Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
500 days of Duolingo: What you can and can’t learn from a language app (nytimes.com)
342 points by pseudolus 44 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 213 comments

Learning a language requires immersion. That's why classes with other students are more effective than flashcards.

VR has potential to really make a difference here. Imagine you load a VR level. It's a busy outdoor market in Taipei. In your inventory you have some cash. NPCs with AI and chat logic are around you interacting. Your goal is to buy some bread and get to the subway. You see a vendor with some bread, but don't remember the word for bread. You hear a NPC talking to the vendor and buying some bread. Now you remember. You speak the words, but the vendor doesn't understand. Your tones are off. You try again, this time the vendor smiles and says how much it costs. You give cash, take the bread, and walk to the subway. The next level, buying a subway pass...

This basically already exists in RPG games. It just needs mic support so you can speak and good "game" design that's designed to help learn the language. Playing this for an hour a day would be more effective than an hour of flashcards. And also a lot fun.

I found the article to be BS. My experience:

1) Classes with other students are just about the least effective way to learn a foreign language. You just reinforce each others' bad accents, grammar mistakes, etc.

2) Duolingo is okay for some things, but not for others. But discounting all apps after having tried one or two, though, is a lot like the famous Gates quote: "640k should be enough for anybody" (which he claims to have never said), or the nineties articles as to why no one would shop online.

3) Pimsleur is brilliant for developing basic conversational ability. It works really, really well.

4) The Pimsleur model could take you all the way to fluency, but it stops at a half-year of lessons for the most developed languages (and 2 weeks for some of the less developed ones). Developing four years of lessons at this level of quality is hard and expensive.

5) BUT: Moving on beyond Pimsleur, there is a range of tools which are passable. Things like Duolingo, Memrise, Supermemo, etc. can help build vocabulary. There are apps for watching movies for language learning (which adds subtitles, dictionaries, etc.) which can help build comprehension. Etc. Picking-and-choosing, you can get something which, while not as good as going there, is much better than classes.

6) This field is progressing super-quickly on the whole. What we have today is much better than five years ago, and we'll have much better things five years from now. I'd be surprised if apps weren't the best way to learn a language in not too long.

> Classes with other students are just about the least effective way to learn a foreign language.

Well, sure a private tutor is better, but that's a lot more expensive.

Without a teacher of some sort that can provide feedback, I have no idea how I could have learned elementary Mandarin (that is produce and listen to sounds radically different from my native English).

From what I've seen the ability for computers to give feedback on what you are doing wrong is far away from a trained human's.

> The Pimsleur model could take you all the way to fluency,

I've been looking over their website - it seems like it is just audio lessons and no tutor is provided? If that is correct, how would someone learn to correctly pronounce words in say Mandarin using this?

> Without a teacher of some sort that can provide feedback, I have no idea how I could have learned elementary Mandarin

One of the points made in The Language Instinct is that children pick up their languages without using any explicit feedback. That is, people in the child's life who can already speak are liable to ignore errors in the child's speech, and when they do point out errors, the child will essentially always ignore the feedback.

But I wouldn't say children don't get feedback at all. They get a lot of important feedback, such as whether the thing they wanted to happen when they spoke did happen, or whether the person they were talking to appeared to understand them. However, this kind of feedback is generally not the kind provided by a "teacher"; everyone automatically provides it.

Agreed. By "people" above, I should have clarified "adults".

The issue is that it is very difficult for adults to learn new phonemes (individual units of sound that distinguish words from each other) - an adult hearing a novel phoneme tends to map it to one existing in their native language.

Children however aren't handicapped by this problem -- they actually learn the phonemes of their language before they understand the words.

In the Mandarin context, this means it is difficult to learn the ü sound - it just is perceived as something like "u" (resulting in inability to distinguish lü from lu). Tones are another category, where it is just plain hard for adults to distinguish words by tonality. Needless to say, production of the novel sounds is also incredibly hard.

Point being - it's difficult to bridge this gap - and I'd imagine near impossible for most without a teacher. I find Pimsleur's claim of learning a language "effortlessly" with a "near-native accent" - with only the aid of a CD - absurd in this context.

A source that goes into this: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2846316/

Wikipedia has https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Help:IPA/Mandarin and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standard_Chinese_phonology Similar pages exist for many other languages. If you study the descriptions of the individual phones carefully, you should be able to consciously position your tongue and mouth to produce the correct sound.

E.g. the ü sound is https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Close_front_rounded_vowel , which means that it only differs from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Close_front_unrounded_vowel (the English ee sound) by the lips being rounded instead of unrounded. English also has rounded vowels, for example https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Close_back_rounded_vowel (the oo sound). So you can learn to consciously pronounce ü by pronouncing ee and then rounding your lips as when pronouncing oo while keeping the tongue in the ee position.

Most teachers don't know enough about phonology to give that kind of explanation. My Mandarin teacher certainly didn't. I can only credit Wikipedia with helping me perfect my pronunciation to the point where I can be mistaken for a native speaker on the phone.

> Children however aren't handicapped by this problem -- they actually learn the phonemes of their language before they understand the words.

This is accurate, but it's worth pointing out that infants are born recognizing every potential phoneme, and what they learn to do is to ignore the differences between sounds that their language considers equivalent. They don't learn to make distinctions they weren't formerly able to make. (This supports the idea that learning foreign sounds is much harder for adults -- I mention it because most people intuitively believe that things happen the other way around.)

Adults do preserve the ability to learn to ignore the difference between two sounds, but that's much less useful than learning a distinction would be. :(

> Tones are another category, where it is just plain hard for adults to distinguish words by tonality.

English features tones pretty heavily, most prominently in the usually-obligatory tonal marking for yes/no questions, but interestingly also in the I-don't-know tonal sequence.

> I find Pimsleur's claim of learning a language "effortlessly" with a "near-native accent" - with only the aid of a CD - absurd in this context.


>That is, people in the child's life who can already speak are liable to ignore errors in the child's speech, and when they do point out errors, the child will essentially always ignore the feedback. //

Interesting, I've some previous and am currently in a situation where I actively correct a child learner, and they respond well to that correction wrt language, less so in behavioural aspects unfortunately ;o)

For clarity, what I do with mispronunciations is break down the word in to phonemes. Yellow is a classic, that a lot of kids struggle with, current child subject has a propensity to say "lellow", though he gets it right more often than not now (age 3) -- I break that down as "yuh-ell-oh" and have him say other words that he can pronounce like "yes" and "yum". So I go "yes, yes, yes, yes, yellow" whilst he listens, then we do it together.

Most early language acquisition is done at home, and for us that has meant away from other parents so I'm not really sure how others do it. I have seen the "aw that's cute" reaction to mispronunciation in the wild, which I guess is a blocker for some.

As your experience illustrates this works well but it’s not necessary. Breaking down words into phonemes is not something people from illiterate cultures do normally. It’s not excessively difficult to teach by any means but it’s also not something that comes naturally as you’ve no doubt seen when teaching children how to sound out words when learning to read. Teaching consonant vowel consonant words (cat, rat, rag, bag, tag, tug, bug etc.) if you sound out a word phoneme by phoneme they’ll often get one wrong when they put it together, usually the vowel.

In the environment of evolutionary adaptedness language acquisition would not primarily occur in a nuclear family, children would spend a lot of time around not just their immediate family but also with other nursing mothers and children close in age and as they get older with children close on age more generally. They pick up pronunciation from the environment and all the other elements of a language too. This is why children will reject a language spoken only by one person in their environment starting around age three[1] and how you get distinct school/social class accents, like international school English or public school English in the U.K.


This guy spoke only Klingon to his son for the first three years of his life. The same rejection occurs with natural languages if only one person speaks it to a child so if you want your child to grow up bilingual they better hear your language from other people too.

>> Classes with other students are just about the least effective way to learn a foreign language. > Well, sure a private tutor is better, but that's a lot more expensive.

In my experience, a private tutor really is not any more expensive than an classroom environment when you factor in the reduced number of hours needed. I have been taking language lessons online with 1-on-1 tutors (via Skype) through italki. You can easily find good native speakers with teaching qualifications for under $15 / hour. I find that I get more out of a dedicated hour with a tutor than half-day course in a classroom.

+1 for italki, being able to talk with a native speaker on demand for a low price is so awesome.

My brother and sister get individual Japanese lessons from a UCSC professor for 60 minutes a week. They apparently progress faster than the actual Japanese class. (I believe a normal UCSC class has 3-4 hours / week of classroom time.)

> I've been looking over their website - it seems like it is just audio lessons and no tutor is provided? If that is correct, how would someone learn to correctly pronounce words in say Mandarin using this?

Audio lessons vary widely in how they're designed. In the context of Pimsleur, it's an interactive back-and-forth.

Tape: "Tell her your flight is tomorrow."

[30 second pause. I say "你的航班是明天。"]

Tape: "你的航班是明天。"

[30 second pause. I correct "你的航班是明天," based on the feedback]

Tape: "你的航班是明天。"

[30 second pause. I repeat again]

And then the tape goes on.

That is feedback. It's prescriped, but it's incredibly effective. After I say something, I hear it pronounced back at me by a native speaker. That's 90% of the feedback a tutor or teacher would give you, only it's there for everything you say.

I found my pronunciation after a couple of months of Pimsleur to be dramatically better than people who've been in classes for a year or two. Indeed, when I tried stepping into a class, I left, since my pronunciation got worse.

