How I didn't learn Spanish with Duolingo

But I made friends

"Can I have some chewing gum?" I asked. "Perdon?" she answered. "Chewing gum" I repeated. She looked at me confused. I was giving up but she was still looking at me, as if she was trying to make the effort to understand me.

It was past 10:30 at night in Los Angeles and the unfortunate graveyard-shift workers were starting to appear at bus stops. I was on my way to my night-shift job as a security guard and the bus was late. I was new in the country and I was still thinking in French and translating the words to English in real time. I must have been saying "Chewing gum " in an accent too heavy for the girl sitting next to me to understand.

I made one last attempt pointing at my mouth, chewing invisible gum. "Chewing gum" I said again slowly.

"Oh, Comer?" she said with a smile and pointing at her mouth. "Yes" I answered satisfied, "comer". She rummaged through her purse and instead of giving me some gum, she handed me five dollars and pointed at the Pollos Camperos across the street.

Andrea was a generous stranger who understood not one word of English and I was a misunderstood foreigner who spoke little English and no Spanish. She became my very first friend in this land of opportunity.


Success at Duo

Learning with Duolingo is fun and addictive. Earn points for correct answers, race against the clock, and level up. Our bite-sized lessons are effective, and we have proof that it works.

I have completed 383 consecutive days of Duolingo. Duolingo is an app that claims to have a scientific approach to learning a new language. If you are persistent, follow the instructions and complete the minimum daily activity, you will speak the language, Guarantee!

Over the years, I have failed to learn Spanish. I've worked at places where everyone spoke Spanish, yet I didn't learn more than a few words. A year ago I was talking with Walter, my Spanish speaking friend, and he introduced me to Duolingo.

I don't trust any claim made by an app developer, but Walter was convinced. He showed me the lessons he had completed in French, Italian and German and I was intrigued. That evening I went home, downloaded the app and spent 2 hours devouring it.

Things duo says

Español

It's pointless to learn a language you are never going to use. In Los Angeles however, I have plenty of opportunities to speak Spanish. Anything I learn from the Certified Duolingo Spanish class, I can immediately turn around and practice with my friends. I wasted no time and completed the entire course in a record (see obsessive) pace.

Walter suffered me the most. I would try to have full conversation with him in Spanish and I could see his friendly eyes trying so hard to be polite and struggle not to break my spirit. For 70 days in a row, I did my lessons. I was positive that I was improving everyday. That's until I asked him where he parked his car.

"Dónde está el coche?"
"OK. Stop it. Just stop it." Walter snapped. "Coche? do you see a carriage in this parking lot? This isn't Cinderella."

My spirit broke. He finally decided to tell me the truth. Yes, Coche is car in Spain, but not in the Americas. Every other word I used was awkward and cringe worthy. I had no control over my la and el, over my un and una, I could not count from one to ten. My tenses were all wrong. Genders were always wrong. My spirit broke.

I had completed the entire course and was fluent in the app. On an average day I would complete 50xp. On a motivated day, I would do over 200xp. 70 days in a row is not nothing. I could relate to what he was saying because I felt the same way when he tried to speak French. But I thought he was just bad at it not that what he was learning was wrong. So first, I said this:

That's like your opinion man

Then I decided to explore the App a little deeper to understand what was happening.

Lost Streak duolingo

Français

I speak French. I went to French school. Although I have lived long enough in California that I have switched my thought process from French to English, it is still a language that is embedded in me. To my surprise, learning French with Duolingo was difficult.

The answers are always ambiguous. They are cringe worthy. Others are plain wrong.

I tried my best to complete the course and often checked the comments to see people complaining that the answers were wrong. Walter is a fast learner and he had done his best to learn what the app was teaching, but the material he was learning from was the problem.

French, English, and Spanish share the same Latin root and often you can understand the meaning of a sentence just by looking at the familiar words. But this is also a confusion when translation is not one to one. The student ends up learning things wrong all the while the app rewards the effort with virtual points, persisting the lie.

You can experience this awkwardness when you translate a foreign language to your native language on Google Translate. The words are correct, the grammar is correct, but the meaning is off.

Things duo says

日本語 (Nihongo Japanese)

There was a big launch event with an app update to announce the support for Japanese. I was excited to learn this exotic language. Compared to Spanish, it was utterly difficult to learn.

