My Green Guru

It’s May the 4th which can only mean one thing…


Sorry to disappoint you, fellow Star Wars fans. My new master is this little guy:

Duolingo owl

Lately, I’ve broken the humdrum rhythm of my life to tackle some new challenges. I’ve taken up meditation and yoga, quit social media and I’m learning Spanish. Duolingo has been my main teaching device, but I’m also listening to Lightspeed Spanish podcasts and reading books from the library which conquer verb conjugations. I’ve also been watching Narcos and Breaking Bad, but honestly, they’ve only expanded my ability to swear fluently to my friends.

For those who haven’t heard of Duolingo, it is a free language learning app that has 200 million subscribers. On the English speaking version of the app, it currently has 31 available languages, from Arabic to Vietnamese, Spanish to Swahili. There are even fictional languages on offer for Star Trek and Games of Thrones fans, where you can learn Klingon and High Valyrian if you fancy dropping the subtitles. It adopts gamification to make learning fun, and consists of small lessons which earn you XP and open up new levels for more learning. It breaks down the language into stages, teaching you vocabulary, tenses and other grammatical constructs as you go. You can return to any previous lesson to refresh your memory.

Some of you may be familiar with CAPTCHA squares, where you must enter the squiggly word to complete an online purchase. A computer scientist, Luis von Ahn, helped launch these and saw the world begin to use them effectively. However, he began to feel guilty about the collective time it took for each person to enter in a word. He then saw an opportunity to translate the internet using this human input. All physical books are being uploaded online via scanning, but books over 50 years old were not easily deciphered by a computer using OCR (Optical Character Recognition). Why do I mention all this? Well, from here, the free app and website Duolingo was created. It not only teaches its participants their chosen language(s), but also helps translate and digitise books online at the same time. You can watch his full TED talk here.

Here are my favourite things about Duolingo:

1. Delving deeper
For any lesson, you can hit the discussion tab to explain the answer or give you more of a local context. It’s good to suffer together when you fall into a trap, or just to have a moan about how the suggested word threw you off the scent completely. For me, I’m learning Spanish in the hope of moving to Costa Rica, so I enjoy learning about the differences between Spanish and Latin American Spanish. If there is a particularly weird sentence, I always click on the discussions button for some comedy.


2. Flirting
If you’re looking for love, Duolingo has your back. No one will be able to resist you with smooth lines like this:


3. Bizarre sentences
We’ve all been there:


4. Dark
Sometimes, Duo goes to the gallows. Some levels are peppered with phrases that make you look over your shoulder, or just leave you feeling empty.


5. Deep, man
There are some beautiful phrases that surface every now and then:


6. Duolingo Stories
Available on the website, the Stories are aimed towards intermediate learners. Some narratives consist of one part, but others may continue over two or three consecutive parts. Each story takes around 10-15 minutes to complete, and is presented in a voiced script. You can click on the words or phrase for a translation. Throughout, you are tested on word meaning, synonyms, dictated phrases to write down and asked comprehension questions. The themes are diverse, from a disastrous blind date to a basement thriller.


7. Podcasts
Again, these are available on the website Labs link. I’ve only recently started listening to these as I wanted to expand my vocabulary first, but I am enjoying them so far. The podcasts are more difficult than the Stories, but you can see the transcript if you scroll down the page. I opted to test my listening comprehension on its own. You do receive occasional help in English from bilingual narrator, Martina Castro, who founded Adonde Media. The personal recounts cover a diverse range of topics, from sporting heroes to family abductions.

8. Competition
On Duolingo, you can join a group of fellow learners who are learning your language. You are entered into a weekly points race and can interact other users in a forum. There are questions and pictures posted by the app to generate conversation too. Maintaining your daily streak is more achievable when you’re pitted against other learners. When you complete your tree, the levels get harder. You are asked to translate more by writing your own sentences with no prompts, and new vocabulary is added.


9. Further learning
One function I only recently discovered is the Duolingo Words page. It lists all the words you have encountered on the app and their strength bars. Words that you consistently get right and encounter frequently are full strength, whereas words you only occasionally meet in the levels, or words you often confuse, are weaker. The spaced repetition algorithm will throw these words at you eventually, but if you’re keen to build your vocabulary quickly you could note down these weaker words and use another app, such as Anki. It’s worth noting Duolingo now has their own version, Tinycards, but I found this too easy and repetitive.

I’ll be back soon with more from Duolingo and my Spanish learning journey. Hasta entonces, ¡adiós!

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