If you’re looking to learn or practice a language on an iPad app, Duolingo (free) is indisputably the way to go. The app and program are both 100 percent free, and they still outshine practically every other language-learning app I’ve seen—even the very expensive ones. Your major limitation will be whether Duolingo supports your language of choices, as the list remains tight. Fortunately, Duolingo does include many of the languages most studied by English speakers: Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Portuguese (Brazilian). It also has an English (American) learning program for speakers for those languages, except German. While it’s not available in the iPad app, the website for Duolingo also includes Mandarin.
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 diagram, and the app keeps track of your progress synchronously across all the places where you can use Duolingo, from the Duolingo iPhone app and Duolingo Android app to and the Web version. It always remembers where you left off, and it even saves offline the current lesson you’re studying and a few near it so that you can continue learning no matter where you are without eating up all the free space on your device.
Is It Fun? Does It Work?
I’ve been using Duolingo regularly since it was first released in late 2011. 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, phrases, and grammar in Spanish.
The mobile version of Duolingo is, in several ways, easier to use than the Web app. Typing special characters, like letters with diacritical marks, takes almost no effort on a smartphone or iPad. Just press and hold the letter you want until other options pop up above it. The Web app handles diacritical marks well (a few options always appear on screen that you can click, so you don’t have to learn any difficult keyboard shortcuts), but the iPad app just does it better, and with more ease.
Another neat feature: When you see a sentence in the foreign language that you have to translate to English, you can type using voice commands and Siri, thus minimizing the amount of typing you need to do on the tiny screen.
The Duolingo Web app emphasizes writing quite a bit. The iPad app swaps out about half the writing with an exercise that lets you build a sentence from a group of available words, which you have to put in the right order while also ignoring some words that don’t belong at all. Thankfully, the iPad app works in both portrait and landscape mode, so you can maximize the keyboard size when you do need to type.
Duolingo paces the activities in the 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 iPad app to let you breeze through the activities just a bit quicker.
A Few Flaws
My partner got hooked as well and completed the French program in its entirety. At higher levels, he reported an increasing number of inaccuracies, which any user can flag so that Duolingo’s developers can eventually correct them. The higher the level, the fewer the users to spot and flag such problems (and I would bet the lower the priority for the team to fix the errors). For the most part, it’s easy to overlook an error here or there, but it becomes irritating when you fail a section because you’ve answered too many questions “wrong” when you weren’t in fact wrong but have to restart that section anyhow. These instances are not too common, however, and are quite rare in the lower levels.
Another minor issue for mid-level or experienced speakers of other languages is that Duolingo does not easily let you skip ahead. You can test out of sections one at a time, but doing so requires serious time to advance far. Some language learning programs, such as Babbel (requires a membership from $12.95 per month), let you skip around willy-nilly, while others, notably TELL ME MORE ($199 for a three-month Web pass, direct) and the Lingualia iPhone app (free; Spanish-English only) have an assessment test that makes sure you start at the right point in the program.
If you are not 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—a unique part of the program that’s current absent from the mobile apps (but according to the company will return soon).
Duolingo’s real claim to fame is how it uses translations. On the Duolingo website, once you’ve successfully completely a number of lessons, you have the option to practice by translating real content from the Web, such as news articles and blog posts, 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, without ever leaving the screen. When you finish the translation, 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. (You can learn more about how this part of the program works in founder Luis von Ahn’s TED talk about massive scale online collaboration.)
In my months using Duolingo and all its mobile apps, including the newly released Duolingo iPad app, I can easily say that they are the best free tools for learning a language you’ll find on the Internet. Duoligo is our Editors’ Choice for language-learning iPad apps, and Duolingo in general is our Editors’ Choice for free language-learning all around.
The Duolingo iPad app works simply, and with excellent consistency across the other versions, handling special characters with greater ease than even the full Web version. It’s an ideal way to practice Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Portuguese anywhere, whenever you have a few minutes on your hands.
For more recommendations, see The Best Language-Learning Software.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc