Japanese on Duolingo! Yay! … Or Not.

I recently read an article from Kuma Sensei, a Japanese learning blog, commenting on the recent addition of Japanese to Duolingo. I have used Duolingo in the past, both commending and criticizing it. When I saw that Japanese was added to Duolingo, I had to bite my tongue so that I wouldn’t start screaming about other languages that should be added. Before I jump into this article’s main point, I’d suggest reading the article first: https://kumasensei.net/learn-japanese-duolingo-review/.  Kuma Sensei offers a qualified and in-depth evaluation of Duolingo’s Japanese course, which, to my knowledge, is currently available only on iOS and eventually Android. Given that Duolingo is a primarily web-based application, this is a bit odd. Kuma Sensei’s overall evaluation seems to be summed up with one quote:

“Duolingo may just be what the doctor ordered for people who absolutely loathe using textbooks and want to just sit down and start learning Japanese for free.”

This is a totally fair observation, since in my experience, most language learners do not seem particularly keen on academically-oriented study programs. That said, Duolingo’s Japanese doesn’t escape Kuma Sensei unscathed. There’s a remarkable lack of grammatical explanation, which seems to be the case for most Duolingo courses.

Even for Italian and Spanish, arguably fairly simple languages in terms of grammar, the explanations of when to use certain verbal forms leaves much to be desired. And again, maybe that’s Duolingo’s appeal. But context-based translations and nuance, which are key skills to acquire as a language learner (no matter who you are) are completely lost on our beloved owl. However, Japanese’s more complex features, such as the mandatory mixed use of hiragana, katakana, and kanji are not at all explained, which I label as a serious deficiency of the course. Although, to quote Kuma Sensei: “You’re lucky you’re still in beta phase, punk.” It’s unfortunately apt that in Kannada (and most of India’s languages), being compared to an owl is to be considered unintelligent.

Which brings me to my point. I’ve been pushing for Kannada to be added to Duolingo for almost four years now, and I’ve yet to actually receive any kind of communication from Duolingo to discuss the potential project. My growing frustrations with Duolingo’s apparent disinclination to support minority languages, compounded with the flaws of the Japanese course are eating away at my faith in its ability to support language learning. I’m well aware that Duolingo is not a great tool for those aiming to become even conversational in a given language, but ostensibly, that is what Duolingo purports to do.

I want to like Duolingo, really, I do. The game-like aspects make it a really powerful starting tool for language learners, but unfortunately no more than that. There’s a lot of further work to be done on your own, which is kind of unavoidable. Duolingo has a lot of potential for bringing up minority languages, which it already has shown it can do, given the availability of Welsh, Irish, Vietnamese, and Turkish courses. Granted, these languages are rendered in Latin script anyway, so that may make things easier. But knowing that the Japanese course is so flawed, it might not be that these other courses are any better.

I’d be really glad to hear anyone’s thoughts on this, and please don’t forget to share this on your social media!

Progress on Kannada Duolingo

I recently completed a preliminary version of the Kannada Duolingo course by creating a course on Memrise. If you don’t know, Duolingo is a language learning site and application available on computers, iOS, and Android. Duolingo provides free language instruction to anyone who has a computer or a smartphone. This is a revolutionary service, since it is extremely accessible and democratic. The courses rely contributors from around the world to improve and revise the courses, using a cloud-based system. Naturally, they do screen contributors for genuine knowledge of the language in question and commitment. Now, there are already a few courses on Duolingo that teach minority or at least non-mainstream languages, including Welsh, Irish, Romanian, and Polish. Duolingo’s service is an important tool for ethnic groups around the world to preserve their languages and inform the world. However, because Duolingo is not working on languages that require learners to learn a new script to read the language, languages like Chinese, Japanese, and Hindi are significantly delayed. Duolingo also relies on its employees’ internal knowledge of the languages. I am pushing for Duolingo to create a course for Kannada, so as to preserve the language of the Kannada-speaking community, particularly in expatriate communities.

Memrise is another useful service for language learners, and has a simple but very accessible way for people to write their own courses. The Kannada learning course that I wrote and recorded is up and running already! You can check it out here: http://www.memrise.com/course/990976/learn-kannada-3/

I’m considering putting up the full text as a textbook at some point, but I’m having some people review at the moment. Please keep an eye out!

