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!

MOOC update

Screenshot anime Denki-Gai (ep 1)

I am glad I have lived this long! (Picture from Denki-Gai, which is not really recommended except for the funny screenshots.)

Try if you can to imagine what free university studies at home means to someone who, as a child, would read the phone book for scarcity of non-fiction literature.

I just finished the astrobiology course Super-Earths and Life from HarvardX (via the edX MOOC platform).

MOOC, as we have talked about before, are massive open online courses, at this time mainly university-level courses and frequently coming from some of the most prestigious universities of the world. Harvard, in this case, probably needs no further introduction, at least to readers from the western world. So that is kind of awesome. And it will be available to most of the world, thanks to the Android revolution that (according to my estimate) should start in earnest this year (with $20 – $50 Android tablets being churned out for India and other emerging markets). The $20 tablet has actually arrived just in time. Now just wait until it is in the hands of the global middle class: Those who have food security but not luxury. They are going to embrace education in a way that we cannot even imagine, we who had it stuffed down our throat since early childhood.

Be that as it may, the astrobiology course ends on Sunday. (There will no doubt be new rounds of it.) I got 97%, less than perfect but still respectable for a Harvard course I guess. My brain is still working, long may it last! But I am too old to become an astrobiologist. Not that there is detected any biology among the astra so far, but we keep looking. Because we can! Humans are kind of funny that way. Whether lifeforms on other planets think the same way is an open question.


I am not going to run out of MOOC just because this one course ends. I still have a couple more weeks left of Programming for Everybody (Python), from the University of Michigan, on the Coursera MOOC platform. These are the two platforms I have used so far. Generally I find Coursera easier, a bit more spoon-feeding while my edX courses have required some more work. None of them have been too bad though, except the “Science of Happiness” course that I stopped following because their anti-spiritual crusade was just too grating. With all due respect for evolution, the human race has long ago reached a point where we can no longer hide behind the “we do what we do because those of our ancestors who did so had more surviving offspring”. That is not my form of happiness. In fact, it was quite painful to watch.

Luckily programming is not haunted by that kind of bizarre left-wing flapping. I used to be a rather awesome programmer back in the day, but it came to an abrupt halt after I burned out on the debt collection software project that fed Supergirl’s father and his large family for many years. I don’t regret doing that, but perhaps I regret that I burned out on programming. It is probably too late to get back into that now, at least in the sense of seeking employment. The best I can hope for is to be able to stay employed at the place where I work now, until death or the age of 75. But you never know. The world is a strange place and we live in the strangest time that has ever been. And so, I am learning to program in Python. I am still not entirely sure what the point of that is. The language looks very strange to me, but it is not particularly hard to learn. Well, it will take quite a bit of practice to be able to code without looking up the various features, but the exercises so far have been pretty quick and easy.

So much so, in fact, that I have signed up for two more programming course: One in C# by Microsoft experts (on edX) and a longer on in Java from a university in Madrid (also on edX). Hopefully the Madrid professors will speak English, despite their names. The blurb for the course was certainly in English, so I am hoping for the best.

The C# course starts in early April, the Java course in late April. There will be some overlap, but hopefully it won’t confuse me. I believe the two languages are related, being both inspired by the C programming language.

For May, I have signed up for a more sociological course again, about superheroes in popular culture. This is definitely not career related, I think. Well, not for my day job at least. ^_^

More MOOCs

Screenshot anime

Let us build ourselves a place of learning! On the Internet! Actually, some people already did that, so I’m just mooching on their MOOC. ^_^

Last year I started taking a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course – a course of study made available over the Internet without charge to a very large number of people.) It was about information technology in the society, the impact the technology had, and I was quite active at first. But then I found a part that was actively misleading (the “search bubble” was presented as a fact, whereas it has been disproved shortly after it made headlines). When I found that neither students nor professor did basic fact checking or reacted to being directed to correct information, my interest in the course quickly faded to zero.

At the time, the MOOC concept was still fairly new in Norway. Besides NTNU, I think only the college in Molde had started, and it was mainly a work by pioneers with little formal support from faculty staff, much less inter-college organization. In America, MOOCs had already been around a year or two (possibly more, but not in the public eye). So that was where I cast my gaze next.

This summer I took a MOOC from University of California San Diego, “Climate Change in Four Dimensions”. This is not something I need for my job, it was just interesting (it is a big topic and gets a lot of interest these days, often from people who have opinions but little knowledge.) To no small degree it was also a test of Coursera, the platform delivering the course. Each of the major MOOC platforms has courses from a number of universities, but they vary in which universities and how they present the courses, probably also in what type of courses, although there is clearly some overlap there at least. If I could complete a fairly long single course (10 weeks) that interested me, I knew that the MOOC model was not broken despite my failure to complete the one last year.

I completed the course, had fun and got a good grade, although I did not purchase the official certificate track to get the faux sheepskin certificate or whatever you use these days. As I say, it is not a thing I need for my work, and it is not like it gives me any authority elsewhere either. If people don’t listen to actual scientists, they sure won’t listen to me. But the course was a success as far as I was concerned. (Not that I was overly concerned.) (English is a funny language.)

I followed up the success with a course this fall from the main competing platform, edX. This was the “Science of Happiness” course I mentioned. edX seems to have a clearer line between us freeloaders and the serious students, although you can still take part in pretty much all activities even if you are not on the paid track. But it seems a little easier to slink away. I have not quite done that yet, but I am slipping behind.

Then started the course “Learning how to Learn” on Coursera, which I had signed up for before I started the edX course. You’d think I would be able to handle two fairly small courses like this – they require only a few hours a week each – but I am finding it harder than I expected. Admittedly, this is in part because I have started this huge Sims 2 project, which runs on my second computer during much of my free time. Well, when I am not outdoors playing Ingress, which I am 2-3 hours a day typically, if you include the ingressing on my way to and from work. I am trying to keep it under 10% of my time, but it is rarely much below at least. Anyway, the Sims 2 thing should theoretically take very little time, as it runs mostly on its own on the upgraded Vista computer. But somehow I keep getting sucked in and end up guiding my sims to maximize their life satisfaction rather than my own. That’s just the kind of wannabe guiding spirit I am. ^_^

Of the two courses, I give priority to Learning how to Learn. Both because I find it more agreeable (the incessant invocation of Darwin in a study of happiness really starts grating on me, BerkeleyX) and because the learning course is a tool for all my future courses. If I can optimize my learning even a little bit, this will pay off in all future courses. Of course we don’t know how much future I have, but I haven’t found an expiration date yet, so for the time being I intend to keep learning and stick to my plan of working till I am 75 or until I can’t work any longer. The “can’t work” part tends to depend a lot on your education level here in Norway, with intellectuals often working well past 70 and laborers typically quitting at 62. So, if I can upgrade my intellectual status for free, I improve my chances to keep contributing to civilization, which it could certainly need!

The world also needs my novel (or at least NaNoWriMo says so), but that is a story for some future day, if at all. At least I am having vacation all November, so perhaps the chaos will settle down enough that I actually can think of something to write. The Learning How to Learn course should be finished around then, and the other one by the middle of the month.


Filter bubble and school bubble

Screenshot anime Narue no Sekai (featuring Kanaka)

What is wrong with this country’s education system? Well, first and foremost it is populated with people who are different from me. That can’t possibly be good!

In my previous post, I mentioned the MOOC I am taking from NTNU about technology and social development. Now for the bad part. We got an assignment to write about the Filter Bubble. The text by the professor was a one-sided reference to Eli Pariser and his claims that Google search result are filtered to conform to each person’s ideological and other views, so that a conservative and a liberal would see completely different pages when searching for a politically charged topic, for instance.

The problem with this shocking revelation is that it does not repeat when tested. This is mentioned in the Wikipedia article, and I took the time to test it for myself. At home I tested with one page signed in as myself (an avid Google user over many years, also using other Google services such as Blogger, Google Docs, and not least Google+, their social network.)  But a search for a very “me” topic while logged in to Google gave very nearly the same result as a search from an anonymous Opera window – some sites were a little higher on one than the other, but not so much that one would have noticed without looking for differences.