I repeated the Hiragana lessons hundreds of times. I would practice everyday, slowly progressing until I get stuck and go back to Hiragana to refresh my memory. It took many months and lots of efforts to complete the Japanese course. Learning new things in a foreign language is difficult, but Duolingo has mastered the art of making it fun all the way.

I tried to look past the fun and double check my progress to see if I was learning anything useful. Unlike Latin based languages, I can't easily find someone to converse with in Japanese. So I went to YouTube to watch basic lessons and compare notes.

I had been practicing for months and I had not even known there was such a thing as Kanji. Now things made a little more sense. The app had been interchanging Hiragana and Kanji without any warning or explanation. I was blindly following.

Watching those videos on YouTube, I realized that I could recognize numbers here and there, but I could not count from one to ten. I could recognize the number 12, but I had no idea how it was pronounced. I could put a lot of sounds together, but show me random Katakana or Kanjis and I am lost.

I was recently in a crowded cafe trying to find an empty table to get some work done. I jumped on the first seat that cleared and was occupied by a Japanese man.

"Are you... Comfi Taburu?" the man said. I did not understand. He repeated again. I thought he was asking about a "coffee table". Turns out he was jokingly asking me if I was comfortable.

Watashino namayewa Ibrahim des

He replied "Nice to meet you" in a way I had not heard before. I shook hand with Mr Tereso.

He spoke so little English and I spoke at most kindergarten level Japanese, yet we spent two hours discussing various subjects. We spoke about money, where I learned he was a retired investor and gave me investment tips. We spoke about family, where he told me that a girlfriend is the biggest and best investment I can make. We spoke about religion, where he told me that it cost nothing to ask God for what you want.

I had learned just enough Japanese to make a friend.

Things duo says

Duolingo

You will not learn to speak a new language with this app. Let that sink in. However, you will have fun playing the game. Duolingo is a game first before being a learning tool. It will be a motivator to explore more about the language you are trying to learn.

I have slightly improved my Spanish with the app, but what it helped me most with is to have the confidence to speak in Spanish to strangers. I listen to audiobooks, radio shows, even ads in Spanish just to improve it some more. The app was only the catalyst.

Language is more than just a syntax to learn. It is a culture and a perspective. Use the app to get yourself introduced to a new way of thinking, but by all means don't stop there. Meet people speaking those languages you are trying to learn and watch yourself learn new things you would never have learned otherwise.

Sleep

Snippets from @Shitduosays


Comments(31)

a :

The problem seems to be with you then

Mari :

I'm learning german from scratch with duolingo and it is working!

Reyes :

In almost all countries in the Americas "coche" means car, except for Guatemala in which it means "pig". What Walter was referring to is a "carroza". He's just plain wrong.

AX3M :

This was so heartbreaking to read.

Wim :

you are right, duolingo is a great app to learn a foreign language but I experience the same as long ago at school when in four years I learned to read and write in English, French and German. Grammarically all correct but when it came to speaking to a native person? Nope. English and German speaking I acquired frequent foreign contacts I had professionally. I lost French mostly, I grasp the meaning of what is said or written. The same I experience now with Duolingo Spanish and Italian. I have come quite far in listening and reading but you really need people to talk to, so far still a problem for me.

Ibrahim :

@Wim, you are right. At the end of the day, the best way to learn is to have a conversation with native speakers.

Philip Rossen :

Humans are the nicest way to learn a language.

Misty :

Who cares if you say "coche" instead of "carro"? If you say "coche" instead of "carro" in countries where "coche" doesn't mean "car", they'll find it weird but they'll understand through context. If you say "carro" instead of "coche" in Spain, same thing. Funny thing is, in Spain "carro" means "cart." I am Spanish and when I talk to people from South America, sure, we don't share the same vocabulary and some words seem confusing at first, but eventually we understand each other.

What I mean is that it's OK if every other word you use is awkward and cringe-worthy, if you swap "la" for "el" and "un" for "una," if your tenses or genders are not 100% perfect all of the time. I'm sorry your friend Walter didn't have patience with you, and honestly I'm also angry that he discouraged you from using Duolingo. I used to be a language teacher and never in a million years would I have snapped at somebody and told them to "stop it" because I didn't like the words they were using. Your friend totally knew that you meant "car" and he should have just shut up. You have to cut some slack to someone who is making an effort to learn a new language.

