Duolingo Dossier

So, let me start off by saying I have absolutely no personal or professional stake in Duolingo. In fact, I actually applied for a writing job for them once and never heard back…but that slight misstep (on their part) aside, I really love Duolingo, and for this month’s post, I’m going to tell you why.

Generally, I’m all about setting goals and challenges for the New Year, but alas, my goal this year is actually to have zero expectations whatsoever (we’ll see how that goes…). However, for those of you who haven’t been quite so jaded by 2020, January is still a great time to develop new habits, such as learning or practicing a foreign language. And for me, Duolingo has been an amazing way to keep that particular habit up for the last 446 days (yes, that’s my current streak number – woohoo!).

They seriously get me.

Of course, before I can get into the specifics of the app/website itself, I have to recount why learning a foreign language is such a great thing to do. In short: it does amazing things for your brain, it gives you new insights/perspectives, it can connect you to other people and cultures, it can be incredibly useful for travelling abroad, and it can be a fun way to diversify your skills and spend some time away from Netflix/social media, just to name a few of the major benefits. Even if you try Duolingo and hate it, I still recommend finding a language-learning system that works for you (in-person classes, one-on-one video chats, traditional workbooks, etc.) because there is really nothing like learning a foreign language!

Now back to Duolingo. One of the reasons I love this particular app and website so much is that they are completely free. It’s not the usual you get all the basics for free, but as you advance you need to pay or spend a certain amount of time on the app or whatever other hoops they’ve come up with. No, with Duolingo, you can access all the materials and completely finish as many courses as you’d like without ever having to pay. Of course, they do have a “Duolingo Plus” option, which allows you to work offline and skip any ads, but in my years and years of using Duolingo, I’ve never been tempted because, honestly, the ads are super minimal, no videos or anything, and who’s ever “offline” these days anyway? 

Another absolutely amazing thing about Duolingo is that there are a plethora of language options/courses to choose from (from Irish and Hebrew to Klingon and High Valyrian, no joke), and it’s super easy to switch back and forth between them. This is great if you’re like me and feel like French Fridays should be a thing. It’s also great because not only does it track and keep record of your progress, you can also test into a course and not have to start at the very beginning (for example, if you took Spanish in high school or gained some previous experience elsewhere). I’ve also mentioned a few times now that there is both an app and a website – they’re linked by your account, but they each have slightly different options, views, exercises, etc.

I also love that Duolingo allows you to set personal goals, for example, how much time you want to spend practicing each day. It also can send you reminder notifications or emails if, like me, you have trouble remembering if something happened early this morning or yesterday… Of course, these goals and reminders are completely optional and customizable, so you can turn them all off and live a more low-pressured life if you’d prefer. The lessons themselves are also extremely quick (or “bite-sized” as Duolingo touts), so it’s actually really easy to fit them into your schedule. I typically do mine while I’m waiting for something: the water to boil, the dog to pee, etc.

With Duolingo I also love the variety it offers. The courses/lessons are fun, and they aim to create useful yet entertaining sentences, scenarios, etc. but there are other features that are equally helpful and perhaps even more dynamic. I especially love going through the “stories”, which use the vocabulary and grammar you learn in the courses to create dialogues with a bit more context and substance. The stories and characters are quite entertaining – one of my favorites was when a character’s son thought his parents were lion tamers because he found a whip in their closet! Tell me that’s not an intriguing story to read in any language! Haha! Tucker and I have also been competing to complete all the different achievements (like earn 100 crowns, finish #1 in the leaderboard, etc.), which is another way to increase motivation and add another level to our learning. The Duolingo podcasts are also really fun (and free). They use both English and your target language to narrate longer, true stories related to life, culture, and the human experience.  

Everything is bigger online!

I also really love how intuitive the interface and activities are. I recently got my parents (who aren’t necessarily “app-people”) into it and no matter how tech savvy (or not) you are, it’s super easy to set up and use. It’s also not very grammar-y (which I realize is a plus for most people). The courses aim for immersion-like teaching (similar to Rosetta Stone), so you cover the major skills without having to sit through grammar instruction. There are “tips” that you can check at the beginning of each section, but they’re not necessary. Duolingo also takes a thematic approach and groups its sections according to topics like “greetings, restaurant, travel”, etc. which build on themselves as you progress.

Ultimately, it feels like playing a game. You complete the activities, you win gems, which you can then use to “buy” outfits for Duo (the owl mascot), or for fun courses like “idioms, dating”, etc. There are also “leagues” where you can see how you stack up against other learners, “wagers” where you can bet some of your hard-earned gems and go for double-or-nothing if you maintain a 7-day streak, etc. And oh, the streak! Probably my favorite of the stats they keep up with – it feels amazing to see that number climb and know that while I didn’t do much in 2020, at least I can say that I practiced a foreign language every. single. day. 🙂

So proud!

Finally, I think it’s important to remember that everything in Duolingo is take it or leave it; some people focus on the streak, others on the checkpoints, others pick it up and put down every few years or so; it’s really whatever flotter votre bateau. And even though Duolingo isn’t sponsoring this post (not yet anyway), I still really think you should give it a try, because for me it has been a simple, fun way to develop a skill that can bring tremendous benefits and entertainment, for free! So, try it out, and when you do, be sure to say “hola” to Duo for me!

Student Perspectives: To Me China Is ______

This semester I’m teaching an English Stylistics course where we delve into the various styles of written English including official documents like resumes and letters of recommendation, but also more creative forms of writing like poetry and blogs. To finish out the unit on creative writing, I had my students use the features we’d been discussing in class to write a blog post of their own, and for added excitement and authenticity, I told them I’d share the best ones with all of you on my own blog.