Now you may counter that both of the browser windows were on the same computer and so had the same IP address, so Google might be able to guess that I was the anonymous browser. (Then again this would not explain the small differences that were, and it would put Google in hot water if spouses, siblings etc borrowed each other’s computer and suddenly found themselves in a different filter bubble.) Just to make sure, however, I ran a new test later at work, using a tablet where I was logged in to Google and a work computer that is not used with my private Google account, is occasionally used with another Google account, and goes through a server farm in which we log on to a different terminal server each time we log on, and of course also has a different IP. Once again, the differences were trivial, with a little more prominence to sites I had visited in the past.

My conclusion is the same as those who have disputed Parisier’s claims. The facts do not even remotely resemble his description, at least in its Internet meme form. (I have not bought the book, so I can’t speak for that, and given the outcome of my tests the book would be a waste of time and money. I would not be shocked to the core of my tender soul if it turns out that selling his book and possibly related goods was the reason for the claims in the first place.)

The rest of the students uncritically accepted the claims and expressed their deep concern. One of them corroborated the claim by mentioning that he had found the answer to an iPad problem in a few seconds by searching on Google, while his friend who had the problem had not found the answer, despite being an educated man and mentally sound. I have no doubt that this is true, but it is not the filter bubble. It is called “Google-fu”, the art of using Google. In order to verify or falsify the claims of a filter bubble, you have to do an identical search, within a reasonable time of each other, and in the same geographical location if geography is involved. (The coverage of Hurricane Sandy is obviously different in New York and Paris, for instance, or even New York and Seattle.)

I was rather discouraged. This is tertiary education. University students were among us. Isn’t questioning at the heart of higher learning? Shouldn’t a university-level student pause in the face of extraordinary claims that can be tested in the convenience of your home, rather than respond emotionally in conformity with the claims? Am I truly the only person down into which the overwhelming brightness of a higher consciousness has shone to endow me with the ability to think twice?

After this, I lost part of my enthusiasm. I still intend to complete the course, though. Probably. Some day.


Screenshot Sims 3, after a high school graduation

Used to be that people my age were worried about their children’s studies, not their own. Not anymore. The age of the MOOC has come!

I signed up for my first MOOC on September 9. (The letters stand for Massive Open Online Course, generally used about university level courses that are distributed over the Internet, usually but not always for free.) This course comes from NTNU, the Norwegian institute of Science and Technology. It is also touted as the first MOOC in Norway, although the College in Molde is supposed to have a full study online this year. I am not sure how to reconcile these claims, but in any case this is the first for me.

Back when I was a teenager, high school was a bit higher than it is now and a high school diploma (Examen Artium) such as I had would have qualified me directly for university studies, I believe. I did take some college-level courses organized and paid for by my employer not many years later. Today you have to have Examen Philosophicum to enter into any further studies, and as I don’t have this, I wouldn’t be able to take an exam anyway. Apart from that however I have followed the course like an ordinary off-site student. The professor and staff have treated us freeloaders like students as well, whereas in larger courses one would obviously not have the capacity for that. (There are American courses with hundreds of thousands of students, if not more.)

In addition to my interest in technology and social development (which the course is about), I also wanted to evaluate the study form as such. I have dabbled in online study on a small scale, improving my extremely rusty little French with Duolingo and my math with Khan Academy, both of which I have written glowing reviews about before, I hope. (Duolingo has later released an Android app which makes it even easier to practice on the go.) But the mainstream MOOC format is one I am not familiar with, and I hope to be in the future, if any.

I generally have a deal with my workplace to not write about my workplace. But that may not last, because my job may not last. It seems more likely than not that my job – and those of my coworkers – will be outsourced sometime over the next four years. I am not particularly worried that I will simply be waved goodbye to by my employer, but what kind of job I will be assigned to could depend quite a bit on my technical competence. Going back to school is not an option at my age, as I would be nearly 60 on my return, and Norwegians have a tendency to retire at 62 (and then be very surprised that they don’t get the same pension as if they had kept working till 75). I hope to work until 75 or until shortly before my untimely death should that happen first, Light send it be not so. But hoping is one thing, doing is another. “Strong souls have will; feeble souls have only wishes.” Which of these categories I fit into should be interesting to find out, at least!

So far, so good. It is not particularly hard, although I have to dodge a few issues as I already have a Twitter account and blog that are … orthogonal in content and atmosphere, let us say, compared to the exercises given. But it is interesting and a convenient study form. I could definitely see myself doing more of this.