It’s a Game… It’s a Social Network… It’s Duolingo!
On 19 June this year, a neat service called Duolingo came out of beta and opened up to the public. As its website states, “With Duolingo you learn a language for free while helping to translate the web”.
Duolingo is the brainchild of Professor Luis von Ahn. Basically, Duolingo has two parts – the website’s large collection of carefully constructed lessons, and its translation assignments. The lessons are designed to teach the user a language. The translation assignments are real-world text written in the new language, currently taken from Wikipedia, which the user has to translate into English. Duolingo plans to produce revenue by providing translation as a service to various content websites. To users wanting to learn a new language, the service will remain free.
I’ve been a user since February, on the beta version when only German and Spanish were available. I tried out German, which I already knew a little bit. Duolingo introduced French recently (in beta). I’ve started learning French quite seriously.
Duolingo has a very interesting design. It incorporates a lot of game-like elements. It is also a social network in its own right. Starting out with the more obvious game-like elements, the lessons are structured like an experience tree of sorts.
The number of mistakes you can make in each lesson before having to start over, are represented by hearts. You get skill points for completing lessons and translating sentences.
Reflecting the social aspect of Duolingo, you can log in using your Facebook or Twitter accounts. You can use these same accounts to discover contacts on your social networks who are also on Duolingo. There’s a follow system identical to Twitter’s. You can then compete with the people you follow, trying to get the most skill points and sentences translated and get the topmost rank. Also observe that there are different rank categories for skill points and sentences translated. This is clever design to ensure that ‘saturated’ users, i.e. those who have completed most of the lessons keep translating sentences.
This ranking system gives Duolingo a socially competitive element that makes the service quite addictive and fun.
Another subtle game-like feature is the way the languages are taught. Most language textbooks try to explain the rules of grammar first – making the student learn all the conjugate forms of verbs, and other grammar. Duolingo, however doesn’t explicitly teach grammar at all – at least not until the user has advanced considerably. This causes some initial confusion, but strangely enough helps develop intuition about the language. This is how we naturally learn languages as children – by observation and by lots of trial and error. Memorizing and decoding conjugate tables becomes entirely unnecessary as you intuitively know the correct form of the verb. This natural learning system is why Duolingo truly shines.
You can follow me, and strike up a conversation in (my severely limited) French at http://duolingo.com/#/ApoorvaJ.