duolingoInspired by Joanna’s article on reading French, I decided it was time to brush up on my long-neglected college-level French. I was looking for a good book or app when I stumbled across Duolingo. It’s free (with no in-app purchases), and more important, it’s fun.

I like their approach to learning. Unlike my long-ago (and much despised) French classes, the app doesn’t start you out with conjugating verbs. Instead, they use an immersive approach and let you dive right in. The exercises are varied and teach reading comprehension, writing and speaking, assuming you’re using a device with a microphone. My favorite exercise is the one with the cards to select the correct words to translate a sentence. (I don’t have to remember spelling!)

See those little hearts up at the top of the screen? You lose those when you get something wrong.

I haven’t yet lost all of my hearts in a lesson, but I assume if I do, I fail and have to repeat the lesson. See the little bottle? As you progress through the lessons, you earn XP (more on that later) and Lingots, which are the app’s version of currency. You can use Lingots to purchase replacement hearts, just in case you are having a really hard time with a lesson. That bottle is my reserve heart. I hope I don’t have to use it for a while. The early lessons give you four hearts per lesson. The lessons I’m on now give me three, and I’m assuming they will go down as I progress. That’s why I’m saving my Lingots now. I suspect I’m going to need them later.

When you complete a lesson you receive 10 XP plus one for each remaining heart. XP are used to track your progress and allow you to level up. (I just made level 4 today!) They are also used by your coach to keep you on track for each day. You tell the app how fast you want to progress, and that sets the XP level you need each day to stay on track.

Isn’t my coach adorable? I love being coached by a cute owl in a track suit. You can also spend Lingots to upgrade his outfit, but I like it, and I don’t want to upgrade. My current goal is 20 XP a day, which is basically two lessons. Somewhere around the middle of the day, you’ll get an email and a notification if you haven’t done any lessons. It’s hard to forget to play…I mean study.

Of course, there’s a social element to the game. You can hook up with friends and keep track of them and their progress. There’s a leader board for each week (I’m in the lead on mine). It’s not a big motivator to me, but some people love that sort of thing.

There are only a handful of available languages right now. If you are an English speaker, you can learn Spanish, French, German, Italian and Portugese. There are also English learning options for speakers of  Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Italian, Dutch, Russian, Polish, Turkish, and Hungarian. They have other languages under development, so check back if the one you want isn’t yet available.

So far, after a week, I really like Duolingo. It’s fun but challenging, and the teaching style suits me. I’m not sure what level of proficiency I’ll have by the end, but I’m hoping to have enough vocabulary to start reading some easy French stories.

Duolingo is available for iOS and Android.


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