One of my proudest travel memories is the time in Paris that a local asked me, in French, for directions. I directed her! In French! With words as well as flailing hand gestures! It was to a place I had just been, and I summoned up the words from somewhere in my high school memory (thank you, Madame Newton!)
Another time, I was walking along a Parisian street and fell instantly in love with a dog that looked very much like a fox (my favorite animal, the animal I’m happiest to see outside my house, my spirit animal). Was there possibly a French breed of dog that looked just like a fox? I had a long conversation with the woman on the other end of the dog’s leash. Her English as about as good as my very-elementary French, but we concluded that her lovely little dog was a mutt, one-of-a-kind, “particuliere.”
On my most recent trip to France, I rented a house in Chenonceaux from a lovely man who wrote me perfect emails in answer to all my questions. But when I finally met him, it turned out he knew way less English than I knew French. He carried a smartphone, and asked me to type my questions into his Google Translate app. He was very nice, and I’d love to have had some real conversations with him.
I can read French much better than I can speak it. But the nuances of newspaper articles and even museum captions escape me. And life is too short to be typing every foreign word into Google Translate.
Over the years, I’ve accumulated a collection of French study books and CDs, which mostly gathered dust. (Just to show how long I’ve had good intentions, I even have some “Learn in Your Car” audio cassette tapes. I no longer have a car that will even play them).
After my most recent trips to France, I finally heard of the language-learning app Duolingo, launched for public use in 2012. As of 2018, it features 28 languages for English speakers, plus many more for native speakers of other languages. It’s a free app, with paid options ranging from about $6-8 per month to go ad-free. I decided to spring for the 6-month option to see just how much French I could learn in that time.
My grandchildren use the free version for both French and Spanish. They love it. (And I think it’s way better for them than video games). After a month, I’ve passed 16 of the available units; that leaves me another 80 to go. Will I be fluent if and when I finish the course? I doubt it. But I’ll know a whole lot more French than what I can remember from high school.
What’s good about Duolingo:
- It’s right on my phone, and it’s addictive. There’s a cheerful little bell tone for every correct answer, and a little musical fanfare for every level and unit passed. The rewards come around pretty quickly. Plus I earn “Gems” at various milestones, which turn into rewards like bonus lessons. I could also buy Gems, but that’s not happening.
- It’s repetitive, mostly in a good way. It forces me to actually learn tedious things like verb tenses and demonstrative pronouns, which I have always just skimmed over. I’ve always gone straight for the meat and potatoes of nouns and verbs, and winged it from there.
- There’s a free companion app called Tinycards, fun digital flash cards for those times when I’m kicked out of class on Duolingo (more on that below).
- Every French word and phrase is spoken. There’s also a feature where I could speak into the microphone, but so far I haven’t been able to get that to work on my phone. (If I actually repeated the words and phrases as they come around, I’d get much better at speaking).
What’s annoying about Duolingo:
- Nothing is ever explained. I’m way too impatient to learn everything by trial and error. Fortunately I have the aforementioned resources that have been gathering dust for so long. Instead of making a ton of mistakes on a subject, I study up on it before I tackle a unit. I also cheat by looking things up on Google Translate.
- If I knew nothing about the language, I’m not at all sure I’d have the patience to keep going.
- The farther along I get, the fewer mistakes I’m allowed. After about two mistakes in a session, or at most three, I’m shut out. I have to wait a certain amount of time, sometimes hours, before I “regain health” so I can continue. This feature is to prevent binging (did I mention the app is addictive?) I can bypass this restriction by using a bunch of my earned Gems. After a certain amount of time, I can also bypass the restriction by doing about 20 “practice” review items. But still, I resent being thrown out of the classroom when there’s not even a teacher to answer a question.
- A mistake can be just one letter, a typo.
- It’s very time-consuming. (And did I mention it’s addictive?) The company claims that 34 hours of Duolingo is equivalent to a semester of college study in a language. I don’t really want to know how many hours I’ve invested in it so far–I suspect it’s already more than 34. I feel like I should be farther along.
- Update about three weeks later: everything changed! After I had doggedly studied Duolingo daily for about 42 consecutive days, I was offered the chance to spend some of my hard-earned “gems” for the privilege of “learning at my own pace.” Magically, I was no longer kicked out of class for a mistake. Instead, the exercise was presented again, several times if I didn’t get the concept at first. Then it was repeated again, later in the session.
- I poked around online to try to find out how it really works. It seems there have been many versions of Duolingo carrot/stick tactics over time. Whatever! I like it much better now and I’m very happy I didn’t quit in disgust (which I felt like doing many times).
- I seem to be about a third of the way through the French curriculum. Will it make me fluent? No way. I think that would really take years. But I’ll be way better.
Some years ago I wanted to learn Italian, which is supposed to be one of the easiest languages to learn. I bought a very expensive set of Rosetta Stone CDs. I just couldn’t get into it, for the same annoying reasons listed above for Duolingo. Even the Idiot’s Guide and Living Language resources I optimistically bought didn’t help very much. Now I’ve read that Duolingo is much more efficient than Rosetta Stone. Aha! I wasn’t the only impatient person!
I did study “Reading German” in college, enough to actually read some Goethe and get an A in the course. So I can muddle along in the language, and I find it easier to pronounce than French. And German speakers are much more tolerant of a beginner’s attempts to communicate. (French natives are not at all shy about correcting a hapless tourist’s pronunciation or usage). I could study both German and Italian on the app at the same time as French, but I think that would be asking for trouble.
I’m off to France again in November. I’m going to force myself pull up my socks and use my hard-earned French. Wish me luck!