Friday, 10 January 2014

In defence of duolingo

Avid followers of EBEFL will remember I came down quite hard on the memrise app before. Looking back at that article it's clear I was more critical of the 22 hours-to-learn-a-language claim than the app itself. I did try the app and it wasn't much fun and quite buggy. In this article I'm going to look at another app which is quite fun, -the rather good Duolingo. I want to compare it to a French class I took recently because I think neither of these methods would lead to anyone becoming fluent in a language but I wonder, on the whole, which is a better supporter of language learning.


Cost

Duolingo
  My French Class
 nothing, nada, zip, zilch
£100 for 10 weeks, 2 hours per week plus a £30 text book


 Should probably add here that I quit my awful French class after about 4 classes. As did, I reckon,  around half of the class. I didn't get any money back so each lesson was about £25.
 Winner: Duolingo



Method
Duolingo
My French Class
 Grammar translation
erm? 'traditional'?


Here's a lesson plan from one of the classes. First 40 minutes were taken up with a reading exercise. We read a text and tried to answer the questions "True" or "False". The Teacher then went through the answers. To shake up the second half she opted for....wait for it...a 40 minute reading excercise! Don't worry this time it wasn't True/False. The last 20 minutes were spent on speaking practice. 10 minutes of which were spent explaining and then 5 minutes on practicing pron, -so all in all we got 5 minutes of speaking in 2 hours.

Some may argue that 'Grammar translation' is bad and it certainly isn't perfect, but Phillip Kerr has made a good defence of using first language and translation in the classroom, though he is clear that old fashioned sentence translations of the kind you see in Japanese schools is not what he's advocating. I think Duolingo falls down a bit here, but it's hard to see how a computer program, could do anything else.

Sure, it's frustrating when you get "une" and "un" wrong and lose a point. Perhaps the developers could introduce an accuracy scale so you could decide how picky you want the program to be.
 
Winner: draw



First language use
Duolingo
My French Class
 about 50% of the time
most of the time


Duolingo asks you to translate about, I would guess 50% of the time and all the instructions are in your language not the target language. In contrast, my French teacher hardly ever spoke French.  

Winner: Duolingo


Authenticity
Duolingo
My French Class
 'the apples are red'
'I like hiking'




Duolingo is horribly inauthentic. You'll quickly find yourself getting sick of 'red apples'. The French class was slightly better as it used a textbook aimed at university students. I got to do sentences like "I like hiking" (I don't) and "have you ever been Canoeing?" (I haven't). As mike Boyle notes, sentences like "the horse eats bread" may "have no real meaning or relevance to learners" but so what? My feeling is that 'the noun verbs the noun' is probably the aim of this lesson. If you can say "the horse eats bread" you could probably say "the man eats bread" or even "I eat vegetables" etc. I think the app could be improved by adding more (interesting) phrases, which have a higher frequency count  They could even teach the task instructions in the target language and then start using those, instead of using "write this in French".
 
 Winner: My French class
 

TTT
Duolingo
My French Class
 Minimal
blah blah blah


Teacher talking time on Duolingo is almost 0. There are occasinal grammar points in bubbles. My French teacher on the other hand, although being a nice enough person, like so many teachers she couldn't help regaling her captive audience with jokes and funny stories. In the lesson I talked about earlier, students spoke for about 5 minutes of the class, this wasn't unusual.
 
 Winner: Duolingo



Awareness of Level
Duolingo
My French Class
Minimal
blah blah blah

 

Duolingo comes out on top again. It knows exactly what I can and can't do because it constantly asks me. Sure it might be a bit too picky about la and le for my liking but it remembers perfectly my mistakes and gives me the option of working on weaknesses. My French teacher on the other hand found it hard to remember my name. 
 
Winner: Duolingo
Time with teacher
 
Duolingo
My French Class
 whenever, wherever for however long
Monday 6-8

In a class of 15 you may have a few dedicated minutes with each student. Certainly you can't spend hours tutoring only one member of the class. Duolingo can not only do this, it also works whenever I want to work. My French class was 6-8 on Mondays which meant making sure I had nothing planned at that time and gong after work with no time to eat. Of course, you can't ask Duolingo specific questions if you get stuck and that's a problem.
 
Winner: Draw

Learner styles
 
 
Duolingo
My French Class
 nothing
what style are you?
My French teacher made a point of asking all of us what learning style we preferred. Presumably this was to cater to visual (and so on) students. She then went ahead and did what she was planning to do anyway. Luckily, Duolingo isn't bothered what kind of learner I think I am. It also sensible gives me visual, auditory and kinesthetic input.This is not a good thing because the theory of learning styles is correct, but rather because it makes the material far more interesting.