Ibrahim :

Hi Misty, thanks for the encouraging message.

You are right it is ok to make mistakes when learning a language, it ends up being the only effective way.

:)

Marty :

I'm 150 days in on Duolingo Italian and I can barely count to ten, but I can zip through lessons like a (Duolingo) pro, let alone keep up a conversation.

As I don't have access to speak directly with others, I'm trying to supplement my learning with other resources. Coffee Break Italian is a good podcast that explains a lot of what Duolingo doesn't. Slow News in Italian and Italian movies will hopefully help my listening comprehension.

I'm sticking with Duolingo because I am learning something and the gameification helps keep me consistent. But alone, I don't believe it can teach a language.

I should also add that the Duolingo forum chats that accompany each question are very helpful.

Loly :

DUOLINGO me funciona excelente, he aprendido mucho y puedes comenzar desde 0

saludos a todos.

Omara :

Totally disagree with you I am just 100+ days on duolingo for Spanish I didn't have any experience in Spanish.

I was racing through lessons before travelling to a Spanish speaking country for the first time; and let me tell you this..

I am very comfortable around people, can have a conversation where both sides understand each other. I was afraid before i land, but once started talking with locals, oh man, i have never felt more confident and proud.

My method was always have around 10 lessons open for practice daily.

3 on level 5
3 on level 4
3 on level 3

And start a new lesson

And every day i finish one level from each of those 3 and level up the new lesson to level 3 So this means Complete one of those level 5, level up on of the 4s to 5, level up one of the 3s to 4 and level up the only one at level 3 to level 4 and start a new lesson and level it up to 3

Moreover, have a notebook where write down evey new word or phrase.

For all new duolingo users, don't get demotivated or listen to this.. I see it's all about the approach: Planning, commitment, positive attitude, motivation and believing.

Good luck you all.

Justin :

I think it's important to recognise two things about duolingo - thing 1, it uses "Spaced Repetition" which is a proven way of committing lots of things to memory more effectively than just rote beating it into your brain.

Thing 2, I think of language learning like building a house. Duolingo is giving you the wood and the nails (oversimplified house building, I know) and even the instructions. I.E., Duolingo gives you the vocabulary and the grammar. You can go out and build your house, and with no house-building experience it is going to suck, and the process is going to be long and brutal and you're going to feel a right idiot most of the time. But if you build some houses, you'll get better at it. And unlike building houses, learning to use the language you've learned in a more natural way is A LOT EASIER TO DO WHEN YOU'RE DRINKING.

So, no, you can't count to ten, you mix up your el and la, but you learn that with time and use. You'll find the same thing in Japanese, with wa and ga. It's something that everybody gets wrong forever, you just get less bad with it eventually.

TL;DR don't be discouraged and don't discount what Duolingo can do. There are lots of Spaced Repetition based learning utilities out there and this one is particularly well put together. But also set your expectations reasonably, and talk to people, look a fool, and get better.

ALSO - for people having a hard time finding language partners, there are services like italki that set you up with native speakers all over the world so you can chat via Skype. And if you're in a decently sized metropolitan area you can usually find people who want to do a language exchange.

Adam :

I have been learning Norwegian through Duolingo primarily. There is a lot of merit to what others have said in that Duolingo is not the ONLY thing you work with or use to learn a language. In fact there are plenty of errors in the Norwegian course and these are often highlighted in the discussion forums.

In addition to Duolingo, you need to immerse yourself in the language as best as you can, as practically as you can. I often try and watch TV and Radio programming from Norway, and where I can, I try and speak with fluent Norwegian speaking people.

Often, I challenge myself with translating Norwegian subs in English TV programs (thank you NRK) and you would be surprised at how much more difficult it is compared to sitting there doing Duolingo lessons.

Lesson of the day: Duolingo is a useful tool as a part of a suite of tools that you resource and use to learn your new language.

Fer :

Hey, thanks for sharing this! I just discovered the app and I thought it was incredible... but then I have no one to talk to in the language I'm learning, someone to validate what I am saying is right or wrong.

However, I may say that we do say "coche" or "¿Dónde está el coche?" in spanish, at least in Mexico. What Cinderella rides, the carriage, we say "carruaje"... so I find no cringing in your sentence. Maybe your friend was having a bad day haha

Thanks again for sharing your experience, I will see the app with different eyes now.