That, combined with spaced repetition (which Pimsleur uses), combined with a half-dozen other research-based techniques, makes it ultra-effective.

> After I say something, I hear it pronounced back at me by a native speaker.

I imagine that being sufficient is going to vary a lot by individual learning styles and ability to mimic. I'm guessing you are rather good at mimicking sounds/music/etc.

> That's 90% of the feedback a tutor or teacher would give you, only it's there for everything you say.

I'm not so great at mimicking, so without someone telling me I'm actually pronouncing the words wrong, I'm just going to converge on an incorrect pronunciation. I cannot self-assess the accuracy; I need a tutor to point out that what I mistakenly believe is correct is not correct -- that is provide feedback to me. (I've tried similar exercises to what you describe and it just results in incorrect convergence)

This is especially an issue with Chinese where my native English brain naturally ignores tonality. Since the information is being stripped away, it's borderline impossible to self-ascertain whether my tones match or not.

Try it. You might be surprised. I thought I was really lousy at that sort of thing too.

It turns out the back-and-forth has a big impact.

That's not just me. Lots of my friends use it. Nice thing about CDs is you can get them from the library free too (or interlibrary loan).

>1) Classes with other students are just about the least effective way to learn a foreign language. You just reinforce each others' bad accents, grammar mistakes, etc.

In almost all cases the primary reason for learning another language is conversation. The richness of interaction trumps the fact of picking up an accent or grammar errors.

I learned French by living in France for half a year, and was relatively decent at it at the end of my stay. Over the last few years I've tried to learn several languages by book or through apps, and progress is significantly slower, maybe as much as ten times slower.

There's so much richness in real world interaction, including visuals, sounds, connecting words and phrases to specific tasks, it's impossible to replace with an app.

>1) Classes with other students are just about the least effective way to learn a foreign language. You just reinforce each others' bad accents, grammar mistakes, etc.

And yet, hundreds of millions of people have learned a foreign language that way.

In this corner of Europe it's de rigueur for everyone to study 2 or more foreign languages during middle and high school, and (some very rich kids with private tutors aside) everybody does it at foreign language schools with classes of 10-15 other people. It still works just fine.

> There are apps for watching movies for language learning (which adds subtitles, dictionaries, etc.)

I've been searching for such apps (for watching movies/audio-visual content). Got any names to share? Thanks.

I recently discovered https://languagelearningwithnetflix.com/

You get a nice overview of movies in a certain language available in your country. I don't use their Chrome extension though, so I can't say anything about that

I'm one of the two developers, thanks for the mention. :-)

We're working on YouTube support now for the extension.

Something else I've been working on: https://forum.language-learners.org/viewtopic.php?t=8699

It would be great to crowd-source data on whether Netflix's audio track matches the subtitles for a particular film. Even when the original audio language and subtitle language match, the subtitles often paraphrase the spoken dialogue, making it difficult to follow along.

In my investigations, this isn't too common, but I guess it depends on where in the Netflix catalogue (14,000 titles) you are digging. When Original language of film === audio language === subtitle language, things generally match up, in my experience. The subtitle accuracy for some less popular or older material can vary a bit though.

I'm the author of jijimaku, a free app to add dictionary definitions to subtitles if that helps.

I think the problem with Pimsleur is that the number of topics that you could become "fluent" in explodes once you get past a certain level of proficiency. I doubt that it could take you to fluency except in a very narrow range of topics due to the degree of repetition required.

VR+AI will not make a significant impact. I am a former language educator, and I've been through this before... and before... and before.

It follows a hype cycle. The idea is promoted. People get excited. It comes out. It fizzles. Later, educators rediscover the idea. They implement it. It has a small positive impact for small number of learners in a small number of cases.

To give some examples: - Native English Speaking Teachers - English immersion villages in South Korea - English robots in South Korea and Japan - The Audio-lingual Method - Berlitz Method - Rosetta Stone Immersion Based Learning Method - MUDs, MOOs, MUSHs - MOOCs - Blended learning - Badges - Gamification - Second Life

There's no reason to think VR+AI will be any different. It's simply what's hot right now.

This sounds amazing. I used Duolingo for about a year to learn Swedish. I got pretty good at reading it and hearing it, but never could speak it very well. Had I decided to learn French or Spanish I’d have a lot more opportunity to talk with other people, but I picked Swedish because it seemed interesting and easy for an English native to pick up. I would totally buy a VR rig just to do this.

Literally did the same last year with Swedish. Kind of amazing how easy it was to pick up vs French.

What kind of a time investment did it require on a day to day basis? In the last few weeks I've been eyeing Babbel and Duolingo as good options to get started learning a particular language.

Maybe an hour or so a day. If you're not talking with someone else the trick is to do it every single day. If I missed a day I lost a lot of momentum.

Also I'd recommend looking at Memrise. Their voice seems a lot better than duolingo's at least.

No need for VR.

busuu[1] have setup a network where users can send exercises to other members (native speakers of the language you are trying to speak) and they will correct and rate them. The network is very active, as soon as I submit my exercise, a couple of minutes later someone will have corrected it. (Premium plan though, I made a 3 months plan, hopefully it will be enough to get me on track).

I would suggest everyone to give busuu a try.

[1]: https://busuu.com [2]: https://imgur.com/a/3PrxDBH

Agreed on immersion being critical.

You also for languages distant from ones you know really need a teacher (which is a problem with Duolingo), at least to break into the elementary levels.

> You speak the words, but the vendor doesn't understand. Your tones are off.

The immersion is critical to having repetitive practice and exposure, but few adults (at least I'm not one) will get this far (that is being capable of extending knowledge via immersion) without the initial aid of a teacher. e.g. Learning to hear/speak sounds that don't exist in your native language requires both extensive instruction and feedback more detailed than just "I don't understand".

There is an AR translator app "Translate Now" that translates objects and text in Augmented Reality. I think it can create an immersive language learning experience for students to see translations placed in the "real world" around them. This is the appstore link: https://itunes.apple.com/app/apple-store/id1348028646?mt=8

I do believe that language learning can improve a lot using new technologies such as AR and VR. VR experiences as you described above can really impact how students aquire new skills.

There's a guy building this exact VR thing in a startup program I'm a part of. Looks incredible: http://virtualnihongo.com/

There's no reason that needs to be in VR right?

Needs? No.

But immersing yourself in the environment in which you’ll use the language should eventually help with cued recall.

I remember an old game called Mean City (https://www.mobygames.com/game/mean-city-learn-english-or-di...) that tried to do something similar (minus the VR and the voice parts). There were probably others.

I think Lingotopia was supposed to be something like this (though not VR).


I really wish this VR existed. Would be great.

This would be close to AGI.

My now 12.5 years old daughter started to learn English on Duolingo when she was around 9. She didn't complete the full course, but has around 100-150 days of lessons. It definitely helped her starting to understand the language.

She loves Harry Potter so much that after reading the whole series in Romanian, she started to read the first volume in English. Didn't finish that either, but managed to read about 100 pages of it and she said that after 30-40 pages, it became substantially easier to understand.

Now she's among top 3 students, if not the first, in her class at English, outpacing colleagues who take 2-3 hours weekly of extra English lessons, without having a single paid English lesson.

Duolingo might not teach you how to speak a language fluently, but it definitely can give you a headstart in learning one.

She's not able to speak English fluently yet, but she's able to watch TV series without subtitles and she's able to actually communicate with other English speaking people when visiting other countries.

When I started learning more languages as an adult, I found that the biggest accelerator for me personally was likewise to read novels, even if they were way beyond my nominal skill level. The first 50-100 pages would be slow grinding, looking up almost everything in the dictionary, but then it would rapidly get faster and easier as I got used to common turns of phrases, idioms etc. And it was great for maintaining real motivation, wanting to read and understand these captivating stories by Eco, Houellebecq, etc.

That's a really interesting approach. I wonder if there are reading apps which have that dictionary integrated, but which still require a mouseover / tap to display it for a particular word (they are just using a translation language dictionary).

In my experience, a little hardship when looking up a word helps you remember it. Like having to alt-tab to a Google Translate tab vs just tapping the word inline, or having subtitles.

If it's too easy, then I found I'll look up the same words every time because it's too easy-come-easy-go.

Pleco is a high-quality dictionary app (for Chinese and only Chinese) which is currently moving into the space of selling ebooks. Dictionary features are of course integrated into the reader.

Kindle does this, both on device and in app.

I learned Japanese to a level where I can read novels without a dictionary, more or less. I just looked the words up one by one - I think the amount of time to look up a word actually made me learn them better. If I only saw a word once, I would be less likely to look it up. If a word I didn’t know always came up, I’d look it up and write it down. You also get lots of examples of how to use a word if you look it up - a definition alone is not always the best way to learn. If you are reading online, you can use the chrome plugin rikaikun to get a mouse over lookup. But I still prefer a hard copy and an electronic dictionary.

Look up LingQ

LingQ is great but too expensive for what it is, in my opinion. You could build a similar (unpolished) app in a month over some weekends.

Kobo does this.

I think that's both duolingo and more her effort to find ways to apply the language to her interests. I didn't have literature in my language classes and generally wasn't taught about the opportunity to "live" in my target language until I got to college IIRC.

Here in the US, we go hard on repeated rote memorization and mastery of minute things that don't matter as much.

This is compelling enough that I'm giving the app a try. Thank you and congratulations to your daughter.

