Friday, 19 April 2013

A review of Duolingo





Launched in June 2012, Duolingo's core idea is simple: you learn a language for free while helping to translate the web.



Where is the idea coming from?


Duolingo is the brainchild of Luis von Ahn. Luis invented CAPTCHA, the blurry snippets of texts used by websites to tell computers and humans apart.




As a tool for preventing algorithm to signup to web services, CAPTCHAs were pretty effective. Taken collectively, they were also a big waste of time. Aware of this, Luis made amendments to the code to allow unsuspecting users not only to identify themselves as humans but also help digitize books.


This approach of bringing together two seemingly unrelated problems is what ultimately gave birth to Duolingo. The business model is for the language lessons to forever remain free to the users, but to start charging companies for the user-generated translations.



How does it work?

The site currently offers tracks in German, French, Portuguese, Italian and Spanish for English speakers, as well as English for Spanish, Italian and Portuguese speakers.


For each language, Duolingo displays a long skill tree. Each step in the tree contains several lessons. Every lesson needs to be mastered for the step to be mastered, which then unlocks the next steps in the tree.





Does it actually work?

Broadly speaking, yes! Duolingo makes learning languages fun and engaging. Here’s how:

  • The lessons and quizzes are geared towards practice rather than theory and find exactly the right balance between challenge and fun.
  • The whole experience is gamified (losing lives when answering incorrectly, gaining points for correct translations, being awarded increasingly unattainable medals).
  • The social features keep users engaged (leaderboard, forums).
  • Advanced learners have the flexibility to unlock specific portions of the skill tree to start directly at the lessons relevant to them.
  • An iPhone app has gathered rave reviews and an Android version is in the works.
  • The Duolingo team is very reactive and users are encouraged to report bugs (both technical and language based).

Overall, the interface is incredibly well thought-through and the feeling is one of great quality. It’s easy to forget when using Duolingo that you haven’t had to install an expensive piece of software on your computer.
For instance, the software is typo-resistant so you don’t lose precious points because of fat fingers.




Is Duolingo perfect then?

It's getting close but here's what's in the way:


  • Even though the constant stream of improvements is impressive, Duolingo sometimes feels a bit ‘beta’ and users (especially as they advance through the skill tree) need to be willing to contribute to the site by raising issues with the support team and suggesting amendments to quizz solutions.
  • Decay was recently introduced in the skill tree. Now steps are not ‘mastered’ for life but need to be regularly refreshed. Whilst this is a much more realistic approach, some bugs have been preventing users from actually practicing their most ‘decayed’ skills.
  • Finally and perhaps more importantly for the long term survival of the company, the Immersion tab which contains articles to be translated is actually the least engaging part of the site. The article selection is very narrow and the overall experience feels much less polished than the skill tree. If Duolingo is to continue to thrive, let alone make its VC backers rich, it will need to sort this out.



To conclude, Duolingo not only is a fantastic tool to pick up languages from scratch but is also very valuable to more advanced learners. The site keeps introducing new tools, new languages and improving the overall experience at an impressive pace.
With its amazing user interface and incredible business model, Duolingo is pushing the boundaries of what is possible in the realm of free and open online education.


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