Winner: Duolingual



Enjoyment and motivation 
Duolingo
My French Class
 'you got to the next level!'
I quit after 4 weeks

This is where Duolingo really gets it right. It has a friendly bright interface and manages to gamify language learning in the right way.  My French class was dull, I didn't feel I was learning or that the teacher knew much about me or my level. Duolingual is constantly making little beeps and showing graphs, all of which is nonsense but it makes me feel I'm progressing, which is vital. Motivation is one of the most important things in language learning and if the student stops coming to your class, all your qualifications, methods and authentic materials mean nothing.
 
Winner: Duolingo
 
This app will not lead anyone to be fluent in a foreign language but it might help. And in terms of helping I would say it is far superior to the language class I took and other language classes I have taken in the past. In the UK, where 40% of language deptartments face closure and where only 15% of the population claim to be able to hold a conversation in any foreign language, anything that encourages or makes language learning easier is a good thing. More power to Duolingo's elbow I say!








 


6 comments:

  1. I ended up liking Duolingo but still dropping off after 3 days, more to do with having gone on holiday and just not caring enough about Spanish to pick it up again. I think it's funny and horribly reflective of most of the foreign language classes I ever had, ho damning your opinion of your French classes is! My review of Duolingo, a lot less thorough than yours, is here http://wp.me/p1RJaO-bD

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    1. Thanks Nicola,

      I think you;'re right. Personally, I think any kind of non-human language learning system will 100% fail on it's own. You need motivation and the desire to communicate with someone.

      Delete
  2. All right, I'm gonna say this in the hope that it will go away and I'll stop thinking about it every time I think about 1) Chinese, 2) Memrise and 3) things I really should get round to doing:

    The last time I used Memrise was just before you ridiculed it/ me on Twitter for using it. Okay, 'ridiculed' is too strong, but it did make me feel disappointed with myself for not realising it didn't work. The thing is, it had. The other thing is, however often I then ridiculed myself for not going back to it for such a silly reason, I've just never got round to starting it again.

    I too was comparing Memrise with a very similar course to the one you're describing, which I had also abandoned because of the teaching methods. Learning *some* characters and vocabulary was all I needed, and Memrise helped me a lot. (Compared to what?, you asked me back then. Well, compared to not learning some characters and vocabulary.) For the umpteenth time, I promise myself I'll get back to it.

    No, of course I'm not blaming you for this - it would be ridiculous! It is entirely my own fault for not continuing with it. And, yes, it is perfectly possible that I might have given it up anyway for other reasons later. But the lesson for me here was not to discourage anyone from learning something in a way that works for them and keeps them going.

    There! That's better. :o)

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    Replies
    1. Hi, thanks for posting, -is it your first time?

      Did I really ridicule you for using memrise? If so I'm sorry. Anything that works is fine I think -so long as it actually works. I remember rereading the article that the 22hrs claim was really what I had the biggest problem with, not the app itself.

      If it's any consolation, I find myself not using duolingo very much now. Quite a short affair it seems. It still beats my class as I spent 0 on the app.

      I reckon if you don't have a person to talk to motivation is never going to be high, no matter what software you can produce.

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  3. I really enjoyed this article, Russ, as there were so many similarities in your French class experience with a similarly abortive attempt I made to learn Spanish in the Autumn. This is the third or fourth time I've heard good things about Duolingo so I'm going to go ahead and start using it and see what happens. Several comments and questions I have:

    i) Is there someone about Adult Education language classes that makes them particularly bad? It seems to be very difficult indeed to find quality language instruction in this sector.

    ii) Why do teachers insist on wasting people's time with 'hilarious' anecdotes as if they see themselves as part teacher, part stand-up comic? Why is this so common? Is it nervousness? A desire to simply fill out the time allotted to the class? A belief that this practice in some way enhances 'motivation'?

    iii) The strategy I used with my Adult Ed Spanish class was simply to use it as a marker to get some studying done each week. Luckily the textbook she used whilst not exactly cutting edge was OK and basically did the job. I used it as a self-study tool and then practiced in my head as much as I could in class whilst the teacher bashed out another anecdote about what not to order in a Mexican restaurant or spent 2 minutes trying to remember someone's name.

    I'll give Duolingo a try and see what happens.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Steve, really glad to hear from you. I tried to find you with my new FB account but 'Steven king' is, it seems, a really popular name.

      In answer to your questions
      1) in our case -yes! The teachers do not have fixed term contracts. They are, for whatever reasons, not teaching full time. I guess I could speculate here about those reasons but I shall resist. I'm sure they're not all bad but I'm equally sure that a fair few must be.
      ii) hahaha! It's because 1) according to observations and the data we get from them in our places, teachers are just totally unaware of quite how much they are talking. We often time them and ask them. sometimes it's as high as 80% of the lesson, but the teacher thinks it's around 50%. 2) the power of being a teacher is seductive. You have this class full of students hanging on your every word...oh I think I'll tell another story...oh they laughed great...I guess they like me...I guess they'll give me high ratings etc etc.

      iii) That's a good idea. I think people with more self-control than me can do things like that. BTW -I've stopped using duolingo now. It's good fun but I have 0 motivation. I would still stick with 'talking to NS' every time.

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