>She didn't complete the full course, but has around 100-150 days of lessons

"Did wet streets cause rain or did rain cause wet streets" Did 100 lessons of treatment (duolingo) cause her to become proficient in English or are children with a natural proficiency towards language the ones that survive the treatment?

If only the strongest people survive having their blood drawn by leeches, it doesn't mean that leeches make you strong. Despite there being a high correlation in treatment outcome.

>Duolingo might not teach you how to speak a language fluently, but it definitely can give you a headstart in learning one.

That's a remarkable jump, to make that claim based on some rough assessment of a single person.

I didn't have duolingo but I still outperformed most of my colleagues who were in extracurricular English. What can I conclude from that?

Is no discussion permitted except presentation of double-blind, appropriately sized studies?

If you re-read my comment carefully, you will find that I am presenting another anecdotal counterexample, so I don't see where your coming from with that comment.

Also, we can discuss, but we should be aware that we can draw little to no conclusions.

The worst part of Duolingo is how boring it is to level up a skill to 5 when you already understand the topics taught. When learning German or Italian and testing out of the earlier levels, the exercise you get most of the time is just "sort these English words to translate the sentence". You can get it right all the time just by looking for a grammatically correct sentence with the most superficial of understanding. And if you really understand the sentence, you feel like you are wasting your time. What's the point? Let me take the level 4 or level 5 test directly!

I feel that over time, the app has been too optimized for user engagement instead of efficient learning. A/B test abuse, and looking at the wrong metrics.

I'm going through Duolingo to actually learn Spanish for the first time, and I definitely agree that the direct approach for leveling up a lesson to level 5 is... tedious at best.

Instead I'm taking a different approach. I'm getting each skill to level 2, which is the point right before lessons start asking you to type answers and take away the word bubbles. That gets me basic familiarity, and I move through the coursework fairly quickly. Then once I'm past a checkpoint, as I have extra time, I slowly level up the stuff I've already completed. Right now most of my coursework is level 2, and the top like 1/5 of it is level 3. So far, this seems to work surprisingly well; it's kindof a crude, guided spaced repetition. The practice feature does actual spaced repetition I think, but I like this guided approach more.

The other key takeaway of course is that the "subject" of a given lesson is a head fake. The vocabulary matches that lesson, but the app is also careful to sneakily introduce grammatical constructs over time as well, and if you don't read the tips (I don't if I can help it), then you end up picking up a lot of those rules organically. For example, "a la" (roughly "to the") condenses to "al" in Spanish, and that was never explicitly taught in a lesson, it was just introduced in a sentence one day. It was confusing... and then it "clicked" and I got a feel for it. That part is very neat.

Anyway, the app certainly isn't for everyone, but as a total beginner who's tried other language learning approaches, mixing Duolingo (for consistent vocabulary acquisition) with organic language sources (in my case: games and TV in Spanish) seems to be really effective. The app may feel easy, but it's working and I can feel my understanding in the organic sources expanding as I go. If nothing else, it also gives me a baseline; I can knock out my 50xp in 20 minutes or so, and I do that every day. I think eventually I'll be able to read at a basic level and then I'll leave Duolingo in the dust, but until then, as a total novice, it's been a good starting point, and that seems to be what it's trying to be.

> For example, "a la" (roughly "to the") condenses to "al" in Spanish

“a el” condenses to “al”.

You might want to get a book on Spanish grammar to cross-check when you encounter new rules.

Ha, I would mess up the example. :P You're completely right of course. I guess I assumed it applied to both genders, but I'm still picking up the gender of a lot of the words; that's not terribly intuitive.

(almost) All the nouns ending with "a" are feminine - la silla, la mesa, la casa, la luna, la montaña. (Notable exception: el agua). Also feminine all that end in "ción" such as: la nación, la configuración, la confirmación.

Almost all the other nouns are masculine - el carro, el niño, el oso, el barrio, el avión, el camión, el árbol.

Pretty sure with those 2 simple rules you will catch 90% of genders right.

Actually, agua is feminine. But it takes el instead of la because it starts with an accented a. The common language-learning advice is "Don't learn the genders of nouns; learn the articles that go with them." But it doesn't quite work in Spanish.

poeta, nauta are two -a nouns that are masculine; sofa if you count a with accents

Nauta and poeta are both members of a small set of profession words which are masculine despite being in the first declension (-a) in Latin. My textbook provided a comprehensive (again, small) list and just suggested they should all be memorized; the only other one I remember now is agricola, farmer.

Manus, hand, is one of an even smaller set of feminine fourth declension nouns. I believe this oddity has also been preserved in Spanish as "la mano".

This makes me wonder whether the Spanish words for trees tend to be feminine while having masculine-looking forms; that is regular in Latin.

most nouns ending in -ma (but not all) are masculine. Basically the ones with Greek roots. I was taught -ma is masculine like your mom.

> When learning German or Italian and testing out of the earlier levels, the exercise you get most of the time is just "sort these English words to translate the sentence".

Just for fun, I tried passing that test in three different languages.

Italian: I don't speak Italian at all, but with cognates and guesswork, I still managed to answer many questions correctly. Not enough to skip any lessons, though.

Japanese: I've been learning Japanese for maybe 6 months and the test result would've let me skip 60% of the course. That's despite the fact that I don't know any vocabulary related to some of those skipped topics (such as clothes).

Chinese: I'm fluent and answered all questions correctly, but was only skipped past 86% of the course.

>the app has been too optimized for user engagement instead of efficient learning

Yes. As an ad-supported app, the developers overwhelming motivation is to get users to take the next lesson, rather than to progress them toward mastery. The app seems designed to stimulate every reward center in the brain toward that end, the mechanisms for which usually ending up getting in the way of accessing the lesson content efficiently.

Duolingo also has a website, which is what I used studying German 6 years ago. Not only did it not have ads (don't know if that's still true), input with he keyboard was much easier and I felt gave me a little more memory than swiping a keyboard.

At that time each grammar lesson also had a page summarising the rules you were about to learn with examples and explainations.

From my experience most language learning products get boring once you advance. Happened to me with Pimsleur and also Duolingo. At some point you are ready for real conversation with people and the constant repetition that is necessary for the basics gets tedious.

Repetition is the mother of learning, as the old Russian proverb states.

The point is making a phrase really get memorized.

The Pimsleur method, which relies on a progressly timed learning technique really helps commit language to long term memory. It's audio only, but I really recommend then. I believe Ankh is based on this as well.

If you are interested in repetition, Assimil is similar.


> These are some of my favorite Christmas gifts because they're the only self-teachers I know that work. In just 20 minutes a day -- if you do exactly what they tell you to with the books and accompanying recordings - - then presto! You will be talking like, roughly, an unusually cosmopolitan 3-year old.


Pimsleur really hammers the language into you until it becomes instinctive.

Then make me type it in the target language.

you can switch between using keyboard input and word banks (at least on desktop)

and you only need level 1 of something to move on to the next lesson.

Yes, that's true. But level 1 doesn't force you to write in the target language - the real value is in the last level. You can go through the level 1 of all lessons relatively quickly, but you won't be actually learning.

Thanks. I wasn't aware of the distinction between the levels as I'm running them all up to five since Japanese is so completely foreign to me.

The Japanese course seems to be hated by the reddit crowd for learning the language, but it's been very beneficial to me. At least one reason is that if I stuck to writing the language in a workbook my progress on the language would be glacial. I would physically be able to write the characters better but would know a lot less of the language.

Too much repetition is inefficient.

Perhaps you have heard Russian epic of Cinderella?

> the exercise you get most of the time is just "sort these English words to translate the sentence". You can get it right all the time just by looking for a grammatically correct sentence with the most superficial of understanding.

I think this is just a regression that came in as a result of their mobile app push. They expected it to be difficult for new users to get started with input methods, so they replaced typing exercises with word arrangement exercises, this means that the whole answer is just sitting on your screen, which defeats some of the point.

You can fix this by configuring these exercise types to be typing rather than word rearrangement, there's a little toggle IIRC at the bottom of each of this exercise type.

I agree that in the last year or two they seem to have optimized for metrics which do not map well to linguistic attainment. IIRC they used to have speaking exercises, and as far as I'm aware those are gone (maybe they couldn't make them good enough that they weren't making some people worse at speaking).

Actually we can jump up a level directly with fewer than 4 mistakes. To take the level 4 test we only need to take three additional tests which would cost only about 20 minutes.

In the desktop web app you can at least always take a test to skip a level or four. On mobile you have to spend credits to skip.

You can do this on their mobile web app as well which is why I use that over the mobile application. The mobile web app experience is actually quite nice.

>"sort these English words to translate the sentence" //

If I remember correctly you can choose to type in the words, but on mobile it can be easier mechanically to choose the words from the list and place them in order. Later on I think it removes the choice in some tests and has you type full sentences.

I'm using Duolingo to learn my 4th language. My previously recent language was studied in the early 90's, for perspective.

Currently, I'm taking on Japanese. Becoming fluent with this app (or any other single app) is going to be just impossible. In isolation it will be a haphazard collection of phrases picked up at a glacial pace.

The pluses to Duo are huge, though. What some see as repetition to gain master on a mini-subject are of huge benefit compared just seeing the one or two sample sentences in a book, or hearing the same. I have to build sentences with the correct structure and I'm immediately graded and shown the answer.

As a self learner, there was nothing like this thirty years ago. With Japanese, there are particles which mark the different parts of a sentence. Sure, these are all in grammar books, but having them drilled into me and forcing me to construct sentences with them is hugely helpful.

There are lots of complaints that the Japanese course in particular is bad or leads to stilted speech, but at the structural level it seems to agree with the grammar guides and textbooks I'm also using.

Learning Arabic, I had a stack of textbooks three feet high and dozens of cassette tapes. Surely Duolingo replaces a large chunk of these, especially the starter ones.

It isn't good at bulk/breadth, and there is no speaking component.

Edit: I guess I'm saying I'm a huge fan of Duo (and other apps) as an addition to the tools available for learning a language.

I found the method outlined here [1] to be much more efficient than Duolingo.

[1] https://djtguide.neocities.org/guide.html#Now%20what%20do%20...?

It may vary depending on language but there's definitely a speaking component in Duolingo. In a language I am learning it gives a sentence in the native language, asks you speak it, and then grades you on a per-word performance. Only downside is that there is a really goofy 3-try limit that was probably a lazy work-around (instead of e.g. adding an optional skip option after 3 failures) to somebody getting permanently stuck.

Duolingo is not good for learning East Asian languages. For Japanese, it is particularly bad. Try LingoDeer instead.


For one, the accents of the speakers they are using are humorously bad for Japanese specifically

Yeah, but second version of the japanese tree is coming this may and I hope it will be much better

Memorizing in the form of a game did not help things stick.

Everyone who has learned a language says I need to talk to native speakers, this game is trivia.

I don’t think anyone is denying that. In addition to actually using the language with native speakers, it can help build vocabulary and grammar.

For Mandarin Chinese, I found the Chinese-specific apps HelloChinese and ChineseSkill to be much better than Duolingo. Duolingo seems to follow a one-size-fits-all approach, and it suffers when faced with a language with tones, a complex character system, a romanization system commonly used for learning (pinyin), etc. Those other two apps have been called Duolingo clones, but they were designed with Chinese specifically in mind and it shows, they're leaps and bounds better.

I also have found The Chairman's Bao (news, curated and graded by HSK level, together with pinyin, vocabulary, grammar points and questions associated with each piece of news) and various Coursera courses helpful.

There is also plenty of crappy apps and resources around, and probably much better resources than the current ones will be made, but if one chooses well, it's amazing how easier it is to learn a language now than ten years ago. Getting to any nontrivial level of Mandarin Chinese was all but impossible without classes, now it's doable.

Much appreciated. I have been learning Mandarin on Duolingo. It was mostly just for fun, but at some point it starts getting a bit frustrating (lack of notes, topics, reading longer texts).

I highly recommend Du Chinese for reading practice along with HelloChinese and ChineseSkill.

Frustration with Duolingo and Memrise when learning German led me to build a tool that could generate sentences in German and English simultaneously, while obeying the grammar rules.

In my opinion, the handful of hand crafted sentences they provide bundles way too much complexity together at random.

In a traditional text book, you'd get a dozen questions that are very similar, changing one or two aspects of a sentence.

Ich habe ein Buch. Sie haben ein Buch. Ich habe zwei Bücher.

So, I built a ClojureScript app that did just that. Sitting down and churning through hundreds of those allowed me to build an intuition for grammar rules that I knew on paper but would mess up when attempting to use them.

But it took quite a bit of time to write, especially when the sentences became complicated, so was almost certainly a net negative to my personal learning.

I had thought about building it out further, but I don't speak German so would need a partner, and ended up getting funding for something else so life took me in a different direction.

I do wish there were a product like it though, if anyone knows of anything similar I'd love to know. It's not that exotic, just a digitized textbook!

> So, I built a ClojureScript app that did just that. Sitting down and churning through hundreds of those allowed me to build an intuition for grammar rules that I knew on paper but would mess up when attempting to use them.

If you did not use an existing rules engine, would you please consider open sourcing what you have done to help others who are considering building something similar? Or describe more in depth how you did it?

The current tools I see out there like LanguageTool are quite horrid when it comes to expressing the rules.


I had a bunch of helper functions, but my view was that there's no way to solve it in general; building exercises would always involve writing annotations via a DSL.

You wouldn't be able to avoid hand crafting each sentence structure (like you were writing a textbook), but the advantage comes from being able to parameterize the generation of tests. You define where the holes are and what can go in them for a particular exercise, and the combinatorial nature of it yields thousands of examples, with tunable complexity, allowing you to crunch on a topic with enough variation that you still have to think and not get bored.

Ich mag rote Bücher, aber er grüne besser ist denkt.

It's been two years so es ist viellicht nicht richtig!

I don't think if you solve it this way, my solution would really be a helpful starting point.

I didn't have a plan for moving past the first year or two of learning, I think you could learn a ton of basics this way, but once language gets more subtle and varied you'd probably need to do something else entirely.

Also I don't know if this would work with other languages. German is extremely regular.

Thank you! Yes, German is very regular. I’ve also heard Russian is where you construct a cathedral of grammar so that you can begin speaking.

You might be interested in Grammatical Framework[0]. You specify an abstract grammar, and then implement it for particular languages. The system automatically conjugates verbs based on context.

It's not terrible, though the documentation isn't great.

Used it at my research job to convert English sentences to modal logic formulae and it was an alright experience.

[0] https://www.grammaticalframework.org/

Once you’re past a basic level you’re at least as well off using Anki cloze deletion cards for this. You take a news article or short story and break it into chunks and the app will show it to you with bits missing and you have to guess/remember what’s in the missing parts.

So this is the source card with four possible deletions.

[Alle glücklichen Familien_c1] [sind einander ähnlich_c2]; [aber jede unglückliche Familie_c3] [ist auf ihre besondere Art unglücklich._c4]

And this is one question generated from that card.

[...] sind einander ähnlich; aber jede unglückliche Familie ist auf ihre besondere Art unglücklich.

You could do the same with a grammar textbook but if you use authentic texts I find it more enjoyable. If you want known good translations project Gutenberg has many different translations of classic works and aligning parallel corpora is a solved problem in natural language processing. If you want simple sentence structures you could start with children’s books.

Yeah, I was always sure it would run out of steam eventually (as I said in another comment), but I do think that point is well beyond where e.g. Duolingo reaches. What I described is basic, but once you're generating sentences from data there is quite a lot you can do with it.

I also used clozes; once you're reading newspapers with high retention I doubt there's much use to what I'd build. I can tell you that clozing children's books does not at all fulfill the same role having done both.

You may be interested in Seedlang. It's not exactly an online textbook, but it does have a greater focus on grammar than Duolingo. It also has video lessons, worksheets, and a multi player "quiz show".

The best way to learn a language is to need to learn it. If you come in contact with a foreign language daily, it becomes much easier to both practice and motivate yourself to continue to practice. As someone who has spent thousands of hours learning a foreign language, I've come to the conclusion that I will never do it again unless I have a proper reason for it. Might seem obvious, but it's worth pointing out.

The best way to learn a language is spending a good size chunk of money. People are loss adverse. The need to extract value from the sunk cost is a powerful motivator. That's why in-person classes tend to be more effective than books. A book is always going to be there. Missing a class on the other hand is money down the drain.

I don't think this is true. I've spent lots of money on "necessary equipment" for my hobbies, and that hasn't made me commit more time to them. People buy expensive running shoes because they see themselves as being runners, and then they never put them on.

Running shoes don't integrate from lack of use. A membership at a health club, on the other hand, goes to waste if you don't use it.

Your language skills deteriorate without use as well. I used to know German at a passable level at school, I no longer do. I can see patterns ans know some words, but it's definitely heavily degraded.

Another, closely related, case is when you love the culture the language gives you access to. Learning a language without interesting books/movies/tv shows behind it will most probably be a chore.

> Learning a language without interesting books/movies/tv shows behind it will most probably be a chore.

What language doesn't have interesting items of culture behind it?

Anime and video games are a powerful cultural motivator for me learn Japanese because I enjoy those things almost daily.

Russia no doubt has interesting items of culture as well, but I am not exposed to them at all and therefore have no desire to learn Russian.

The first sentence is important. It's not about the abstract idea of "interesting items of culture" existing. IME they have to be already interesting to the learner to be a motivating factor.

Some people likely find any items of culture interesting. I'm not one of those people, and I suspect most around me aren't either, or we'd all know a lot more languages.

Personally, I like Spanish as a language and am learning it, and as a result I find that I have access to more Spanish movies/shows/books because I understand it better. It wasn't my goal, but it's a welcome perk, and my comment was mostly about the fact that even if you don't learn a language for it's culture, there's always a culture there for you to enjoy once you do.

That's fair. I suppose I treat learning a language as more utilitarian. I need the external motivating factor to stick with it.

Languages often have neat features, but that isn't enough for me to prioritize learning one above other things.

I plan to learn Spanish by staying in Peru for a 2 months. I would duolingo spanish before that and put everything together and accelerate when i am in Peru.

Thats the plan for now anyways :D.

How serious are you about learning Spanish?

One of the first things you will learn is the futility of “I am going to learn it in X months.” Try not to assign an unrealistic deadline (you don’t know what you don’t know), enjoy the long hike.

Think of Duolingo as, at best, riding a scooter or tricycle, if your goal is to ride a bicycle for a century (competency).

Check out iTalki. You can find hundreds of teachers for real live practice at reasonable rates. If you don’t click with a particular teacher, there are so many others to find a match with your schedule, learning style, and personality.


Buena suerte!

hey helps that my wife is Mexican :D but I've been lazy learning spanish all these years.

