Duolingo is undoubtedly one of the most popular language learning applications, if not the most popular one. Cute and simple interface; gamified learning script; ongoing competition between users; learning materials given in small, chewable pieces; audio with pronunciation of the words; achievable goals — all that makes Duolingo a very attractive and addictive application. But can one really learn a new language by using Duolingo? This is what I wanted to figure out when adding a new language to my Duolingo profile.
My personal relations with Duolingo have been mostly in and out. I tried Spanish but didn’t get too far because of lack of motivation. I still want to learn Spanish. I still feel embarrassed that I haven’t advanced in it. The truth is it’s just not on the top of my priority list. I tried Mandarin but put my studies on pause because other applications, mostly designed by Chinese speakers, proved to be more helpful for me. Then I decided to give Polish a try and go through the whole course to the very end. I wanted to understand if persistence and consistency would help my language studies. After all, I always tell my students that consistency and persistence are the key. I should practice what I preach, right?
Why Polish? First of all, it is relatively easy for me. My mother tongue is Russian, and because these two languages are close relatives, somewhat like German and English, I can understand a fair bit of Polish. I can “feel” its grammar, and I don’t struggle with many grammatical concepts that puzzle speakers of non-Slavic languages. Vocabulary is a different story. Very often, words in Polish and Russian look similar, but mean completely different things. For example, in Polish ‘sklep’ means “store, shop”; in Russian ‘склеп’ means “burial vault”. So, false cognates is a major problem for Russian speakers when they start learning Polish. Another problem is Polish spelling. It took me quite some time to get accustomed to the combinations of letters for the sounds that take only one letter in Russian. Duolingo, with its focus on vocabulary and various exercises on spelling, might be very helpful for me. Another reason why I picked Polish is that I’ve been to Poland a few times, and I liked Poland, Kraków in particular. I am a big fan of Polish beer, and I absolutely admire street life in Kraków. So I took all the lessons in the Polish course, and in many lessons I went up to the level 3 (three crowns). I didn’t take breaks; I only missed a couple of days total. I was persistent and learned consistently.
The Polish course on Duolingo is very well-designed. The vocabulary lists and phrases cover the most important and pragmatic topics, as long as you break through the first unavoidably dull and boring first few lessons. What I liked is that even if you start forgetting a word from a lesson that you took a few days ago, you meet that word again in a new lesson and memorize it better. Multiple repetitions truly help in memorizing new vocabulary. Another feature about the course is that grammatical explanations are pretty limited, and learners are supposed to figure out the patterns or simply memorize phrases. This approach is legit, and I myself practice it from time to time with my students. By letting a learner figure out rules from examples, a teacher facilitates understanding and memorization of rules.
Problems arose when I bumped into grammatical structures that I didn’t understand. They were very different from Russian grammar, and I simply couldn’t grasp the patterns. I still could do all the exercises and pass all the tests, but I honestly didn’t understand what I was doing, and I wouldn’t be able to reproduce those structures in my speech.
What I really missed in the course was speaking practices where I would build a sentence on my own, not from ready-made canned segments of speech. I am not sure if it is even technologically possible because free speech would most likely take human assessment, but the lack of speech prompts is what makes Duolingo less useful. Granted, there are plenty of activities outside of the lessons where users can talk to each other or write something briefly on a given topic, but those activities are not mandatory, and many of them offer no points. It is only logical that many users, me included, focus on lessons in order to earn their daily points and miss an opportunity to use the language actively, to actually communicate on the language.
So, what did I achieve by the end of the course? Is my Polish any better now? Well, when my Polish friends post something in their mother tongue on Facebook, I can understand them better, and I started noticing the grammatical features that I didn’t pay attention to before. I can understand posts on Facebook’s public groups dedicated to Kraków, yet I may need translation occasionally. Before the course, I understood about 50% of the posts; now it is rather 75%. I still don’t dare commenting there because I don’t think that I can produce an intelligible phrase in Polish. My listening comprehension improved because somehow I got accustomed to the rhythm of Polish words. I still don’t speak Polish because I didn’t practice speaking at all.
What should you expect from Duolingo, and how can it help you with your language studies? Duolingo most certainly helps with memorizing new words and expanding vocabulary. The fact that all the words there have audio adds a lot of value. Both as a language learner and a language teacher, I know how painful it is to relearn words just because you memorized their pronunciation incorrectly. Duolingo allows you to memorize both the acoustic image of a word and its spelling. Will you be able to support a communication after finishing a course? I really doubt it. Duolingo does not offer much for using a language actively, other that those outside of the lesson activities in groups. Duolingo is a great supporting tool, but you’ll need something else if you strive for fluency and real-life conversation. I definitely recommend Duolingo to all language learners, but I suggest to adjust expectations and not limit oneself with Duolingo. No app, no artificial intelligence can substitute human conversation.
My next steps in learning Polish are the following: I subscribed to a few more public groups in Polish. I try to listen to videos every time they post videos there. I explore the websites about life in Poland. I am seriously thinking about language exchange partnership, and maybe later this year, I’ll check LE websites. What were your post-Duolingo steps?