Two of my housemates are learning things on the Duolingo app right now -- I think one of them is doing French and the other Spanish, but don't quote me on that. I signed up for the free version, and currently have nine languages running, because that'll keep me from getting bored and blowing through the entire skill tree on any one of them in like three days. I've spent the past two hours poking at it, because I currently have one of those plagues that's long on extra snot and short on oxygen, and I can do nothing that takes me more than lunging distance from a box of tissues.

Au début, j'ai découvert que je fais du français encore assez bien, lorsque je me suis remplie des drogues. Duolingo will give you a fluency score; it tops out around 50-60%, because Duolingo isn't life, and right now my French hovers around 53%. It would probably be higher, but I'm far enough into it that it's asking me to translate things that can be said in a number of slightly different ways, and my first guess is not always the exact one the program wants. It's an irritating variation on the Guess What Verb The Parser Knows game from the old Infocom text adventures, particularly when I know full well that if I had said it that way to an actual human, it would have worked fine.

It sometimes wants precise translations and sometimes wants contextual equivalents, and sometimes it wants precise translations that are just plain ol' wrong on both counts. The French lessons, for instance, translate the pronoun on as 'we'. It is not; on is the impersonal "one", as in "One speaks French in France." Inasmuch as it is a third-person singular pronoun, it takes the same verb conjugations as he, she, and it. If you would rather translate it into the less-formal English equivalent, it almost always maps to the impersonal "you", as in "You speak French in France."

Also irritating, and sometimes obstructive, is that Duolingo does not explain grammar. The sets of lessons might be captioned 'Prepositions', but it never explains what a preposition is, nor is it very good at taking into account the fact that some of them mean slightly different things depending on context, and there is not a one-to-one correspondence to prepositions in English. You get present-tense verbs without an explanation that the 'verbs' and 'is verbing' forms are the same in French/German (and not the same in Spanish or Japanese). It really plays fast and loose with the Japanese translations, where it will demand you guess the exact pronoun it wants despite the fact that this information is literally nowhere in the sentence they want you to translate -- Japanese often leaves pronouns off, and since Japanese doesn't conjugate for subject you can't reconstruct it with 100% accuracy from an out-of-context phrase.

These inconsistencies are especially rage-inducing when you're doing the bonus skills, like flirting or idioms. Duolingo expects you to guess what things mean by looking at how they're used in a sentence, but because they want the equivalent idiom in English, and never give the exact translation of the French one, they're fucking up the pattern you're supposed to be picking up. Their translation of Ça va, ça vient is "On again, off again", which is not what those words say. Le monde appartient à ceux qui se lèvent tôt = "The early bird catches the worm." Nope! Sauve qui peut is rendered as "Run for your life!", which is often what it means, but it literally says "Save who/that which can (be saved)!" It would also be used if, say, someone tipped a pitcher of beer all over the table and wanted everyone to jump forth and rescue their own phones and wallets. The idiom they render as "You can't have your cake and eat it too," is actually, "One cannot (concurrently) have (both) the butter and the money for butter." They also at some point teach you the word for cake, and it is not beurre.

The languages are also inconsistent in whether they'll let you answer in the Latin alphabet. The Esperanto lessons will take the ASCII-based x-transliterations (Esperanto requires letters like ĵ, ĝ, ŝ, and ĉ, which so far as I know are unique to that language, and require hotkeys on a QWERTY keyboard), but Russian immediately demands you go find a Russian IME or keyboard. They do not have any lessons teaching you the Cyrillic alphabet. They just throw words at you and expect you to work it out on your own. I'll bet they don't do that when they're teaching Russian kids to read.

The Asian languages will only ask you to type when translating things to English; both the Japanese and Korean lessons have you build your Japanese/Korean answers by picking the words you want out of a list of options. The Japanese lessons generally use revised Hepburn romanization, which is one of the two common standards, and comes out okay; they use Revised Romanization for the Korean, and it's fucking awful. The correspondence between what the hangul block literally says, what the voice pronounces, and the Roman letters that represent it is appallingly poor, to the point where I was doing better when I turned the sound off. The vowels are fine and pretty well disambiguated, but there appears to be very little consistency to how the consonants are transcribed. The same phoneme is R at the start of syllables and L at the end; the simple final stop might be b, g, t, tt, k, or kk, and the one the romanization uses does not always reflect the actual Korean letter(s) used in the han. They also never explain what the jamo are or how you assemble them into han, which effectively means they are trying to teach you hangul by the same brute-force memorization method as hanja. There is perfectly good logic behind how you build those blocks -- which means you can disassemble them to sound words out -- so this is stupid and wrong.

They don't have any Arabic lessons for speakers of anything I could stumble through a language course in. Given the state of the Korean, that might be a good thing.

If anyone else is entertaining themselves with Duolingo, I'm Arabella Flynn on there. Feel free to add me as a friend.


  1. I poked at the French for a while, to see if it might be the thing that finally teaches me to spell. It wasn't, but that may be because I got annoyed at it pretty quickly for a lot of the same reasons you did. I'm a native speaker. I know that the sentence I just typed is correct, or at least acceptable and intelligible, which is really all I ask for out of language. I had better luck with German, which I don't speak at all, but got bored after a while and wandered off to entertain myself elsewhere on the internet.

    Shame the Korean is such a mess -- Korean is a language I'd love to learn, and duolingo's a nice way to get some basics.

    1. I'd strongly recommend that you find an alternative place to learn hangul, and then come back to Duolingo to learn basic vocabulary. That would work a damn sight better.

      Spelling in French and German is about 50% better than spelling in English. You can't always spell a word you've only heard, but at least if you see it in writing you can (nearly) always read it aloud. You can do neither in English. Technically, there are phonetic methods for teaching kids to read in English -- I got the Spaulding flash cards in school -- but there are so many arcane exceptions to every rule it's almost a lost cause.

    2. I just heard about an app - phone app, I think, but I haven't done any research on it yet to find out if it's for other platforms as well - called Lingodeer, which apparently is *good* for learning Korean, Japanese, and Chinese. Right now I'm overwhelmed at work, or I'd have more information.


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