I just need a full immersion where i can enjoy the full payoff.

I know you are qualifying your efforts with the weasel word “lazy”, and I hate to break it to you but there is no magic bullet to learning a language after early childhood.

(Invested time x Motivation) ÷ Inhibition = Result


As the Spanish saying goes: los idiomas se aprenden en la cuna o en la cama ("languages are learned either in the cradle or in bed")

One of my acquaintances who is married to an Argentinian now does one day a week (Tuesday) in which they will only speak Spanish to each other the entire day and watch TV in Spanish. She is getting better. You might consider something similar.

You definitely have an advantage there. I hope you use it.

You don’t need full immersion. You just have to start vomiting words out.

Thank you for the inspiration regarding your acquaintance. I am trying this now with my wife who knows Spanish. We are doing Sabado por la mañana español. Lots of fun already!

No hay de que. Buena suerte!

The key, as you seem to already have found out, is to have fun with it.

There is a Portuguese saying along the lines of “Language is learned in public”. That is, to truly learn a language you must practice it in public spaces, with strangers and “danger” around.

haha yea definitely. we've talked about this for a while time to do it.

You might be able to speak colloquial phrases, but you will not be able to write correctly. For example, perhaps you will be able to order food from a restaurant, or say hello to a stranger.

As a "gringo" who lived in Mexico for a few years, I completely agree.

As far as language learning apps go I've gotten way more milage out of Clozemaster than I ever did out of Duolingo. At least for learning vocabulary Clozemaster's combination of spaced repetition and cloze-completions helps immensely (especially using it on free text input mode instead of multiple choice). That said Duolingo does help a lot more with the dead basics.

For context I could already speak Mandarin because I grew up bilingual but always found that I've have to laboriously re-learn vocabulary for literacy. Clozemaster seems like the most sustainable way for me to maintain an expanded vocabulary (in both Traditional and Simplified characters) that I've found.

I just do Clozemaster every time I sit on a toilet, pretty easy habit cue, if a bit gross.

Anyone else feel like language learning is overrated? (Yes I’m an uncultured provincial American and I’m sorry). Unless you frequently travel somewhere where another language is spoken, have family that speaks another language, or want to travel places like that, it’s hard for me to see why learning more about your own language, math or something, socializing, learning about how your government and society work, or something else wouldn’t be more rewarding in the long run. And, actually be able to give you some reward over a reasonable period of time (1 year) versus learning a language where I think you’ll reasonably at it for at least half a decade to achieve proficiency unless you’re really dedicated or move there.

I am Bulgarian and I fall into the same camp. English is the only foreign language I'm striving to learn and improve as I'm considering it a window to the world for knowledge. It gives me access to a vast amount of information which simply isn't available in a language spoken by around 9 million people.

Many of my acquaintances are into German, Russian or French, but I do not consider it an asset unless I'll be relocating to these countries.

As someone who has learned multiple foreign languages, I agree. I think everyone should spend a year or two learning a foreign language, like is done in many schools in the US. But beyond that the cost/reward ratio isn't worth it for everyone. If it's not something that you enjoy learning, and you don't expect to be exposed to a specific language, your time might be better spent focusing on other areas.

I don't think you get that much exposure to another culture just by learning their language, if you aren't also interacting with that other culture. I'm not saying that you don't learn anything, just that it's a very inefficient way of broadening your perspectives. For most people it takes a lot of effort to get to the point where you can have meaningful conversations in a foreign language. And if you speak English fluently, it can be a battle sometimes getting people to speak their language with you when they want to practice English or don't want to deal with non-native speakers of their language. So even I sometimes I feel like learning the language provided little practical use.

If someone has the opportunity to learn a language and then live in that country for a little while, I believe that is a very worthwhile experience. But it's not something that everyone has the opportunity to do.

Upvoted because I want to see replies to this question.

My intuition is that language learning has other positive effects than just the practical one of allowing you to converse with other people in that language. For instance you say that math would be more rewarding in the long run. But why? Most people really don't have a practical need for math past arithmetic. But your intuition is that it is nonetheless rewarding. I strongly agree! But I think the same is true of language learning, for very similar reasons.

But I don't really know if my intuition is right. Maybe someone else here has a better answer.

I'll reply. Firstly to the parent poster:

I'm a native English speaker who learned French to a conversational level (~B2 in the European Language Framework) before I left my home country. That language skill helped me get a job where I am now. The country I am in is multilingual, so the ability to learn languages and a willingness to make an effort with other languages is very important.

I can however understand this attitude, especially if you don't travel enough to warrant it and don't really need to use it. I feel sad typing this, because I am personally very interested in languages, but language skills in my home country aren't particularly valuable or desired and English dominates. If you decide to dedicate that time to learning a different skill, well I can't really fault that.

However I'd make some observations. Firstly, knowing some words even if you travel infrequently can be helpful. Secondly, according to wikipedia, 12% of the US speak Spanish, 29% in California. That's not nothing.

As to the benefits, I personally think there are numerous. People say you "understand the culture" or something but I'm not sure you get this unless you immerse in a native-speaking country. What you get on a purely linguistic level is an understanding of grammar, an understanding of some word roots (especially if you learn French, which had a significant influence on English as a result of the Normal invasion, or Latin. Similar benefits probably exist if you learn other romance languages or maybe German/Dutch), and an understanding of how that language influences how the speakers approach the world. Also, if you ever want to help a non-native speaker improve their English, it very much helps to appreciate the struggles they're going through.

Since this is HN, I don't think my language skills have improved my programming at all. I don't like duolingo.

I do think differently in every language I know, even swearing mentally has distinct hue. It's a good question how useful is that, but there is no question languages add certain perspective.

The thing I learned the most from my French studies was about English. Namely how difficult it must be for non native speakers. And how dominant English is as an international language. So it made me better appreciate being a native speaker.

Most things worth learning about have a qualia-like quality where you don't understand the value of learning them until you've learned them. Travel also has this quality.

Learning languages helps you with all of the things you'd prefer doing. I don't know anyone who studies comparative (or increasingly, American) politics without knowing at least a second language and ideally more. Learning other languages helps with knowing your own, or at least it did for me. Knowing languages clearly helps with knowing cultures, and that helps with socializing -- it's amazing what an ice breaker even, like, two weeks of training in a language is when you meet someone who speaks it. I've found multilingual fluency has helped me with coding as well.

Most immersion during language learning is essentially passive. Instead of reading the news or watching TV in your native language, do it in the language you're learning. Very little additional investment, huge reward.

Raw reality and experience is organized in subtly different ways in a different language, in a way that can't quite be fully translated "to learn about" to your native language. It is a bit like just reading about basketball in a book without ever playing any basketball or even watching an NBA game.. I am actually on the opposite side: I'm bilingual, but never truly mastered a third language, and always wondered if I'd feel it is "marginal" or would feel like an entire new world would open up like it did with a second language. I've spent a lot of time studying mathematics and I also feel like that substantially feels like learning an alien language to talk about space and structure.

> Unless you frequently travel somewhere where another language is spoken, have family that speaks another language, or want to travel places like that [...]

As someone who has studied a handfull of languages and have no talent for language learning I would agree. If you have no connection to the language and no desire to travel to a place where it's spoken, it would be like any other hobby. But if you want to get to know a culture in depth or work in another country it's pretty much mandatory.

There are numerous studies you can find showing how learning a new language helps the brain in various quantifiable ways such as increases in white and gray brain matter. But these can be discovered by a simple search, so let's consider other things. To start with only 372 million people speak English natively, with 611 million adopting it as a workable second language. A total of 983 million. Putting these numbers into context, the total worldwide number of English speakers is less than the population of China. The world today has around 7.7 billion people - 87.2% of them do not speak English.

This has implications beyond just communications. Many of us tend to think about things on a global scale. But when you learn another language, especially from a different language group such as Chinese/Arabic/Russian/etc, you'll find that our views and values tend to be very different than people in other nations. I mean I think we all intuitively realize this, but there's a difference between realizing something and actually seeing and experiencing it - such as by participating in discussion sites in a different language. How can we speak of ideas on a global scale with so generally little knowledge of the rest of the world? Suffice to say that our stereotypes of other nations (from which one might hope to at least glean some insight) tend to be no more accurate or insightful than foreign stereotypes of Americans!

The web is also rapidly reflecting this difference in language. The internet was 'born and raised' English, but non-English usage on the web (which currently makes up about 45% of the internet) has been growing far faster than English usage. Probably to be expected as English is likely near saturation, but it doesn't change the point that we're going to be trending downward for the foreseeable future on the internet. And perhaps far down if English's role as the 'global language' does not persist. By speaking only English you restrict yourself not only to a small slice of the real world, but what will also be an ever shrinking slice of the digital world.

And finally there are the typical arguments. Many other nations have incredibly rich cultures and histories. And these can all be unlocked with little more than the learning of a language. I'm not even really talking about books or arts from hundreds of years ago. This change and cultural difference is ongoing - movies, games, television, etc somehow have such a sharply different feel between nations. In the process of seeing these differences, you also simultaneously learn more about yourself and how your own experience has shaped who you are - which can also help you try to see things more impartially.

I think that in the context of learning foreign languages, you have to distinguish between the willingness to learn about "cultures" and the willingness to gain information unavailable in your mother language. You can still gain some pretty detailed information about the French revolution in English, and only if you wish to specialise closely on that subject, you'll probably need fluency in French. Conversely, you can learn a lot about Victorian England in French. I'm trying to illustrate the fact that important and valuable information is not necessarily siloed by language.

