Duolingo is a site for learning languages, and translating web content at the same time. There are two functions, and the user uses two languages - the one he knows already and the one he wants to learn.
The site is based on the crowdsourcing idea - collecting data from many users in order to create content, in this case, translated versions of sites and articles. The system compares the submitted versions in order to create the most accurate one. But, as people would not be thrilled with translating texts for free, they are politely tricked into doing that while learning and practicing languages. The users get nicely designed excercises and language knowledge and the site crew gets translated texts, and everyone is happy.
A new user can register using the Facebook account, or create an unconnected one, and choose the language pair he will work with, that is the language the site will be in and the language he wants to learn. There are several options - English - Spanish, French or German, Portuguese - English and Spanish - English. The user chooses the level, either beginner or advanced and can read information about grammar items, and then go to the practice part. There are several kinds of interactive activities - writing translations of given words or expressions, writing down the expressions you hear, choosing the right answer or translating longer texts.
The site offers very easy access to knowledge - vocabulary is put in thematic groups and if you click on the word you get a translation (or several possible ones) and in case of verbs, their conjugated forms.
The material is divided into smaller parts, and once the user completes one part he unlocks the next, and all the pieces are put together in a 'skill tree', which resembles the idea often used in computer games. Each success can be shared on Facebook, and compared with the results of other users. The site shows how many points the user achieved each day and sends reminders if the user becomes inactive.
There are some issues, for example, a translating a text activity is not really adjusted to the lesson level If a beginner just learned the words like ‘man, woman, apple’, they will not be able to translate a newspaper article. Also, the accuracy of the translation is based on comparing it with the texts submitted by others, which don’t have to be correct at all. Therefore a person who submits a translation with the accurate meaning might get worse grades than someone who just wrote equivalents of the words one by one, and didn't even convey the meaning. The ‘real world translation’ part is useful because it shows real language, but also confusing for a beginner, because good translation requires a proficient use of the language. But the real point of the translation activities is actually to get the users to help translate articles, and not to help them learn.
The site is very pretty, filled with nice colors, with large windows, intuitive icons and a bunch of cute pictures of bird-helpers. The ‘skill tree’ is really well designed, with pretty icons showing which subject we can expect from each part (a paintbrush for lesson about colors, falling leaves for a ‘nature’ lesson). Parts of the site feature good quality photos for easier vocabulary understanding.
There is a number of different activities to do – writing, listening, gap filling, choosing the right answer, and they all work well, without bugs.
Duolingo is a great tool for learning the basics, but a more advanced student will need a real conversation partner, because learning a language is about real life communication more than just translating simple phrases.
The ‘skill tree’ idea is great, especially for young people who are used to that style in computer games, but can be a bit frustrating, if someone wants to practice more advanced vocabulary, which is locked until he passes through the previous lessons. So, it’s not the best solution for independent learners, but a good one for those who like to be guided.
Also, the real point of the site is to get people to translate internet texts, but at least that allows the site to be free of charge.
Using Duolingo is an enjoyable experience, it’s a good practice tool and vocabulary and grammar database. Also, thanks to the notification system, it can help forgetful people to come back and revise every now and then.