A Duolingo Course in the Works

Sorry for not having posted in so long! I’ve been very busy with studying and schoolwork in general, so I haven’t been the blog as much as I should. As I mentioned in a previous post, I thought it would be a great idea to create a Duolingo Course for minority languages. As it happens, for the past two months, I’ve been writing a Kannada Duolingo course curriculum, and I recently finished the first draft of it. Hopefully, the beta will be up sometime this year, assuming we can get clearance to actually start the course.

For those of you who do not know, Kannada is a South Indian Dravidian language, related to Telugu, Malayalam, and Tamil. It is spoken in the state of Karnataka, India as an official language alongside Hindi and English. The primary focus of this course is not for Indians living in India, but rather expatriate families living abroad. When I was growing up, there were very few opportunities to learn my mother tongue aside from my parents. Many parents wish to impart their mother tongue to their children that grow up in the United States, and try to send them to classes that will help them learn. However, sometimes, the only classes available are non-secular (as was the case in my area), to which some Indian parents would rather not send their children. My effort to create a Kannada Duolingo course is to provide a secular alternative to provide Kannada language education to Kannadiga Americans as well as other Kannadigas born outside of India.

I can’t exactly reveal all the details, but I would greatly appreciate it if you can share this post so that it reaches a lot of people, including interested contributors to the course! If you want to contribute to the Kannada Duolingo course, apply to be a moderator at https://incubator.duolingo.com/, by clicking “Contribute to a Course”. This way, we can speed along this project. It is unfortunate that the staff of Duolingo have actually stated: “the reason [they] don’t teach a lot of Asian languages is we are now sticking to languages that don’t require explaining a whole new alphabet”, said Gina Gotthilf. Also, “The choice of languages being added to the incubator depends on a lot of factors including Duolingo’s internal knowledge of them”according to the Duolingo wiki. I can assume that Kannada will be more easily done, since Hindi is already in the incubator, and they are teaching the alphabet. I highly encourage the Kannada Kootas of the United States to come together and increase demand for the creation of a course for our mother tongue. I’m currently in New York City, but my home is in the Bay Area of California, so if any of the Kootas are interested in contacting me, I’ll be in one of those two areas. To contact me, you can use the “Contact Me” tab at the top of the page.

I will be trying to write more posts soon, so please keep reading! Don’t forget to share this post wherever you can!

Duolingo: Hope for Minority Languages?

Recently, I had a conversation with one of my friends about the reason some languages die out or fade into obscurity among certain populations. In the United States, many children of immigrants do not grow up speaking the language of their parents. This can be attributed to a variety of reasons, including a fear of persecution, a desire for the children to have better competence in English, or the idea that the mother tongue is “useless”. I’m not going to discuss these reasons at length; that’s for another post. The topic at hand is the use of Duolingo to teach children languages. It has a reasonably entertaining interface with which children can interact and learn. A few different non-mainstream languages are already on Duolingo, including Polish, Norwegian, and Turkish.

Duolingo’s presence as a language-learning application has great significance for those attempting to protect minority languages. The Incubator function allows open source contributions to develop courses that people can use to learn. If motivated and enabled speakers of, say, Quechua, we’re so inclined, they might be able to build a course. As mentioned in Ineptitude’s post on Duolingo and Conlangs, there is nothing to stop contributors so long as there is demand and people willing to build these courses. For the purposes of reviving and protecting languages, this is a great tool, because many children across the world are leading lives more and more integrated with technology. By introducing children to Duolingo from an early age, people can promote language literacy and proficiency in children greatly. For immigrant parents, it could mean the difference between their children being disconnected from or more in touch with their culture. 

I am actually planning to discuss such a project with my regional Kannada Koota, which is a sort of convention or organization for Kannada speakers in the United States. Their mission is to preserve and promote the Kannada language. If young Kannadiga Americans are able to learn Kannada through an entertaining app that fits in well with their lifestyle, it will be highly beneficial to the preservation of our language abroad.

Minority languages without writing systems or formalized traditions are often said to be disadvantaged by the advancement of technology, but that doesn’t have to be true if people are motivated to protect and preserve them. If you have any thoughts on this, please share them in the comments.

Duolingo and Conlangs: Some Brief Thoughts

Recently I was having a conversation with Rizael regarding Duolingo having a course for Klingon in their incubator. He shared the opinion that it was useless and took away from Duolingo’s purpose of teaching people languages in order to foster worldwide communication. He also went on to state the opinion that the Esperanto course had no particular place on Duolingo either, as so few people use Esperanto anyway. While I don’t disagree that learning these languages may not necessarily be worth one’s time from a utility standpoint, I do think that proponents of these languages have every right to have a Duolingo course.

