A few years ago, about six months before a trip (my first) to Paris, I downloaded Duolingo in an attempt to “learn French.” I put that in quotation marks because I did not, of course, expect to become fluent or even mildly conversant in a foreign language over such a short time frame, and especially not using an app. But I did expect to learn something — anything — useful. I hoped to learn how to say “Where is the bathroom?” or “How much does this cost?” or “I want that one,” the sort of purely transactional but useful phrases a tourist needs to get around town at least somewhat politely. When I went on a class trip to China in college, I learned these three phrases, plus “hello” and “thank you,” and I remember them all today, 14 years later. Do you know why? Because they are real things people say, unlike most of the phrases I recall being taught via Duolingo.
Here is what I remember from my months of Duolingo French studies: “une pomme.” An apple. I cannot even begin to tell you how many times Duolingo had me talking about apples. And not in normal, plausible contexts — not “I’ll have an apple, please,” or “Do you want my apple?” The circumstances in which Duolingo envisioned my needing to speak about apples were either too fanciful (“The bird is eating an apple: L’oiseau mange la pomme”) or vaguely threatening (“My pocket contains an apple: Ma poche contient une pomme.” I translated apple from English to French and back again. I spoke it aloud. I typed it out when it was spoken to me. “I GET IT,” I screamed at Duolingo. “UNE POMME.”
Sure, I know how to say hello, and please, and thank you, but these are all things I’d already absorbed by living in a country that loves putting French words on pillows and T-shirts. I didn’t learn much of anything about sentence structure, because the Duolingo app doesn’t explain that to you. If coming to a language as a novice, you’ll learn largely by trial and error, which means you’ll learn by memorizing, with little context as to why sentences look the way they do. It’s hard for me to believe anyone could really learn a new language in any meaningful way with this program. But I’m not a language professor, or an expert; I am merely a crabby writer with slight Francophile tendencies. What do actual language professionals think of Duolingo?
Duolingo’s design largely relies upon a system called “spaced repetition,” a technique in which learned information is repeated at regular (usually short) intervals. And it’s true that spaced repetition combats what’s called the “forgetting curve,” thus allowing for easier and longer-lasting memorization. Memorization can help you learn new vocabulary. But we also get worse at memorization as we age, say Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz, psychologists and co-authors of Becoming Fluent: How Cognitive Science Can Help Adults Learn a Foreign Language. Memorization and accent come more easily to children, but adults have more tools at their disposal, say Roberts and Kreuz, like higher proficiency in our native language, and what they call “metalinguistic awareness,” or knowing how a language works. When adults expect themselves to learn effectively based on rote memorization alone, they write, they soon become demoralized, and give up.
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