Building my language skills one day at a time
This past year I’ve been working hard on my French language skills. It’s been a great thing to focus on, and having something where you can actually see improvement and track change every day has been a great antidote to lockdown. For one of my 30 before 30 goals, I decided to try to master the Duolingo French course. Check out my 30 before 30 post to read my preliminary thoughts on what I had assumed to be a relatively easy goal to achieve.
Note the slightly negative tone of that last sentence: I didn’t actually master Duolingo French. To be fair, I had done this in the past, so I had some reason to feel confident. However, there have been so many updates both to the course content and to the ‘game-play’ of Duolingo, that I think it would take a serious number of hours each day to fully master and complete the course within a year. However, I did achieve a 365-day streak (and counting!), which I’m pretty proud of. It has been quite an awful year for me in some ways (which I may write about at some point) but knowing each day I had to do just a little bit of French, and coming back to it each and every day, has been kind of grounding.
So what has changed in the app since my first post? Quite a lot! It’s worth noting that I’m using the Android version, which seems to lag behind the Apple one, so there may be even more new features I’m not yet aware of. But here I’ll give you a quick summary of the changes, and how they’ve impacted on both the feel and experience of using Duolingo, and my actual knowledge of French.
This is the element that has made the most difference to how actually useful Duolingo is. One of the elements that has been historically lacking in Duolingo French is the way it teaches you grammar – it has largely been kept in the ‘tips’ section, and has been somewhat incomplete. But new course updates have introduced dedicated lessons on grammar, so you can solidify your understanding of the basic rules of the language, and make better use of the other lessons.
In addition to the grammar, lots of new vocabulary and phrase levels have been added. These aren’t far off doubling the length of the course. While this may have scuppered my mastery target, it’s great to have so much more, and more challenging, material to work towards, and they really help you feel you’re getting closer to being conversationally capable.
This is one change that doesn’t really make much difference to how you use the app, but might make a difference to how much you use it. These are weekly leagues where you compete against other users by gaining XP, earned from finishing lessons and refreshers. Being cynical, it’s easy to interpret this as a way to boost the monetisation of the app, both in terms of greater ad revenue, and by making the subscription all that more tempting. But it is also reasonable that if you’re drawn to the gamified aspects of the app, the leagues can be a good motivator for keeping you on track with your learning. I go through phases of being really focused on my league position, and contrasting periods of not caring about it at all. It’s possible to kind of ‘game the system’ by completing lots of very easy refreshers, which aren’t really adding to your overall knowledge. But I think if it helps you keep up your regular commitment to a learning habit, it must be a good thing.
Legendary level and Hearts
This is another change that must be born from the need to monetise. Legendary is a new sixth progress level for each subject – the difference being that once you’ve completed this, it will never ‘degrade’ and you will no longer need to practice the subject. While you can still do refreshers, they’ll no longer be necessary to maintain your progress.
Hearts are now the ‘currency’ required to take new lessons. Gone are the days of infinite mistakes – you’ll now lose a heart for every mistake, and with a maximum of five available at a time, it really slows your progress. You can use ‘gems’ to buy more hearts, or gain them by completing refresher lessons. However, you can only access Legendary lessons by spending ‘gems’, and you can only make three mistakes (with no hints, and no opportunity to ‘re-fill’). Gems can also be topped up by voluntarily watching adverts, which will earn you a random (and sometimes very small) number of gems.
The legendary status is quite an arbitrary add-on. It’s more like an exam conditions test, so if you are someone who relies on hints, they’re a good way of testing how thorough your knowledge of each subject really is. But you can still continue to work though the course in exactly the same way as you did before their introduction, ignoring the legendary status altogether.
These two changes go together to make quite a big difference to the look and feel of the game, but as hearts impact your ability to reach new content, it is only these that will impact how you actually learn.
I hate to sound like a broken record, but this is another gem-based bonus element that won’t fundamentally change how you interact with the app. They’re XP based challenges which will offer you a ‘badge’ for completion. As well as incentivising Duolingo Pro, this plays into the social media side of Duolingo. This isn’t something I’ve used much, as I don’t really feel the need to share my daily/weekly/monthly progress with my friends. But if you’re competitive, it could be fun to add a load of your Facebook friends and compare badges. Perhaps another way to stave off lockdown boredom?
Finally, this is an update that does make a real difference to how well you will learn. Recent updates have introduced a range of new voices for the lessons. For years, it has been the same two voices, making it hard to know if you’re actually tuning your ear to French, or just learning the speech patterns of those two individuals, almost by rote. So it’s great to have more variety of age, pitch, accent, and so on. I think this will really impact how useful Duolingo is for listening to French in real life, and for improving your conversational French. More changes like this please!
Would I recommend Duolingo?
Despite my cynicism about some of the recent changes, I do still think Duolingo is one of the easiest and most thorough apps for learning French. I’ve tried lots of others, including Babel, Memrise, and Clozemaster, but none of them can really compare to the sheer amount of content you get free access to with Duolingo. It’s a fair trade to swap that many lessons for a few adverts.
If you’re tying to get started learning a new language, I’d really recommend giving Duolingo a try. It’s never going to completely prepare you for French ‘in the wild’, but it’ll get you a good way towards feeling comfortable with the language, will prepare you for travel, and will give you a good basis to build up to more complicated language and texts.
I may not have achieved my 30 before 30 target of mastering this course, but I certainly learned a lot, and had some good fun along the way. I’m feeling more confident than ever in my French, and looking forward to building on this in the months and years ahead. Two-year streak, here I come!
Have you tried any language apps? I think over the past year a lot of us have turned to the likes of Duolingo as a distraction from being stuck at home with no travel. Which is your favourite app, and is there one you think I should try instead of Duolingo? I’d love to hear about your experiences, so please do share in a comment! Thanks very much for reading!