Since many translators are usually language scholars – in addition to our working languages, it seems that we always try to learn new ones – I thought to provide a brief overview of my experience of studying Italian with Duolingo, a free online website for language learning. If other readers have used Duolingo, I would be interested in listening to your impressions!
The Basics: Duolingo promotes itself as “ the most popular way in the world to learn a language“. It’s free and you can take lessons on the Duolingo website or through the app. Currently 23 languages are offered (the ones you would expect, as well as surprises like Esperanto and Welsh) and the method of attracting interest is that you study the language in very small increments – each lesson takes about five minutes to complete. Duolingo is also very playful, from the point of view of content, whether or not you like this type of thing. You earn prizes and “ingots” (virtual treasure that can be redeemed for various bonuses on the site), and you can also follow friends who study on Duolingo. Like many other web-based learning platforms, Duolingo offers an ad-free paid version and allows you to download lessons for offline use. Paid updates range from 5.99 to 9,
My aim: I started the Duolingo Italian course about six months ago, with the aim of being able to converse in Italian at a basic level. I don’t aspire to translate from Italian . My family has made three bicycle tours in Italy and one of my (many) great dreams is, one day, to deal with some kind of music course in Italy, to deepen my studies related to the lute (what can I say … keeps me away from worries). I followed the “Italian for Dummies” CDs and obviously the full immersion experience is useful when you are on site. But my goal is quite essential: to be able to converse in Italian with simplicity. According to Duolingo, I now have 40% command of Italian; I will talk more about it later
The advantages: Duolingo must be recommended for various reasons. It’s free, it’s fun, and it’s a fairly easy way to learn the basics of a new language . The lessons are very clear and well designed, and I admit that Duolingo’s gimmicks work with me (like a spell!). I really try to take advantage of every little moment of time (waiting for a conference call, waiting for my daughter at guitar lessons, and so on), so as soon as Duolingo sends me an email, “Do you have 5 minutes? Take a lesson! ” I am there. Duolingo offers many ways to consolidate what you are learning: you can hover your mouse over a word to hear it spoken or to view its equivalent in English.
The disadvantages: if you are trying to learn a language for real (or more or less for real), Duolingo also has some negative aspects. First, the lessons seem to be less varied and creative as one progresses on the scale. Initially, the Italian course involved a wide range of activities: translating from Italian to English and from English to Italian in writing; on sight translate sentences written in English into Italian spoken(with analysis of the pronunciation), link the images with their nouns in Italian, and so on. But, since I made progress, the exercises translate into English almost exclusively sentences written in Italian. Which, if you translate French to live and have studied a little Spanish, it’s not that difficult, even if you don’t have the slightest idea of how to produce that sentence in Italian. It is not difficult to guess that the Italian verb “to work” means “to work”, even if you don’t have the opportunity to use it in a sentence. So in this sense, Duolingo helps develop passive comprehension skills rather than actively speaking skills.
In addition, Duolingo’s evaluation “You are X percent fluent in …” gives a very inflated feeling of one’s abilities, depending on how you consider it. As mentioned above, Duolingo classifies me with a mastery of Italian for 40%. If this means that there is a 40% chance of understanding an expression in Italian or that I am 40% of the basic knowledge of Italian … OK. But I bet that many people who take Duolingo courses interpret this percentage as “I’m 40% of the way to speak this language perfectly”, which is not the case at all. For example, based on my experience, it is impossible for someone who started from 0% and achieved 100% mastery, exclusively using Duolingo,
However, I like the fact that Duolingo really emphasizes the constant and daily practice and that the lessons have a duration that makes them assimilable, without perceiving that one’s head is about to explode. I would urge other translators to use Duolingo to increase their discursive command; it’s free, fun and very addictive to use.