Ibrahim :

Hi @Fer

Thank you so much for your comment. I hope you find someone to converse with in your new languages :)

Sam :

I just want you to know that in most of Mexico, we say coche. Spanish varies wildly from region to region, and your friend sounds like he is dead set in his ways.

Jan :

Duolingo really helped me to improve my Hebrew and my Portuguese. I don’t wanna be offensive but maybe the problem is your attitude. It sounds like you expected Duo to fulfill miracles. You’re trying to learn Japanese with Duo but never heard of Kanji, seriously what do you expect Duo alone can accomplish? Learning a language always requires more than one learning source! But Duo is a great one of them, if used properly!

Ibrahim :

@Jan, If you learn Japanese with a teacher, isn't he responsible from telling you there is such thing as Kanji? Well, that's what Duolingo failed to do.

Also the miraculous claims you mentioned are exactly the exact moto of Duolingo.

Heather S. :

I stumbled upon this article while reading about Duolingo through the years (I started using it around January 2013). At the time English speakers only had access to Spanish, French, German, and Italian, and Portuguese was in beta. Most of the Italian I knew prior to taking lessons while doing a program called the Add1Challenge came from Duolingo. I couldn't speak a lick of the language beyond, "Ciao! Mi chiamo Heather, e tu?" but I could read a little. I'm sorry your friend was so harsh with you. All of my friends get super excited when I try to say things in their native languages. Unfortunately if you don't use it, you lose it.

Through the years I've realized that Duolingo cannot be the sole resource but it is a decent start. I question though the lesson order as being able to greet people seems a higher priority than knowing that "tu oso bebe cerveza" (o "il tuo orso beve birra"). ;)

Ibrahim :

Haha. Thanks @Heather. Cerveza for all osos!

jh :

hmm... I'm coming really late to this party. I recently signed up for Duolingo. To me, it's just another tool to add so that I can iterate the language. I don't expect Duolingo, or any program or even a class or a teacher to bring me to even semi-functional fluency. Aka - the fluency of a toddler who wants something.

Maybe I'm missing the point. Sure, Duolingo touts gamification. But is it really a game? Isn't it just a bunch of test questions... and just like a monkey that gets a prize every so number of correct answers, we get our little prize. But it's just a bunch of test questions. And testing is one way to practice and learn. (it worked for me. It may not work for other people.)

I do find value in the forum. There, I find other people who had the same question I had. Other times, I kick myself because I should have considered gender when describing something. For a native English speaker, it's difficult to suddenly start thinking in gendered terms. A table is a table. Why would some pervert look at that table and think... "You look quite manly with all those ahem legs..."

We don't mock little kids who make mistakes. We are gentle with them. I wish your friend was similarly gentle with you. You were comprehensible. And that is the function of any human language, communication. It doesn't really matter how badly you communicate. You aren't a diplomat or a negotiator. The goal of language is so that you can communicate and that the other person can understand your intent. Grammar will slowly leach into the brain with more practice. Same for vocabulary as you imbibe media and interact with others. At some point, a person will "feel" that something sounds "righter" than another phrase. (Oh... and for a native speaker to have issues understanding a rank beginner trying out the language is absurd. It reflects a lack of mastery of their native language if they cannot understand what you said. If I said "je amo agua".. which is definitely not French, you would have used that clever brain of yours to parse it out and figure out that I love water. Hand gestures, mimicry, facial expressions all play a part in human communication.

Sorry for that paragraph of me ranting. I get so tired of hearing native speakers babble about how they can't understand somebody. I can understand the broken English of numerous immigrants. I've never had a problem with a foreign call center representative. I can understand the various dialects and the local vocabulary in other regions of my country. That's because I'm a native speaker. If a pig could learn a bit of english, I should be able to understand said pig. A native speaker is stupid if they cannot understand even the badly accented broken fragments of their language.

Oh ... as for @Heather S' comment. There is a reason we generally start off with a "Hello World" lesson in the beginning. It's the universal opening. It's the phrases and the actions that you will always be doing. It's why the first programming lesson is "Hello World". It's the first input/output structure. After that, we start defining words, creating relationships, describing actions and so on. But the first thing we learn is.. "I come in peace".. or something like that. The next thing is probably Goodbye or Thank Your and Please along with "My name is...". It's called foreplay and you don't get to first base without foreplay. We don't ask for the military codes to the nuclear weapons on the first date. Possibly that doesn't occur even after 20 dates.

Ibrahim :

Thanks for your input @jh. Few people read the whole article before jumping to the comments, though I'm glad for those who did. Like I said, the app was only a catalyst, to learn more about the language. Meaning, once I realized that some of the things I was learning were incorrect, I used additional material (not from duolingo) to learn more about those languages. Case example, I used YouTube for Japanese.

Maybe I have made my friend sound harsher than he actually was, it wasn't my intention. I just wanted to show how he made me realize that most of the things I was saying was incorrect. Which prompted me to learn from an external source.

Mike :

Good article, I have found some of the same issues with Duolingo.

But FYI English does not share a Latin root with French and Spanish. English is a Germanic language with some Latin derived vocabulary, much like French is a Latin language with some Germanic derived vocabulary.

John :

Honestly I was going to agree until I read where you said you had no control over your un or una. Well it does go to show you weren't paying attention then and the problem is with you because they clearly explain just like male ends with an o an females end with a. The worlds are just the same. If its autobus it doesnt end with a so its obvious it un or el. I mean come on. simple stuff

Ibrahim :

@John there is no lesson in Duolingo, they just show you the words. And to counter your point with un and una: Madre ends with E not A, yet it's una. Coche ends with E not o, yet it's un. Now think of someone approaching this the first time, it's not easy without an actual lesson that explains it.

Mokar Chorap :

I'm sorry to say this but the way you percieved dullingo is wierd. It's a tool for learning a language, a fun tool in a way. But the fun "clicking the words that pop up" way of learning is what stopped you from learning. Instead of focusing on completing the challenges you should have spent time learning about the words, memorizing them and seeing how they should be implemented. After about a week of learning spanish on duolingo you could have learned to count and how to use "el" and "la" in the correct form seeing how those are among the first lessons.

But in any case, learning a language requires practice and i dont think the "15 minutes a day are enough" that duolingo promotes is nearly enough. I may sound a bit like an offended kid or a dense person but i think it's a shame that this post will have a negative effect on new users. Enough ranting, i must congratulate you on a really well made post and i think you should write more.

Ibrahim :

Hi @Mokar

I appreciate your criticism.

One theme that most commenters seems to persist is that they went outside the app to learn some more things. And I agree with that just like I stated it in the article. I don't think this post will hinder newcomers, instead, it will encourage them not to rely on a single app, that Guarantees it is all they'll ever need, to learn a new language.

USA essay writer :

Duolingo is a helpful application. When I was working as a developer in my previous company a lot of client’s used to speak French. Which was difficult for me to understand. So to learn French I used Duolingo app. No doubt it’s very helpful.

Adrianna :

I came to Germany a few months ago because I want to get my bachelor in chemistry from a German university (as they are know worldwide for their advancement in STEM fields). As I didn't want to get here without any knowledge at all I started to learn with Duolingo. At first I was totally amazed how easy I was making progression. I thought "Damn, German is so easy!"...and then I landed in Berlin. Well let me take a shortcut here: First thing I did was subscribing myself to a German intensive course (linked for reference) at the locally know speakeasy language school.... I was expecting to attend a language school. I wasn't expecting the low level I had to start at... So: yes Duolingo is nice and it was fun to learn, but for advanced topics and anything beyond daily survival it totally failed for me. I don't think this can be generalized that as we all learn differently, but this was for me a major bummer. I thought I could come to Germany and just attend the language school for about a month until I'm at level C1. I wasn't close to it. Well with the help of my teachers (who encourage me to talk as often as possible) Duolingo became sort of my modern vocabulary trainer, because even though I couldn't learn the language with this app I totally got the vocabulary straight from the beginning :D So my advice: Combine a language school with Duolingo...

A. :

What's the alternative then? Pick a English-to-Spanish handbook? Attend Spanish classes? Speak with a native without having any idea about their language?

Nobody said you are gonna be a native speaker just by using Duolingo. I would rather jump into reading a Spanish book or watching some Spanish TV show after learning the basics on Duolingo.

Let's hear your thoughts

For my eyes only