Duolingo revisited

Screenshot YouTube / TEDx

Please apologize for your stupidity! The pitfalls of using machine translation on the Web. Instead, please enlist the French. There are a many thank you.

Back on February 23, 2013, I wrote about Duolingo, a website that let you learn a foreign language by translating the Web. Or that was the idea. I also mentioned that it had relatively few languages, all of which were cousins of English either on the Anglo-Saxon or the Norman side.

Things have changed a little, but Duolingo is still around, and there are now a few more languages. (You can learn Norwegian! So you can properly greet your new overlords when the longships come.) No truly alien ones such as Japanese or Mandarin, but a couple using Cyrillic alphabet, and Hebrew is in the works; there are also western languages for Arabic speakers, so the alphabet problem seems to be worked around. And there’s Turkish for English-speakers. While using a slightly modified Latin alphabet, Turkish is not an Indo-European language, meaning it is not visibly related to English and its neighbors. (Even Russian is much closer to English.)

Naturally I have started learning Turkish. Because I can. Or because I wanted to see whether I can learn a language from scratch, without even a seed of background knowledge. We had a smattering of French in school, so when I play around with French on Duolingo, I am never sure how much I am actually learning and how much comes back to me from our seemingly futile French classes, and how much I have picked up from French pop music and cultural references. None of those are particularly applicable to Turkish, because Vienna did not fall to the Ottoman army in this timeline.


Back when Duolingo was new, it had just the website (although it was surprisingly mobile-friendly for a site with so much interaction). Now there are apps for iOS and Android. They are similar to the website, but actually easier. In other words, I take longer completing the standard chunk of 10 XP on the website. This is partly because I downloaded the appropriate languages for my smartphone keyboard (I use SwiftKey, but this probably also works with Google keyboard). The keyboard helpfully corrects badly spelt words, and even proposes valid words if I get the first letters right or nearly right. In addition, the Android app is more likely to give me exercises of the type “tap the word pairs” or “select the words” instead of actual writing exercises.

The focus on translating the web seems to have receded a bit. The philosophy was sound enough: The server keeps track of each student’s competence level, and assigns sentences from actual texts that the company is paid to translate. If the sentence is short and contain only common words, it can be assigned to a newbie, while longer sentences with more advanced vocabulary are reserved for advanced learners. The same sentence is given to a bunch of different students, and if they agree on the translation, fine. If not, you may get to vote on which translation is correct.

The website has a tab called “Immersion” which does take you to the translation work, but you are not pushed into it early in the course at least. I still haven’t actually completed any languages yet (as if such a word even has meaning for a language). I am supposedly 25% fluent in French, although I suspect 2.5% would be a more accurate estimate. I am not entirely sure I can say “twentyfive” in French.

With translation somewhat sidetracked, it seems that the company Duolingo is currently living on investments while waiting for a buyer or IPO to go public. For now it is completely free, and this was important to the founders. But if it gets bought up, it is anybody’s guess how long it will be free. At the very least I would expect a return to focus on actually useful translations. But for now it is mostly fun and games.


Duolingo is highly gamified. That is, the learning is made as fun as possible. Completing exercises give you XP (experience points) and you level up by doing enough of them. When you have completed a topic group (like “food”, “clothing” or “animals”) you get “lingots” which is the currency of the game. You can use these in the “lingot store” to unlock optional features like “learn flirting”.

There are small chunks of exercises that normally only take a few minutes, and they are a mix of different types. In the case of French, I translate phrases and sentences from French to English, and from English to French. The French phrases are spoken as well as written. There are also exercises where I listen to a French phrase and write it down in French, and others where I listen and try to repeat a phrase. Sometimes I get to pick a translation of a slightly harder sentence from 3 alternatives in French. Sometimes I get 6 different words, 3 in each language, and get to sort them into pairs.

