Just over two years ago, perhaps closer to three, I started using DuoLingo as a way just to keep my mind occupied with French. I have no grand illusions that an app like this will make me “fluent”, and I feel the same way about even the more intensive programs like Rosetta Stone. I think they are good, but the only real way to learn a language is to use it in your daily life. Telling stories that are relevant to you, figuring out how to say something the way YOU would, not the way Jean-Pierre would if he was renting a car in Paris.
I was quite surprised with the program. I thought it would be completely along the lines of a refresher, and then I hit something that was a bit of a tiny awakening in an area that I thought was both easy and settled. The present tense. I mentioned in the last post (French update – Screwing up the conditional (#2017-006)) a bit about the present tense seeming to me to be a bit “too active”.
For example, I mentioned that the phrase in french, in the present, for eating is “je mange”. Officially translated, that is “I eat” in English. And I never really thought about it too much other than that it seemed too abrupt to me. In English, I would never say simply “I eat an apple”, I would always use the descriptive/slightly-more-passive form “I am eating an apple”. It was only while using DuoLingo that I realized that in practical terms, “Je mange” means both/either “I eat” or “I am eating”. While you could say “Je suis en treine de manger une pomme”, or in some contexts, “Je suis mangeant une pomme” with the same gerondif, it’s not common.
Why did this register with me more clearly than previous training? The app. It is on the screen with both translations at the same time, bopping back and forth, instantaneous and direct. It was a way of learning that no book with slow corrections after the fact ever conveyed. And it locked in my head. Almost 14 months of training over my career at various times, and an app did it in 20 minutes.
What else could it do for me, besides helping with review? Well, not much, because I got bored / otherwise busy and stopped using it. It has a great interface that encourages you to keep going each day — to set a daily goal (mild to insane levels), taking anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes depending on how much of it is review vs. actual learning. And to keep the “streak” going. The gamification approach applied to language learning.
I actually started to get stressed about it near the end of my streak (about 45 days, as I recall). I would get busy during the day, go to do it at the end of the day, and it had passed midnight. No more streak. Highly frustrating. I was trying to do something else on my phone at the time that had a regional requirement for timezones, so I changed my timezone to do that, and realized my Duolingo still thought it was the day before back in Ontario. So I completed my “day”, did my practice, got credit for continuing my streak, and reset the time zone. I figure if I’m going to the lengths of lying to my phone where I am simply to keep my “streak” alive, I’m getting a bit too obsessed with it! When the streak finally ended, I stopped for a rest, and never got going again. This past week, I started using it again.
I have the app on my tablet, the app on my phone, and the website on my main computer, all of which synch to my account to keep track of progress across all of them. I couldn’t find an option to completely reset everything to zero, but I must have had a crash or loss of info at some point (I seem to recall an email about it sometime), because it doesn’t show much completed even though I know I was more than 50% done. No worries, I just started manually redoing each exercise from the beginning.
What do the exercises offer?
- The first set of exercises, The Basics 1, has four exercises in it and it takes you through le/la/l’, un/une, il/elle/je/nous/tu, enfant/fille/garçon/homme/femme, suis/est/es/, et, a (for avoir), pomme/orange/chat/robe, rouge/riche/noir/calme, and manger. Nothing startling in there for me, simple way to refresh, although as I said above, I love seeing the “Je mange” on the same screen as “I eat” and “I am eating”;
- Basics 2 has five exercises and adds les, sont/sommes/êtes, avez/avons, j’/vous/ils/elles, aimer/ecrire/lire, and menu/lettre/livre/journal, while also adding concordance and plural forms of previous words;
- Phrases has four exercises, and I quite like this one just for practice, partly as I suck at what I call “transactional french” (where there are quick phrases back and forth, it takes my brain too long to switch into French and then we’re past the transaction stage). Even something as simple as ordering something at Tim Horton’s at work, I practice it in my head, get up there, open my mouth, and then I’ll end up in English because my brain is just not putting together a simple sentence to respond. Anyway, this set adds oui/non/d’accord, merci/merci beaucoup/pardon/s’il te plaît/s’il vous plaît/bienvenue/de rien/désolé, bonjour/salut/aurevoir/bonsoir/bonne nuit, comment ça va/ça va/ça va bien, à demain/à plus tard/à bientôt, and the super important il y a;
I also unlocked an idiom collection, which in exercise one gives me:
- rien n’est eternele (nothing lasts forever);
- ça va, ça vient (easy come, easy go);
- loin des yeux, loin de coeur (out of sight, out of mind); and,
- l’herbe est toujours plus verte chez le voisin (the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence).
Is any of it earth-shattering or will it make the difference in passing my exams? Probably not, but it isn’t a bad way to do some quick review to get my mind flowing in french a little better. Or to switch to french a little faster, I hope.
As a small aside about the application, the website is WAY more detailed than the app for learning. In addition to the actual questions/exercises, it is really easy to see extra explanations for each set (little mini-lessons to explain how things work, which is harder to get to in the app), as well as discussions in the forums/comments for any question in the exercise…often there are people who ask the same question you did, such as “Wait a minute, why isn’t that in the plural form there?” and someone answers it in the comments. Along with four other people debating what else it is like, why it should work but doesn’t, etc., all of which can be quite helpful too (learning from the thought patterns of others who already learned some neat tricks/rules to help remember why that conjugation is in the singular form).