Learning a new language takes a lot of time and practice, and usually a lot of money, too. But one service, Duolingo (4 stars), has proved that great language-learning material doesn’t have to cost a dime. The Duolingo website has been one of my favorite places to brush up on foreign words and phrases, and the iPhone app, which has offline content so you can keep learning no matter where you go, is equally stellar. Welcome to the circle, Android users: the small company behind this great language program has finally launched a Duolingo app for your mobile devices, too.
I’ve used Duolingo on the Web and iPhone over many months to brush up on my Spanish, but also to complement some self-learning from scratch that I had been doing in German using the audio-intensive Pimsleur program. The Android version is quite similar to the iPhone app. Overall, Duolingo works best, in my opinion, when you couple it with some other language-learning program or practice, or to refresh a language you’ve studied before. But it’s an excellent app and service, and as far as truly free mobile apps for language-learning go, Duolingo is easily the best. It’s even better in my opinion than a few paid language-learning apps, such as Living Language iPad app (requires $19.99 in-app purchase) and the mobile apps for Babbel (requires a membership from $12.95 per month).
From a user’s perspective, Duolingo works like most other language-learning programs. You work through exercises or activities to complete lessons, which are part of larger units. The structure is clear, shown on a tree in Duolingo, and the app keeps track of your progress synchronously across both the Android or iPhone app and the Web version. It always remembers where you left off, and on the mobile platforms, it saves locally the most recent lessons you’ve completed (so you can repeat them if you only barely passed) as well as a few upcoming lessons.
Languages on Duolingo
The most obvious holdback for Duolingo is it doesn’t have programs in as many languages as some other companies who have been making language-learning content since the early days of books-on-tape. On Android, the options for English speakers are Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Portuguese for now. There are a few other computations if you count speakers of other languages studying English.
If you need to practice a language that may be hard to find, try Rosetta Stone Version 4 TOTALe, which is pricey but very good for beginners, or Pimsleur as a low-cost option (a couple of audio-only units will cost in the neighborhood of $25, depending on the language and delivery method).
Duolingo Exercises on Android
Like the iPhone app, the Duolingo Android app walks you through various exercises to help you practice reading, writing, listening, speaking, and translating your language of choice. You can actually sign up to study as many of the included languages as you want, and a clear menu option lets you toggle between your different courses.
Duolingo’s exercises take only a few seconds to complete, which is appropriate for a mobile app. You might, for example, be asked to translate a sentence from English to Spanish or vice versa. Sometimes you’ll type the answer long form, and sometimes you’ll piece it together from a list of suggested words (compared with the Web app, the Android app swaps out about half the heavy-duty typing with this latter exercise, which is appropriate on the smaller screen). Sometimes the app asks you to speak a phrase or two, and sometimes it asks you to pick the correct translation from a multiple choice list—and there might be more than one correct answer. You can see a few examples of the kinds of exercises included in the app in the slideshow.
The mobile app (and Web version for that matter) support learning through speaking, too, although you can opt out of exercises that require the microphone in the settings if you don’t want to be overheard in public speaking broken French into your phone.
Real World Translations
There’s another component that makes Duolingo different from any other language-learning app I’ve seen: the way it includes real-world translation as part of its learning. Once you’ve successfully completed a number of lessons, you have the option to practice by translating real content from the Web into English.
Because you may not have been exposed to every word from this random sample of text, you can always look up the meaning of words while you’re translating by just touching them. When you finish a translation, which is generally a sentence or two, Duolingo checks whether other learners have translated the text similarly, and scores you on your agreement.
Everyone on Duolingo can also rate one another’s translations, which is how Duolingo determines which translation is “best.” Duolingo then uses that the translated text to make the Web available in more languages. Translations aren’t mandatory to progress in the program, so you can skip them entirely or experiment with them as you feel comfortable. For more experienced speakers of other languages, the translations will likely be the most challenging part.
Is It Fun? Does It Work?
I’ve been using Duolingo regularly since it was first released. While using the program to learn German and practice my very-rusty Spanish, I’ve definitely increased my German vocabulary and have had some success refreshing my memory of verbs and phrases in Spanish. In Spanish, where I moved more quickly to higher levels, I have noticed some inaccuracies here and there in the content. Occasionally, I’ll find an exercise in which the supposed correct answer didn’t necessarily make perfect sense. These instances are not too common, particularly in the lower levels, and when I do see them, I often also see a discussion about them with other community members. Duolingo lets you flag potentially wrong exercise answers and follow the progress as they’re discussed and fixed. I’ve even signed up to receive email alerts when activity occurs on an exercise I’ve flagged.
The Duolingo mobile app is, in several ways, easier to use than the Web app. Typing special characters, like letters with accent marks, takes almost no effort on a smartphone, for example. Just press and hold the letter you want until other options pop up above it. The only odd exception I found was the inverted question mark on the Samsung Galaxy S III was located elsewhere, but thankfully, even if you leave it off where it’s needed, Duolingo will not mark your answer wrong.
Duolingo paces the activities in the Android app superbly. Short sessions work best on mobile devices, and while the content is almost identical to the Web version, enough of it is slightly truncated or tightened up in the Android app to let you breeze through the activities just a bit quicker.
Another minor issue for mid-level or experienced speakers of other languages is that Duolingo does not easily let you skip ahead to the point in the program that’s right for you. You can test out of sections one at a time, but doing so requires serious time to move far ahead. Some language learning programs, such as Babbel, let you skip around willy-nilly, while others, like TELL ME MORE ($199 for a three-month Web pass, direct) have a thorough adaptive assessment test that makes sure you start at the right point in the program. If you aren’t a beginner, Duolingo’s exercises still work pretty well for practice, but if they’re not challenging enough, you’ll want to spend more of your time working on translations.
Duolingo for Practice
In my months using Duolingo and its mobile apps, I can easily say that they are the best free tools for learning a language, outside of moving to a foreign country and hanging out in cafes and parks all day long. Seeing the mobile app on Android is a huge step in the right direction for Duolingo. It opens up the world of learning to so many more people.
The Duolingo app works simply, handling special characters and some translations with greater ease than even the full Web version. It’s an ideal way to practice Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Portuguese anywhere you have a few minutes on your hands. Duolingo is the best free language-learning app you’ll find for Android, and the best free language-learning program available, making it a PCMag Editors’ Choice.
For more recommendations, see The Best Language-Learning Software.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc