I have been using Duolingo to brush up on my Russian language skills and it’s made me think a lot about language learning and teaching.
Welcome to Part 1 where I discuss my experience learning Russian in college and then again with Duolingo years later. In Part 2, I’m going to discuss how I see Duolingo and being a language teacher as intersecting.
A Brief History
I studied Russian for four years in college, and spent one of my semesters abroad in Krasnodar, Russia. I still don’t know why I chose Russian. Also, I was pretty awful at it. I mean, really. We were studying case endings for months before I figured out what a case even was.
In college, studying Russian meant one hour of class three mornings per week, plus a couple of hours of language lab once a week with a native speaker. It meant grammar charts and memorizing endings and long lists of vocabulary. It meant homework in the textbook, which included listening exercises on cassette tapes. (My friends studying Spanish got to do their listening assignments on the Internet. I was so jealous!)
I didn’t enjoy it. My primary major was International Studies, and it had a six-semester language requirement. I actually chose to study abroad in Russia because that semester would count as two toward the requirement. I could be rid of Russian a semester earlier.
But semesters abroad are transformative. Living the language, however bumblingly, changed how I felt about it. I went to Russia in order to quit Russian, but I came back from Russia with a newfound desire to keep trying to learn it. So I kept it up all eight semesters.
After graduation, I didn’t study anything at all. I was burnt out on being a student and I threw myself into being an independent young adult, finding jobs, and doing my best at them. Over the years I found my way to ESL, having never successfully learned a second language myself.
On a whim, late this October I decided to try Duolingo. It’s a free website and app. I use the app exclusively because it’s much easier to switch between English and Cyrillic on my phone’s keyboard.
With Duolingo, studying Russian means that I set a goal of how many lessons per day (I chose five, the maximum). A typical lesson takes 5-10 minutes. Listening, writing, and reading are all built in, unlike my textbook and cassette tape days. I often use my phone’s voice recognition to write my answers, which also helps my speaking to some extent.
I have not seen a single grammar chart or vocabulary list. Everything is presented in the context of a sentence, or occasionally just a phrase. In some ways I’m uncomfortable with this: if I can’t tell you the full conjugation of x verb I’ve been practicing, do I really know it? And there was one situation (verbs of motion, ugh) where my answers were basically random and I could not figure out what the rule was. I finally had to look up an explanation. But in other ways, I think it’s better: I’m (slowly) developing a feel for what sounds right in different sentences. And I’ve had to look up remarkably little so far.
Review is also built in. Each unit is rather small. After you complete the lessons in each unit, the icon turns gold. But after a few days or weeks, I think depending on your errors, the icon’s gold “wears off” and a little meter appears under it showing it about 3/4 full. That’s when you know it’s time to go back in and review. I assume that if I ignore it, the meter will count down, but I’ve never tried that. I am very motivated to keep all of my icons shiny and gold!
All of this adds up to the biggest difference I see between my college Russian and Duolingo Russian: fun. I dreaded Russian in college. I use Duolingo every day instead of playing games on my phone because it’s fun. And maybe kind of addictive. That is powerful.
The thing I dislike most about Duolingo is its automated error correction. Before I start whining, let me say that its error correction is a strength: I might worry about a person judging me for making the same mistake a third time in a row, but that’s not even on the table with a computer program.
However, the program is not perfect. For example, I translated a phrase as “Please take off your coat.” Duolingo marked it wrong, and told me that the correct translation was, “Please take your coat off.” Seriously? On every question you can flag it for problems, and so I did. I’m really good at spotting the English errors, what with the MA TESOL and eight years’ experience teaching English. But what Russian errors are slipping through the cracks that I either don’t notice, or worse, that I notice and learn?
I am loving Duolingo. It’s not perfect, but it’s great. It’s different from the traditional language classroom. And in many ways, it’s better. As a teacher, I’m very interested in this, and I’m going to explore it more in the next post.