In the original version, you started with 3 “hearts” which would break if you made a mistake. If you lost all three hearts and made a fourth mistake, you had to redo that batch. But evidently that made people lose heart for real, so this has quietly been dispensed with. Now instead, if you make mistakes, you don’t make progress, or may even be set back a little, but nobody scolds you in any way. It just takes longer to gain your 20 XP (two batches of exercises) for the day.

There is currently a bug where, if you study two languages, Duolingo will count progress on one of them as progress on them both. OK, I am not 100% sure if this is a bug or a feature, but I am almost sure it is a bug, because it does track progress on both of them when I look at the daily reminder mail. But in the app and on the website, I have to keep track myself.


Duolingo is probably the most efficient way to get started on a foreign language today. (Science backs this up: A study showed that 34 hours of Duolingo was equal to a semester of beginner Spanish in college.) It may over-estimate your progress (it certainly does with mine), but you can’t avoid noticing when you don’t know something, so it is kind of self-correcting if it pushes you too far ahead too fast. And it is just plain fun to use. Not super fun like actual computer games, but I certainly wish my workday was like this! So more fun than reading the newspaper. (Just kidding, boss! ^_^)

So go get it while it’s free. Remember, being bilingual delays Alzheimer’s. We want to delay Alzheimer’s until someone has found a cure for it, OK? So here you go, now:

Duolingo – learn a language for free!

6 thoughts on “Duolingo revisited

  1. When sonething bad occurs, how do you tell if you are fault or if it’s just misfortune or “bad things happening to good people”?

    • The most important day in my life was when I understood, deep down, the answer to that question. And the answer was: It doesn’t matter. What matters is only the way we react. The cause of an event is in the past, which we cannot change no matter what. The way we react influences the future, where we shall live the rest of our lives.

      More importantly, we change ourselves. Sometimes we have good intentions, or at least not bad intentions, but the outcome is not at all what we expected. People misunderstand us, we misunderstand them, and maybe we even misunderstand ourselves. When something unexpected happens, we get a course correction. We learn that what we thought would work, did not actually work that way.

      When we try to do good and people respond badly, we die a little inside. The question is what part of us dies. The easiest is to let the part that wanted to do good, die. “They don’t deserve it.” Which may be true, but does not make us a better person. But there is another way: The death of the part of us who does good to be liked, to be popular, to be recognized, to be rewarded. Instead we choose to do good because it makes us a better person. There is one person you will have to live with day and night for as long as you live, and that is yourself. If you can improve that person by learning from misunderstandings, you’ve got it made.

  2. Well my reasoning is this:
    Errors are caused by serious personality flaws. Not fixing these personality flaws results in us making these errors again and inflicting more suffering on ourselves and those around us. It is important to humble ourselves to our faults…..

    Misfortune – you can’t do anything about it. Just react the best you can.

    • Whether the event comes from my mistakes, someone else’s mistakes, or seemingly random unpredictable factors, the main question is whether there is anything I can do better in the future. This is called “anti-fragility” and is the way most airlines operate. When an accident or near-accident occurs, they look at how they can avoid it in the future. Finding the guilty person is not important, except to learn from it. If they punish the guilty but don’t make the system more resilient, then more planes will fall down. So the focus is on keeping the planes in the air. I like this attitude.

      This is not to say that repentance is bad or unnecessary, but rather, sometimes we have to change our ways even if we were right. Because being right is less important than “keeping the planes in the air”.

    • It’s pretty funny to get asked that, when I’m not even responsible for a potted plant, let alone a housecat. I rather like to keep my attachments low. I don’t mind living in a nanny state, and I tell my boss “Tempt us not into leadership” when he tries to push me forward.

      But if I have to say something, I think it is about seeing others as real. When we are small, it’s all about me. And that’s good, because if infants were responsible for themselves, they’d die horribly. At some point we wake up and realize that mom has enough to do without picking up our clothes too, and it kind of grows from there. We try to not be a burden to others, because they don’t exist for our sake. And perhaps in time we try to lift some of the burdens off others. So that’s how we become responsible by free will, I guess.

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