English is the defacto international language nowadays. I am Bulgarian, and after crossing the border with neighbouring Romania I'm using English, since the effort to learn Romanian is not worth the time when my intentions are just to travel there occasionally. The two languages are very different, and Romanians aren't willing to learn Bulgarian either.

Learning a language teaches you deeply about that culture and gives you perspectives on your own culture from the standpoint of another.

Maybe, but if that’s the sole purpose I would prefer to follow the traditional route of Latin/Greek classics

Learning a Romance language is like learning Latin with the added benefit of millions of people who can have a conversation with you around the world.

I'm learning Italian right now since I live in an Italian speaking country, but I would probably recommend Spanish or French if you want to pick a language with more geographical diversity.

I’ve used Duolingo for several years almost daily for 2-3 minutes to get started with learning Spanish (on a very longterm time horizon). It was a great way to start (because it felt like basically zero effort, other than establishing the daily habit which is naturally easy for me). Nowadays I read and watch Spanish-language news and write a daily journal in Spanish. I’m not at fluency yet but progress is steady.

It's a great way to start, and a great way to practice certain skills that are perhaps less oiled. I read foreign papers, listen to foreign music, and watch foreign films but that only helps so much with the actual speaking part of language. To those complaining of DuoLingo shortcomings, remember it's a part of language learning and not a one-stop-shop.

Practicing tricky conjugations and endings for languages is where DuoLingo is of most use to me, such that I keep up with my "language feel" so on-the-fly speaking isn't as mentally taxing. The times where I have taken extended breaks from DuoLingo would always end in my feeling as though I was getting rusty and not able to properly speak.

Also, thank you to whomever added the "leaderboard" feature to DuoLingo. Really brings out my competitiveness such that I now do something like 300 lessons per week as opposed to doing maybe 50 per week back in the day. Love when apps do things like that, helping me help myself.

Duolingo felt Like a massive waste of time to me. I don't remember it helping me beyond reinforcing my hiragana a bit. Multiple choice vocab training doesn't work and the amount you learn per day is way too low considering I did 30 minutes per day. After I switched to Anki my vocabs took off like a rocket. Duolingo basically cost me 3 months without learning anything. Of course back then I was lazy so maybe Duolingo helped me get started without losing interest quickly.

I feel similar way. Duolingo has the best gamification which actually works. But it didn't actually teach me much. I ended up moving to Rosetta stone (better in content, worse at keeping me interested). Then after getting some more experience I switched to lessons over Skype and don't regret it at all. This was for Japanese, which is not at the same level as the much more popular Spanish though.

This is purely anecdotal but I think it could be how most people will experience language study.

On my last flight from Japan, I sat next to a 20-something couple who spent a week in Japan. They told me they had a great time but they had problems trying to communicate. While most Japanese know a bit of English, they wanted to converse in Japanese and had incredibly hard time. Both of them spent 5 months studying Japanese on Duolingo on their phones and thought they had a decent grasp if language so they were surprised when they couldn't understand Japanese native speakers and couldn't speak it well enough for natives to understand them.

I never even heard of Duolingo before this experience and after trying ti myself for an hour, I can think of a half-a-dozen better ways to spend 5 months studying Japanese than to do work for Duolingo.

I was an early duolingo adopter but I feel that the app went nowhere if not down-hill. The main drive force at the beginning was learning a language just good enough and moving onto translating articles and comparing translations with other users and discussing these - that was a very intersting way of learning. Today you just grind simple questions on terribly designed courses. The writte material is an absolute joke and for the longest time wasn't even available on mobile.

Also this obsession with streak really killing motivation for learning. Someone should send duolingo the article that was on HN front-page few days ago about learning being more effecitve when taking breaks.

I've used Duolingo for several months (a year ago) to learn Spanish and when I visited Barcelona for the first time I was impressed by how I was able to put some every day phrases in use, things like "How are you? Can I have a coffee?" etc..

The thing I don't like about Duolingo is its curriculum and the way they structure their lessons. I found it very difficult to go from the early beginner stage to the more advanced phrases and vocabulary due to Duolingo trying to teach me phrases early on that made no sense, like the famous "The lion eats monkeys"[1].

A month ago I started using busuu[2] and I am loving it. They have a great structure, they are explaining it very well and I am able to understand fairly quickly[3]. Even better, they have setup a network where users can send exercises to other members (native speakers of the language you are trying to speak) and they will correct and rate them. The network is very active, as soon as I submit my exercise, a couple of minutes later someone will have corrected it. (Premium plan though, I made a 3 months plan, hopefully it will be enough to get me on track).

I would suggest everyone to give busuu a try.

[1]: https://em.wattpad.com/e5f4065cb909961cd40e0ff3c277e684f9b28... [2]: https://busuu.com [3]: https://imgur.com/a/3PrxDBH

Not sure when, but the spanish learning tree has been re-worked and thankfully there are no more sentences like that.

Those weird sentences make for a good laugh though. I was asked if I speak spanish, I've answered with a confident "El gato beben leche"

I learned Spanish 12 years ago by studying in Antigua, Guatemala then continuing to backpack through South America. I never felt that I learned Spanish until after about a month in Colombia where I had to use Spanish almost daily for the entire day.

I’ve tried DuoLingo for French and I’ve built several language apps myself. I think we’ll eventually get to the point where we can learn new languages from our phones but it will require a lot more content and interaction.

i haven’t updated my core apps in 4 years:


At the moment I’m merely trying to assist the learning process with simple games:

Word Search:

- https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/h4labs-word-search/id1311744...

Matching Games:

- https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/pictures-and-words/id1459560... - https://itunes.apple.com/sk/app/language-pairs/id1438817614?...

I’m looking for other ideas to build. At the moment, I’m working on a Verb Conjugation Game.

I’m also building Spanish verb rule database on Github:


I agree with the criticisms in this article. I currently have a 1.012 day streak on Duolingo, which I’m using to learn German, Esperanto, and Greek. I’ve “completed” the German course several times as the course was expanded, and even with the help of Clozemaster and Memrise I’m still only a B1 on an online CEFR test. It’s fine for the basics, but there’s no way it’ll make you good enough to, say, start working for a German-language software development company.

2000+ day streaker here, 5.5 years give or take, and I agree that the original article reads about right. I feel Duolingo hit the sweet spot roughly two years in, that is to say a good balance of introducing new vocab with revision of previous topics. It's still a very good way to pick up some basics, and I learned more with it than I ever did when I studied a language as part of my secondary education.

When Duolingo changed the way the skill tree worked a couple (?) of years ago it felt like it became more of a grind. I know they have some pretty smart people working on the app though, so I'm sure they're going in the right direction; but it feels like it's now easier to progress through the tree and the amount of vocab has been reduced, including hiding/simplifying the grammar study. IIRC in the original tree you had things like the "passé composé" introduced sooner, now they appear at a point that I suspect most users will have given up.

FWIW I tried Memrise early on and I didn't like the non-literal approach to the flash cards. I've been using Anki, which has some good decks but they can be questionable - for example the top 500 French words doesn't include the articles with the nouns, not a good thing.

Of course, the biggest things that have contributed to learning: moving to a French speaking country, switching all my devices to French, attending some classes, volunteering in a local gallery where I need to speak and use some vocab I wouldn't usually encounter. Still a long way to go though.

> 1.012 day streak

You are even using the German typographic conventions for numbers in the wrong language, I'm sure you're well on your way!

> It’s fine for the basics, but there’s no way it’ll make you good enough to, say, start working for a German-language software development company.

Sed cxu vi povas lerni suficxe da Esperanto, ke vi povus labori cxe Esperanta programaro kompanio?

According to [1] there are at least 8 more countries with that kind of a thousend seperator

[1] http://www.statisticalconsultants.co.nz/blog/how-the-world-s...

I’ve found no better technique than a language exchange partner. If you are learning Spanish, find a Spanish speaker trying to learn English. Meet up for an hour speaking English for 30 minutes and Spanish for 30 minutes. For me, this was the only way to put lessons into practice without the stress.

But it doesn't apply when it comes to unpopular(frankly speaking I am a Chinese and several years ago I tried my best to find a partner for English but failed) languages like Chinese.

Have you considering paying someone?

Since friends will be hesitant to correct you when you make a mistake, I recommend iTalki (https://www.italki.com) as it is considerably less inexpensive than in-person lessons/practice.

I would think Chinese is a pretty popular language for people to learn. Did you try the local university?

Duolingo uses too much translation and not enough real ear training or customisation to be effective. Translation agruably hampers fluency.

There is a method and book I used called Fluent Forever and I learned more Dutch before coming to live in NL over a few months than most people I've met who have lived there for many years. You can create immersion fairly trivially without being there physically...

Fluent forever (and their forthcoming app) works essentially like this:

- hearing and pronouncing new phonemes - 600 words in contextual sentences (with native speaker audio and self chosen images), using spaced repetition, helping you to absorb vocab and basic grammar without learning it directly. -continuing to build your own sentences and learn words while working occasionally with a tutor that you essentially employ to help you to get more words for flashcards and to speak in language for hours (italki is good for it). - buy grammar books and look for some good examples to apply rules into sentences about your own life / story so you can absorb more core grammar without verb tables etc.

I did buy frequency dictionary, target language native dictionary, grammar books, some literature and access to audio books in target language

It's not free but not super expensive either. Time commitment of ideally an hour a day 7 days a week was hard part.