We can consider this from the angle that Duolingo is nothing more than a platform for language courses. In other words, it’s not the people at Duolingo itself who build the courses, but individuals and groups who wish to promote their languages. Duolingo’s Incubator actually has an application to submit a language, and as far as I can tell, puts courses in the incubator as per popular demand and availability of users who can contribute to the course. It’s for that reason that a course for Irish Gaelic has been released, and a course for Welsh is in the works, despite these languages not necessarily being “useful” in the traditional sense: very few people actively speak either language. Therefore, I see no real problem in Duolingo merely hosting courses for Klingon and Esperanto, as there is clearly a subset of the population who wishes to promote and learn these languages, and it in no way takes away from the development of courses for natural language. While I don’t necessarily believe it is worth speaking a constructed language, those who speak a language have every right to use and promote it in the ways they see fit.

What do all of you think? Post your thoughts in the comments below.

My Experience in Learning Italian

It was really in the summer before 8th grade that I actually started learning Italian, but for whatever reason, I stopped until the second semester of 10th grade. I was going through my documents, cleaning out unwanted junk, and saw all my old Italian notes, which I decided to look at. I thought to myself, “Hey, this looks pretty similar to Spanish, and I’m sort of familiar with it.” And with that, I started researching all the grammar topics and compiling the vocabulary lists that now make up Scoprendo l’italiano!. The cultural information was added quite a bit later, after I went to Italy for a second time. In Rome and Florence (not so much Bologna), I got to practice a lot of spoken Italian, because neither my parents nor my brother spoke a word of Italian. It was a pretty fun experience, with people correcting my sentences every now and then. I was complimented on my relatively good Florentine accent (which is the accent taught to most foreign learners of the language), especially considering I had been self-taught. One waiter at a restaurant in Pisa asked me why I was even learning Italian, because he thought it was useless outside of Italy. I’ll admit, even though I’m very much a believer in practical application, I learned Italian largely for fun. I mean, that’s not to say I didn’t have practical uses for it. In fact, it helped me out on my SAT and Spanish, because it expanded my understanding of both English and Spanish by building my vocabulary.

Despite getting as far as I did in Italian, I realize that I still have a long way to go. I took a practice test for the AP Italian Language and Culture Test (for multiple choice), and saw how little vocabulary I actually knew. I was nowhere near having that amount of knowledge. Of course, now I’m trying to read more texts in Italian to improve my vocabulary and contextual experiences with the language.

However, I also have the problem of getting speaking practice. I’ve tried to get sessions with Italian speakers through a bunch of different language exchange sites: Polyglot Club, italki, Interpals (which I’m still trying out), and WeSpeke (which I’ve gotten a couple of audio/video calls on). But it’s not really enough, because the AP Exam has very specific situations, such as telling stories, describing a photograph, or something else. Obviously, I’m not planning on taking the exam, but I am continuing to study Italian to keep myself in practice. Hopefully, one day, I can study abroad, or spend an extended period of time in Italy.

Some of the resources I found really useful for practicing were the WordReference Dictionary, which helps with finding all sorts of words and Duolingo, the famous language-learning application. Hopefully, this post helps anyone looking to practice Italian!

The Power of Duolingo

In December, a friend of mine showed me this website called, “Duolingo,” knowing of my interest in foreign language. I created an account, and tested into both the Italian and Spanish courses, and was placed into Level 10 and 12 respectively. Looking at the skill tree, I saw that while my grammatical skills were strong, my vocabulary and idiomatic expressions in Italian were somewhat lacking. Over the following few weeks, I improved, and even went up one level. My vocabulary is now much better, and I feel more confident in my skills, although not quite enough to take the upcoming AP Italian Language and Culture Exam.

Whoever wants to learn Spanish, French, Italian, German, or Portuguese but doesn’t want to pay for full-fledged courses or doesn’t have the time, Duolingo is a great, free way to learn and practice your skills, although there’s no substitute for practicing speaking ability with a native or fluent non-native. If you’re a fluent speaker of a language not on the course list, you can join a team for that language to contribute to the building of a course through the three stages of development, and hopefully, add a new course for others to learn with.

Duolingo is an infinitely useful tool, and its user-friendly interface and interactive structure is great for learners of all ages. So, get learning! https://www.duolingo.com