We decided on the topic “To Me China Is _______” as a way for them to reflect on their own culture and harness their own unique points of view to share something new with an unknown audience. I honestly wish I could share all 46 of them because they all did an amazing job, but for now, here are the links to some of my favorites:

To Me China Is…Golden

To Me China Is…Unequal

To Me China Is…A Land Full of Beauty

To Me China Is…Superficial

To Me China Is…Diverse

To Me China Is…A Peaceful Haven

To Me China Is…Full of Magic Power

To Me China Is…A Treasure-trove of Specialties

To Me China Is…Possibilities

To Me China Is…Changing



Language Woes

IMG_0262One of my goals this year, as I mentioned in my last post, is to really focus on my Mandarin skills. I’m planning to take the HSK before we leave next summer, and I’d really like to do well. The HSK is a Chinese proficiency test for foreigners learning the language. The highest score is a 6, which would demonstrate “a learner who can easily understand any information in Chinese and is capable of smoothly expressing themselves in written or oral form”. I’m aiming for a 3 (haha!), and since I’m likely going on this journey alone (Tucker really has no interest), I’d like to at least share a little bit about what makes Chinese such a difficult language to learn.

First off, there is no alphabet. For example, (meaning “not”) is pronounced méi, while (meaning “establish”) is pronounced shè. They look similar, but sound nothing alike. Similarly, 香蕉 “banana” and 相交“to intersect” are pronounced the exact same way (xiāngjiāo). There is clearly no “sounding it out”, which is what frustrates Tucker to no end! Okay, you think, that’s not such a big deal. You just have to remember the characters as if they were words. Unfortunately that means there are over 50,000 to memorize. Also, each word is not one character; they are some combination of characters, which means not only do you have to know the characters in a particular word, but you have to know the order: 蜜蜂 (mìfēng) means “bee”, but 蜂蜜 (fēngmì) means “honey”. No, I don’t want any bees on my toast, thanks.

43 strokes for 1 “biang”!

However, recognizing the characters and knowing their order isn’t enough either because if you want to learn how to say them or find more information about them, in, say, a dictionary, you must be able to write them. Chinese has a very particular stroke order, which refers to the order and direction in which you write the characters. This is how Chinese dictionaries are often organized (even online), and if you don’t obey the proper stroke order, most online translators can’t seem to figure out what you’re going for. If you’re someone who starts your English letters from the bottom up, good luck! Even if ignoring the correct stroke order wasn’t an issue, most Chinese characters an average of between 7 and 12 strokes. The most in any single English letter? 4. My characteristically neat handwriting has never been tested in such a way!

Luckily, a group of linguists realized just how difficult the Chinese characters were for people coming from languages with alphabets, so they created one of my favorite things in the world: pinyin. Pinyin is a system of phonetic representation of Mandarin. It utilizes the Latin script (like English), and allows us, alphabet freaks, to quickly (and more naturally) read the pronunciation of a word. Sometimes a word will be presented with both the characters and the pinyin, such as: “卫生间 wèishēngjiān” (which means “bathroom” by the way – very useful!). This double representation is why I often say learning Mandarin is like learning two languages, you really have to know the characters and the pinyin! It is super helpful for us when we see both pieces of information together though. Then we know both how to say the new word and how to write it. Unfortunately, we rarely get that; usually it’s one or the other, not both. Sometimes there is a translation instead of the pinyin, but I’m not sure that is always so helpful…

This one is actually pretty great!

IMG_0266Another problem we often encounter with pinyin is that it is more often than not missing the diacritic marks. Those marks represent the four tones of Mandarin, and are essential in its pronunciation. Unlike in English, changing the pitch of your voice while speaking Chinese can actually change the words you are saying. The pronunciation of mā (“mom”), má (“hemp”), mǎ (“horse”), and mà (“to scold”) only differs in tone. Unfortunately for lazy, toneless English speakers (like me), this makes it really hard for native Mandarin speakers to understand exactly what we’re saying. We try for “mom” and end up with “horse”, something which I hope has been more entertaining than irritating for them!

Ultimately, we struggle in reading, writing, speaking, and, with the various Chinese dialects, listening is a challenge as well. However, if you ask me whether I find Chinese or Polish more difficult to learn, I’ll say Polish every time. Chinese and English grammar actually have a lot in common. Our word order for example, is pretty similar. Chinese also has no articles or gender to worry about (two language features that I learned to despise very early on in French, and again with Polish). Perhaps most interestingly, unlike Polish and English, Mandarin is an isolating language, which means that the verbs are not inflected or changed for things like tense or aspect. So while in Polish I had to work really hard to conjugate and decline every word in a sentence before I could put them into a coherent thought, in Chinese I can just string them all together, adding new words when a change in tense or number is needed. For my brain, that is so much easier to do!

There is also something so intuitive about Chinese. Although my Chinese teachers tell me I should NEVER separate the characters of various words, it’s hard not to, and honestly that’s what helps me remember the vocabulary half the time in the first place! Here are some gems we’ve discovered (so far) in the Chinese lexicon:

IMG_0267Train = Fire + Car

Balloon = Air + Ball

Cellphone = Hand + Machine

Turkey = Fire + Chicken

Menu = Food + Sheet

Patriotism = Love + Country

Delicious = Good + Eat/Drink

ZhongWenAlright now! Who’s ready to learn this with me?! Chinese is definitely a language on the rise as far as power and prestige go. Much like what happened to English in the 1700s, increases in immigration, tourism, and business are spreading Chinese to all parts of the globe. In Australia, I was surprised and delighted to find Mandarin on most signage, and, even in Georgia/Florida (quite far away from China), maps and other tourist information can often be found in Mandarin. Some linguists refer to Chinese as the language of the future, and while right now it’s more painfully in my present, I hope to keep it around for my future as well! Wish me luck! 祝我好运!