Why I love: Duolingo, the language app that’s the next best thing to travel

Missing international travel? At a loose end? It’s time to learn a language, the easy way.

These are hard times for lovers of travel. Even if you weren’t unlucky enough to be forced to cancel a trip, there’s no getting around the fact that, for the foreseeable future, international travel is over. The winter trip to Fiji, the Olympics jaunt to Japan, the second-summer holiday in Europe – none of it will be happening this year. We’re staying put on these islands, a five million-strong bubble bobbing in the Pacific, waiting for the day the world opens to us once more.

So what should travellers do in the meantime? Trust me, listlessly scrolling through Instagram feeds of faraway places won’t make you any less morose. Here’s a better suggestion: learn a language, and use Duolingo do it.

To be clear, this isn’t one of those attempts to guilt you into using this time more productively. It’s totally fine if you emerge from lockdown brandishing a grand total of zero new skills and exactly the same number of abs you went in with. But if you’ve always wanted to speak another language, now’s the perfect time to give it a go.

The reason to start now is twofold. Not only do you probably have a bit more free time than usual, but with international travel a far-off prospect, you actually have the months you need to learn the basics of a language at a realistic pace.

What the French course looks like a few months in

Why you might want to learn a foreign language in the first place is obvious enough. Just think back to the last time you stepped out into the arrivals hall and realised you still didn’t know how to say more than “hello”, “goodbye” and “thank you” in the local tongue. Or the hot shame of trying to order a meal or ask for directions without the first idea how to do it, and kicking yourself for not learning a few simple sentences before you got on the plane.

Maybe I’m making assumptions about other travellers. While for me mild embarrassment is a chronic condition, you might not give two shits about sounding like an idiot while buying a train ticket. In which case, congratulations  – I sincerely wish I could be more like you. Still, chances are that given the choice, most of us would like to be able to ask simple questions, to read signs without Google Translate, and to enjoy the small satisfaction of knowing we at least tried to speak something other than English.

And that’s the point: Yes, English is the world’s lingua franca, and in most tourist-friendly destinations you’ll probably find someone who can speak it. But starting every interaction with “Do you speak English?” or worse, speaking English without even asking first, is ultimately disrespectful of the culture you’re travelling in. Less altruistically, you’ll often find you get a friendlier reception from locals if you speak a few words of the language before switching to English. No matter where you go, people appreciate the effort.

So you’ve decided that your next trip to a non-English speaking country will be different – you’re going to give learning the language a crack. First things first: download Duolingo and make an account. Why that app? The real question is why on earth you’d use anything else. To fall back on an exhausted trope, Duolingo is to languages as Tinder is to dating. It’s an app (and website) that has succeeded in upending an entire market sector, replacing all the elements that once seemed essential to language learning – the heavy textbooks, the CDs, the human interaction – with one intuitive, thoughtfully designed digital platform.

No, Duolingo won’t provide the same quality of teaching you’d get with a good tutor, and the app alone won’t get you anywhere close to fluency. But it’s a brilliant first step, it’s fun (if your idea of fun is correctly conjugating irregular verbs) and it’s free.

Most importantly, it’s addictive. There’s a saying that it takes 21 days to form a habit, though I wouldn’t know because I’ve rarely kept anything up that long through sheer willpower alone. But I’ve found that watching the days tick over in the Duolingo app – first a week, then a month and now close to a year – has been incredibly motivating, despite the knowledge that it’s merely basic cognitive psychology at play. I’ve done lessons on road trips and in airports; I’ve sneaked away from Christmas celebrations and birthday parties, just to protect my treasured Duolingo streak. And ultimately, it’s my willingness to stick to it that will prove the difference between success and failure. Because petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid – little by little, the bird builds his nest. I just learned that.

Last night’s tally

A beginner’s guide to Duolingo

What languages can I learn on Duolingo?

There are currently 35 languages courses for English speakers on Duolingo, everything from global tongues like Spanish and French to more boutique options like Navajo, Romanian and Swahili. You may have heard news of Māori being added, but the course won’t be released to the public until February 2021. In the meantime, your best at-home option for learning te reo is Māori Made Easy (supplemented with video help from our own Leonie Hayden).

How does Duolingo work?

Once you’ve set up an account and chosen the language you want to learn, it’s time to start your first lesson. Each lesson takes a few minutes and consists of a mix of reading comprehension, translation, vocabulary and speaking exercises. After completing a certain number of lessons you advance to the next level. Complete all the levels in a particular “skill” and you earn a crown – this is also known as “gilding” the skill, because once it’s completed it turns gold. (Crowns, streaks, lingots, gems, hearts… get ready for a lot of cutesy, video game-inspired lingo).

If you’re using the phone app you’ll get five hearts a day: each error loses you one heart. Once you’ve run out you’ll need to “buy” more hearts using points earned by completing previous lessons, or wait for your hearts to refill the next day. This is one of many places you’ll be prompted to upgrade to Duolingo Plus, the paid version of the app, which offers unlimited hearts. A lot of users despise the hearts system, a relatively recent innovation, but I find it encourages me to really focus on the lesson and not make stupid mistakes. And you can always avoid the hearts entirely by using Duolingo on the web.

Will I become fluent?

Nah. Sorry. How far you do progress depends on the length and quality of the course – some, like Spanish and French, are far more comprehensive than others – and the amount of supplementary learning you undertake. That could be Duolingo’s own own-brand spinoffs, such as the Duolingo podcast and interactive stories, or YouTube videos, non-English Netflix and other language-learning apps. There’s no substitute for talking to a native speaker either, so once you can string some sentences together consider signing up for lessons either IRL or using an online platform like iTalki.



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