you if this is your first time learning a new language, but they present minimal challenge compared to learning a language with completely different cultural concepts, like personal pronouns that depend on who you speak to as much as who is speaking.

Basically, you cannot translate a simple sentence into Japanese without knowing the relationship between the people involved. If there are no people in the sentence, then at least the relationship between the speaker of the sentence and the listener. (What other language programs usually do is default to formal or polite speech, which is great for business but quite different from what you’ll hear in a movie or on the street or in a family.) I am sure other non-European languages have other hurdles that I cannot even imagine. I know Chinese have tones that “sing” the same syllable differently, although they sound much the same to us. Hebrew and Arabic have sounds that seem more like a symptom of strep throat than a part of western speech. Some languages don’t have past and future tenses, and so on.

But for now, you can learn a related language with Duolingo. That seems like a good start. The sooner you get going, the more time you have to open your mind and realize that words and reality don’t map exactly one on one. If you live in America and only speak English, you should have at least learn Spanish before your first Spanish-speaking President. I am sure you have time if you start now. And it’s fun!


One thought on “Duolingo

  1. Pingback: Duolingo revisited | Chaos Node

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