As a non-native speaker in a non-English speaking country, spending time reading and writing comments on HN has, I think, greatly improved my English skills. I am always intrigued to discover new sentence structures and phrasal verbs put in real use. I have also found that the particular usage of English, that is, the writing style, the vocabulary, the bias, are to a large extent a reflection of the culture in English-speaking countries.

If you wrote more about the relationship between the language and the culture from a non-native perspective - I'd read it.

In my mother tongue (Bulgarian), the style of everyday communication is rather different. Ad-hominem arguments are not rare and are sometimes considered a legitimate way of reasoning, people are also expecting to receive and send "orders" when they communicate in a business environment. All of that doesn't foster any deep reasoning and leads to shallow conversations which change their direction quite sporadically.

Coming here to this website, I am able to enjoy a style of coherent communication where your arguments must be well-grounded and logically sound. In the relatively rare cases of applying personal bias while questioning the claims of others, you do so with much softer words and phrases.

For example, something like "I'd like to pretend that the issue is..." is a construct which can be translated to Bulgarian with a very similar grammatical construction, but it is virtually unused and would be considered outrageously snobbish and pretentious when used. We would just say "the issue is...".

This is fascinating; thanks for sharing.

I envy the author's persistence. 500 days of working on a task without skipping a day is impressive.

It gets easier to maintain habits the longer you've been doing them. Most people can manage a 500-day streak of brushing their teeth easily. So the trick is to integrate studying into your daily routine the same way, such that it will feel just wrong to skip.

It sounds pretty impossible to me. I don't think I've had a 500 day streak of anything that isn't a biological function in my life. In the last 2 years I've not even maintained a streak of eating food every day.

How do you not eat food for a full day if you are not purposefully avoiding it?

I want to go eat, but then something else comes up and I forget. After a while of feeling hungry the hunger goes away or is difficult to notice.

It is impressive, but you can buy items (with the in-app currency you get from finishing lections) that allow you to skip single days (or even whole weekends, IIRC).

That's correct - though you still need to log in to buy a Streak Freeze after it's used up, so you can't skip more than 48 hours. You can't "buy" multiple Streak Freezes in advance.

The Weekend Amulet is only offered after completing the lesson on Friday, as far as I can tell - you can't just buy them in the store, and they expire after the weekend is over whether you used it or not.

(I'm currently on an 872 day streak.)

I got a bit over a 500 streak but stopped after that. I felt that spaced-repetition on the words was more effective than whatever DuoLingo was doing, and DuoLingo's lesson for the language I was learning was not well maintained.

The gamification techniques DuoLingo's used made it much easier to maintain the streak. Albeit, it was really easy to just do DuoLingo "to get it done" rather than focusing on it as part of study.

If you travel this is just about required (I crossed the dateline on last night's flight, had no Saturday ....)

I am on my 561 day streak today and I subscribed to Duolingo plus a month ago to repair my streak because my streak broke due to the jat lag disorder in the U.S.A. Before that I kept a 80 day streak but didn't know how to fix it when I just skipped just one day.

Now it becomes a part of my routine to practice German on Duolingo. Everyday for only about 10 minutes, and I like the Duolingo stories feature very much now and I can practice even for about 30 minutes on weekends.

It only takes ~5 minutes per day. My girlfriend has well over 1000 days. I got ill at some point, forgot my streak freeze, and had to give up at around 500 or so. Then I lost interest... I did miss the whole update where they started with advertisements to pay for the application (which are akin to spam because apparently 'no' does not mean 'no'). I'd have quit over that regardless. Though perhaps a webbrowser or PWA would do the trick (I use the Android version).

That being said, I did learn quite some Spanish and I'm happy I did but I am not sure Duolingo (or Memrise for that matter which I also tried) works better than high school spaced repetition, Anki, or Pimsleur.

A lot of people have impressive streaks - https://duome.eu/

I don't think there's any way to verify these are legitimate streaks though, and haven't been paid for. The whole concept really fell apart after Duolingo started monetizing that aspect of the app.

Well, do what works for you. I know first hand that letting a massive streak end can jeopardize your interest in starting again, so a strike revival system actively helps people.

Looking at a global streak leaderboard doesn't help you improve your foreign language skills, so I'm not sure what "fell apart."

If you miss a day, then your streak has ended. That's just what the word "streak" means. By accepting money to look the other way, Duolingo is cheating those that actually have kept their streaks going legitimately.

It's a flawed concept to build a leaderboard on a pliable statistic. That's what I'm saying.

This is where conversational AI will be an incredible asset. Imagine being able to spend your commute with a personal language coach.

I feel we are only a couple years away from a Google AI blog announcement of a AI language teacher prototype.

They released an AI-powered language learning app two months ago https://bolo.withgoogle.com/intl/en/

Don't try to learn 100% of what you know about a language from an app; and if you can manage to install an input method for your target language, toggle those "rearrange these words" exercises into typing exercises.

If your target language has any media you enjoy watching (this is hard for me with Mandarin, and to some extent Japanese, since I find most of the TV shows basically unwatchable), consume that with subtitles, and pay a bit of attention at first to how things are said. If you hear a new word or phrase which sounds useful by its translation, repeatedly transcribe the phrase in the target writing system, and get a feel for why it means what it does.

Duolingo is a tool, but just as you should not attempt to build a house with only a carpenter's hammer, you should not attempt to learn a language with only Duolingo.

Slightly off topic, but if you are multilingual, teach your kids. My parents are fluent in Japanese, Spanish, Kekchi, ASL, and English between the two of them. But they didn't bother to teach me or my siblings, so we only speak American English.

Duolingo works for languages that have grammar the same or nearly the same as English (or possibly whatever language you're learning it in), but when you try to learn something like Japanese it is almost entirely useless.

Hey, that sounds interesting. Could you elaborate? As a native Japanese speaker, I’d like to hear your theory.

I used Memrise until I got bored: being forced to learn and repeat ad nauseam words that I'm sure I will never use is stupid. Since then I use an Anki deck with selected words/sentences picked from a Polish newspaper and a cheatsheet[1], that I should update more often, for patterns and macro understanding.

[1] https://github.com/archimodels/learning-notes/blob/master/no...

Doulingo seems to be a solution to learning a language but it's only a tool to help you.

Even after a long time of using Duolingo most users will not have the ability to have a simple discussion.

The Pimsleur method is infinitely better for learning to speak a new languuage. With Pimsleur, you can learn the response to given situations. Also waiting to learn reading, writing and the grammar of a language is probably better after you have a basic understanding of the language since you start to equate words with the way you would pronounce them in your language rather than the one you want to learn.

There is nothing like speaking the language to learn it. Duolingo is good as a side tool to help you learn but not your primary method.

If you want to learn a language there are better ways to get to fluency. Duolingo is good at keeping you engaged so use it in conjunction with another method to help you learn. Unfortunately, there are no easy ways to learn. You have to put the effort and time.

I think there is no substitute for old style learning, teacher, classroom and stress of memorizing about 20 words for the next class. Did anyone use those small format notebooks with two columns so you can effectively examine yourself? One column for foreign word and second for mother tongue word?

Thats how we learned English in school and for me I can say I never learned the vocabulary and I was not great in English examens either. The reason I am a C2 English speaker by now is that school gave me a good foundation (but did not bring me to fluency) and then mostly by using the language on the web due to my interests and the availability of information. I learned a lot just of English as a side product of some other productive or recreational activity.

That's interesting. I have been under the impression for years that no one has ever learned a language successfully this way.

I think it is great for vocabulary. But vocabulary is only a part of knowing a language. Apps mostly aim at vocabulary, and while approach is similar I think it is much better to stare at a paper notebook then your smartphone screen.

I am a Chinese and I am learning German on Duolingo in English and sometimes learn English in German. I am on my 561 day streak today and I find it is very useful.

Before practice I can learn the related grammar and the newly added stories feature and tinycards function is of great help(glean words in context).

I've been learning French and German throughout the last years, and I tried different setups. I came to the conclusion that apps like duolingo lack a consistent (or any) narrative, following a set of characters that interact with each other and the world. A good example for German is Deutsche Welle: https://learngerman.dw.com/en/overview

I've recently written more on the topic in my post on linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/why-duolingo-bad-way-learn-la...

Duolingo is s fun mobile game that happens to have words in different languages. It uses all modern gamification and addiction technics to keep you hooked.

However, the very act of using the app means you are willing to learn a new language. As a consequence, you will learn more about those languages through other external factors, like people or paid programs.

If Duolingo's only purpose is to keep you interested into learning long enough to learn languages externally, then I guess that's not too bad either.

I wrote about my own experience of 383 days here: https://idiallo.com/blog/no-spanish-with-duo

This link is a joke, but it would be a very effective way to learn a language. I'd guess everyone of you can understand almost everything said, even if they don't speak Spanish:


And I can imagine the lessons/clip getting progressively more advanced. Has a course based on narrative clips been actually tried to anyone's knowledge?

(If it was made in the soap opera style (and budget), it wouldn't even be that expensive to make).

Michel Thomas is, in my humble opinion, having been crap at languages though school and having tried many alternatives THE MOST AMAZING THING EVER.

If you have a logical brain (as I suspect many HN readers do) and like to know how and WHY the language works as it does. And be able to make sentences from day 0. Try it. It’s amazing. And he’s also an amazing dude. Check him out on Wikipedia. Ex-french resistance. Tried to bring the world together with language. Recorded each CD in one take just from memory. A true legend.

