A Social Approach to Learning French–Thoughts on Duolingo

Because we are looking for a way to home-school third-year French, language study has been on my radar this summer.

English Language Lab

English Language Lab (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Learning languages

other than English has always been both too easy and too hard for me. When people ask if I speak other languages, I sometimes say that I can say “Please,” “Thank you,” “Hello” and “Goodbye” in 6 or 8 languages but can’t really speak any other language fluently. Typically, I begin studying a new language to rave reviews. My ability to mimic gets me points from Spanish teachers for getting the ñ and rolling r sounds, from German professors for not turning “ich” into “ish” or “ick,” and from lecturers in Hiberno-English for making the sound between “t” and “th” that appears so often. Having dabbled in so many languages has been great for my vocabulary in English and means that I pick up words in European languages quickly–too quickly. Because I understand the initial lessons, I don’t study them enough to get them set in my brain. Very quickly, the pace of vocabulary and grammar exceeds what I can remember, because I didn’t put in the time with flash cards or written drills to solidify what I thought I knew.

I have been playing with Duolingo for about a month and finding it a very enjoyable way to resuscitate and solidify my school

English: The United Nations Security Council C...

English: The United Nations Security Council Chamber in New York, also known as the Norwegian Room Français: La Salle de réunion du Conseil de sécurité des Nations Unies à New York Nederlands: De Zaal van de Veiligheidsraad van de Verenigde Naties in New York (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

French.  Duolingo’s blog explains that it provides “a free way to learn a language while also translating the web.” So far, it works quite well, especially for those of us who get bored with language drills and move on before we’ve really mastered something. The lessons are short. Most have 20 exercises that introduce a few words at a time and rather than forcing memorization of all the present tense forms of a verb, it teaches you one at a time, along with some vocabulary. One set of exercises will have you listen to, translate, write and back-translate “We drink the wine.” Anybody else drinking the wine comes up in a slightly later set of exercises. The exercises fit into small blocks of time. Duolingo very cleverly brings back terms for review that you have studied, so that you do actually learn them. “They drink” might be introduced along with reviewing the plural forms of animal names. So now, it’s elephants drinking. The balance of new and familiar material works really well. You can make progress with ten or 15 minutes a day. And Duolingo will send you a daily reminder email, although this feature doesn’t always work.

One of the other frustrations in learning being unable to deal with complex ideas until you have several years of language. Duolingo addresses this challenge by encouraging you to translate into your native language at first. Hardly a new idea–United Nations simultaneous interpreters translate into their native languages as this article in Slate explains. The web translation activities give you a chance to stretch beyond the basics from the very first lesson. Because I’m translating into English and am familiar with the style of wikipedia entries, I can translate much more advanced material than if I were translating into French. For example, I translated the French for “disambiguation page” in an article about the term “tube.” That was never on any of my first- or second-year vocabulary lists. Duolingo awards lots of points for translation. I tested out of the lesson on the differences between avoir and etre by translating an article on cholera. Knowing a little bit of medical jargon and having had a friend who worked during the early days of oral rehydration with sugar/salt solutions gave me enough background to work out what the French text had to say.

The cholera article was quite long and I probably wouldn’t have gotten though it without the social features of Duolingo.

English: Infographic on how Social Media are b...

English: Infographic on how Social Media are being used, and how everything is changed by them. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Learners translate articles sentence by sentence, with feedback based on how well their translations agree with others’ translations. For simple articles, there are lots of translations and if you don’t agree with 80-90 percent of other translations, you’ve probably done something wrong, like confusing indefinite and definite articles. (“Oh rats! It said des not les.”) With longer or more specialized articles, though, there are fewer translations and the ability to see and comment on others’ translations becomes very interesting. Duolingo sometimes can’t tell if your translation is correct, but you can see what others have done with the passage.  Sometimes a translation is more faithful to the French but not colloquial English. Sometimes there’s a better phrase in context, for example “contaminated” rather than just “dirty.” In a long article, seeing how others are translating tricky words in one sentence can make everyone’s translations better in subsequent sentences. When I suggest edits and offer explanations on others’ translations, I feel like I’m helping them learn as well. And I get more points.

Duolingo currently supports Spanish, German and French.

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About good2kno

Trained in English Literature, Anglo-Irish Drama, and Business Administration, Kirsten Nelson blogs as good2kno.com. Her product marketing practice includes work for Apple, Cisco, IBM, Oracle, and a host of start-ups, where she focuses on what technology can do for people. She has served on non-profit boards, is wife and mother to Science Fiction and Steampunk geeks.

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