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Wednesday
Jan142015

I'm Learning French: Duolingo is Pretty Cool

I’m learning French.

Slowly but surely, I’m learning French. My goal is to get better at French than any language I’ve studied besides English. In my life I’ve studied Latin, Ancient Greek, Spanish, German, and Italian. In the case of Latin, I studied for several years at a college level. I was never much good at Latin. I lived in Germany for months at a time and never got beyond simple travel and shopping phrases. Same for Italian. I’ve always thought that I’m not very good at learning languages.

But now I’m learning French, and I can continue to confirm that I’m not particularly good at learning languages. I don’t ever seem to get around to spending serious time memorizing vocabulary lists or looking at flash cards. I don’t have an especially good ear for the nuances of language. Picking up a new tongue does not come second nature.

Yet I remain optimistic this time around. Why? Let’s take my reasons for hope in mostly chronological order:

Time Served: All those other languages do, for the most part, inform my study of French. The snippets of Spanish and Italian and the years of Latin all have come in handy. The Greek and German a little less so, but still, I think they help.

Wider Interest: I wanted to know how to speak German a lot each time I spent months in Berlin. I wanted to read things in Latin and Greek when I was studying to be a historian. Now that I want to both travel to France for lengthy stays and read 18th century texts in French, I have twice the incentive I ever had before.

Free Will Classes: Unlike with German I’m taking French classes. Unlike with Latin, I’m just taking them for fun and not because there’s a masters degree I’m never going to get on the line. I have a great teacher through the local Adult Community & Enrichment center. She makes the classes fun, is a native speaker, and an accomplished teacher.

Duolingo: It’s right there in the title, so you knew it was coming. Duolingo is a free app for Android and IOS that helps you learn languages. It’s pretty slick, and amazing for something that’s free. I started using it before I started classes, which was, I think, a mistake.

I imagine there might be more committed or gifted students than I who could learn a language just by using Duolingo. It includes pronunciation, translation into English from French and vice versa. It has questions where you just listen to a recording and have to type in what the person’s saying. It covers all the bases, turns them into a game, and adjusts difficulty to match your ability.

But it doesn’t teach grammar. You don’t sit down and show how verbs conjugate or why a sentence is put together that way. In French, as in any language, there are lots of little quirks and rules that you just have to memorize them. With just Duolingo, you’re left to maybe intuit those rules. Or maybe they expect you to look it up in a book. Or ask a teacher.

I’d given up on it a month or so before I started classes. I was getting confused and frustrated and didn’t understand. But now I’m back to using it every day. It’s the perfect accompaniment to my classes. There I’m getting weekly, in-person instruction that not only explains how the language works, but gives me great feedback on pronunciation.

And so I’m learning French. Someday, just maybe, I’ll be able to say without lying, that I know it.