Duolingo and other apps are fine to build passive vocabulary (the words you can understand) up to some level, but the real issue for me is the lack of a real "speaking" component.

Frequent speaking practice is key to build your active vocabuary (the words you can use). It's also key to build your confidence in using a language.

Shameless plug: that's why we are making an app that really makes you speak: https://en.globers.co/

Both of our teenagers use Duolingo to “top up” their in person foreign language classes at school.

They are both categorised as “above expectation/level”.

Hard to ascertain how much additional value Duo Lingo adds, but in aggregate it seems to be helping.

However, I wonder if there would be a way to effectively match students learning opposing languages to help each other one in one via Zoom?

We’re certainly grateful for the free language support!

Even though I've only ever lived in Canada and the US, I feel like I could benefit from learning more English. I realized this when I watched my kids diagramming sentences and thought back to how I was never able to master anything beyond basic noun, verb, pronoun, adverb stuff. I'm talking about things like participles and perfect tenses and articles.

I'm not really sure what you could gain from that. Language is not the stuffy study of hard and fast rules, but a constant negotiation between what the listener is capable of understanding, and what the speaker will compose.

In the same way that unexamined Ebonics is not just crappy English, unexamined Standard American English is not just crappy English.

Whether you're aware of the underlying rules or not, you're following those rules when you're understood, and you're breaking them when you're not.

> I'm not really sure what you could gain from that.

Are you saying that as someone that has a good understanding of English grammar?

I was thinking that in the same way have a better knowledge of basic physics or chemistry can help me cook or fix my car, better knowledge of my language could help me understand and be understood.

For example, in one of my previous jobs I received a critique saying I should stop using the passive voice when I write. It's a habit I haven't been able to break and my first draft of anything I write is still very passive. Frankly, I don't have a good idea of what makes something passive on paper.

> Are you saying that as someone that has a good understanding of English grammar?

I have a very strong working understanding of English grammar, but I couldn't recall many of the concepts concepts by name. I think I'm roughly at the same place as you on that matter.

> I should stop using the passive voice when I write.

That is a great idea. For people who have trouble sticking to habits, I always suggest using a tool like http://hemingwayapp.com/

Tools like this give you practice recognizing patterns you don't want to see in your writing. People I've suggested it to have found it very useful.

> hemingwayapp.com

That's pretty neat. Thanks for the link.

I ran my previous comment through it and my comment requires an 8th grade reading level and was scored as good.

My paragraph that starts "I was thinking" is marked as very hard to read. My "For example" sentence is hard to read. I used one adverb (frankly), and used the passive voice once (be understood). I'm not sure I see the problem with be understood.

I still remembered when i first time learn Russian.

I have no idea of Russian, and my dad told me that: /Ro-di-na/ means country.

I feel, OK, i can feel it. It's not too hard to me.

That's why, learning foreign language needs a way to tell user s that: It's not that hard, here's it is. Country is blah lbah, "what's your name" is blah blah,...

The Lojban community is regularly asked about Duolingo courses. The sad fact is that Duolingo makes money off of volunteer-contributed courses, and as a result, we cannot incentivize any Lojbanists to take the time required to produce Duolingo courses, since they know that an un-Lojbanic startup will profit from their work.

I've done duolingo for the last two months - it's much better to think of it as a fun game with some learning on the side rather than anything serious.

Aside, the leaderboards are unironically a great feature. It gives a great incentive to practice more rather than reaching your required 50xp.

I agree with the article insofar as that learning a language solely via an app is not effective. However, I do not get the impression that the author actually has much experience learning languages through other means.

  > The phrase “learning a language” is deceptively reductive. A language isn’t a  
  > singular monolith, but rather a complex interconnected system of components  
  > that build a way to communicate. The lexicon consists of the individual  
  > words, which speakers have to memorize. The syntax and grammar tell speakers  
  > how to properly structure those words in a sentence. Then there’s the writing  
  > system, which is the visual representation of words or sounds that allow  
  > words to be constructed (for example, in English, the writing system is the  
  > alphabet).
And, more importantly, there is also the task of learning the meaning of words in common idioms, as well as learning to recognize implicit meaning. Understanding syntax and individual words will never help you understand sentences like, for example, "sorry, I just had to get it out of my system". It will also not help you recognize the tone of a piece of writing.

  > Duolingo often just drops a new particle on you without much explanation of
  > what it does or even that it’s a particle at all. Memrise handles this a bit
  > better, with lessons dedicated to how certain particles and grammar work, but
  > it helps to have external lessons, an instructor, or best of all a native
  > speaker to help explain some of the finer points of nuance in a language’s
  > grammar.
It is debatable whether external lessons have an advantage over lessons in a mobile app, but that a native speaker is "best of all" suited to explaining the grammar of a language is a bold-faced lie. Native speakers do usually not understand grammar at all, because they have no reason to. (They do, however, almost universally across cultures often love giving an answer to grammar-related questions that you ask them, to avoid admitting to their lack of understanding.)

  > You can learn as many words or sentences as you want, but until you’re able
  > to have a conversation with another person, you’ll never be fluent. [...] For
  > that reason alone, learning a language with an app should be a starting
  > point, not the end. If you make it through an entire Duolingo skill tree or a
  > Memrise lesson plan, it might be time to upgrade to an in-person class, or
  > you might want to find a native speaker to practice with.
I think this more balanced assessment is the most important takeaway from the article. When learning any language, through any means, you will never progress beyond a basic level without practice. Practice does not necessarily have to entail having an in-person conversation, but you absolutely need to actually make use of the language skills you're acquiring: watch TV, write a blog, read a book, call someone, and so on.

Personally, I don't really recommend taking an in-person class if you already use an app and a textbook to learn. Sure, you can ask the instructor questions about particular grammar points that you encounter in your studies, but generally, if you're asking questions about grammar, you're doing language learning wrong. The human brain is much better suited to understanding and producing human language than it is to parsing text from a Backus-Naur form, so that's what you should focus on. A Japanese child doesn't understand the purpose of every particle either, but she easily beats you in fluency.

Related TED talk (good despite the sensationalist title): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0yGdNEWdn0

> Personally, I don't really recommend taking an in-person class if you already use an app and a textbook to learn.

I think there are cases where it really pays off to have a real lesson to improve your experience. There are situations which are not possible to explain in a concise/picture way, duolingo-style. They may be also hard to figure out from generic rules from a book. But having someone to ask - "so what is the reason behind this specific use?" can save you hours of study and many mistakes.

Even worse, learning without interaction with someone who can correct you may result in you learning something that's not true. But you kept repeating it and it only became harder to get rid of the issue. That's my experience from learning Japanese from Duolingo and Rosetta.

As far as taking an in-person class, if you tend to be the type to research things and think about them rather than doing them, then a class is an amazing resource:

- other students to practice with (new friends who share an interest!)

- a teacher you can ask questions and build a relationship with (if they're a native speaker, this can be motivating)

- you're forced to listen, speak, read, and write, often before you feel ready

I started with language courses, and lucked out with a great teacher and fun students. I spent lots of time with the language and advanced really quickly, and my classes were perfect places to try out my new knowledge. I still remember one day we were having some natives over to interview, and I racked my brain to come up with interesting questions; one of them was 'What's in your fridge at home?'. My point is that my class was a great place to try out what I was learning at home on my own time. Also lots of fun memories.


I'd agree on asking questions about grammar; it's possible to study the language instead of learning it. What I mean is that studying and having the skills - speaking, writing, etc - are two very different things.

As far as learning grammar, this cycle proved extremely effective for me:

- Learn about grammar in class

- Learn about grammar on my own (e.g. compare English and Russian grammar [1])

- notice new grammar in whatever I was listening or reading

Jim Scrivener (an English teacher and teacher trainer) writes this about grammar in 'Learning Teaching' (p. 253):

"It seems likely that learners have to do a number of things to be able to start making any new grammar item part of their own personal stock of language.

They probably need to have _exposure_ to the language; they need to _notice_ and _understand_ itms being used; they need to _try using_ language themselves in 'safe' practice ways and in more demainding contexts; they need to _remember_ the things they have learnt." [2]

So it follows from this that learning needs to be a very rich process - bursting at the seams with context and emotions and lots of words; where Duolingo and the others are more similar to a Greek salad: not bad, but you're not getting everything you need.

So use language learning apps, but make sure your language learning diet is giving you everything: lots of exposure, time to notice and understand, opportunities to practice - from easy to demanding, and plenty of review. If you have a healthy diet - lots of exposure to the language - then you'll review grammar structures and words as a natural part of your listening/reading.

1: https://www.amazon.com/English-Grammar-Students-Russian-Lear... 2: https://books.google.com.ua/books?id=vPWdBgAAQBAJ&pg=PT8&dq=... (different book, same quote)

I have assumed that something like Alexa would be the next obvious quantum leap for language learning - is anything like that out there?

I used to think Duolingo was awesome, but after using Mango Languages, I changed my mind.

Duolingo was fun for learning words and ‘playing games’ but that didn’t hold my attention for very long... despite loving language learnings.

Mango languages on the other hand taught me to speak and kept me rolling for over 6 months and counting! It focuses on phrases and does a great job building up from small to larger... and sneaking in grammar lessons. I absolutely love it and am so impressed

They need to make the sentences more complex/challenging. To me it feels too much like grinding in WoW.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact