Because singing random lyrics from operas is apparently not considered a reasonable way to engage in conversation in Italy.
Despite the impending deluge of study and work, us MAMBAs are already thinking ahead to August, when we will be travelling to Milan for a semester to study at Bocconi University. It’s been a pastime during study breaks for us to bounce around travel plans and look at rental apartments in Milan. The regular updates from the MAMBAs who have been there for the last few months have also kept us excited.
Having learned the hard way from living in Germany a decade ago and how long it took me to become fluent in German after arriving, I knew that I had to get fluent in Italian ahead of moving there. I also have the enduring memory of the last time I was in Italy - an exasperating conversation with a train conductor who was trying to tell me I had boarded the wrong train to Venice. He couldn’t speak English, and I couldn’t speak Italian.
Now you may be thinking: “but you’ve sung in opera, surely speaking Italian is a requirement of the job”. Admittedly, in order to perform well in opera, you have to have some capability to translate original language text and use that as the basis for creating the emotional context of a piece.
The learning system itself is based primarily on role-playing game mechanics. Users are presented with groups of words labelled as “skills” and for each skill, you undertake a series of 20 question tests. A mistake will cost you a “heart”; lose more than three hearts and you fail the test. Get through the test and you get experience points. Get enough experience points and you go up a level. You can also earn “lingots” as a form of currency that can be exchanged for bonus skills to learn (e.g. how to flirt in Italian, very important), extra hearts, or to upgrade the outfit of the owl avatar that helps teach the skills (mine sports a monocle, handlebar moustache and a dapper coat). To ensure that you don’t lose skills as you progress, you are required to go back occasionally and retest certain skills to keep them fresh.
For the tests themselves, each question is selected from one of a few types. In some you simply select the picture corresponding to the word, others will ask you to translate a sentence from one language to the other, others require you to transcribe audio, and yet others require you to speak a sentence into the microphone. You end up getting a good mix of questions, though the nature of the app is such that it tends to limit itself to the vocabulary that you’ve already learned when it comes to generating test questions. This can lead to some odd, funny and sometimes outrageous phrases. I’ve put a few of my favourites in the slideshow below.
The Duolingo system has a forum community for discussions and to augment learning, though I haven’t explored it extensively as of yet. There’s also the ability for users to translate text from articles in a crowdsourced manner, but I haven’t tried it.
One good feature of Duolingo is the ability to link to other friends on the app and create a leaderboard for gaining points. I’ve already added a few of the other MAMBAs to my leaderboard, and it’s starting to get competitive, especially when you complete an exercise, take the lead, and then come back an hour later to see that someone else has overtaken you.
Nonetheless, there are still some flaws (beyond the sometimes odd selection of vocabulary and sentences for exercises):
- Limited grammatical instruction: in the app at least, there’s no introductory or parallel instruction on the grammar of the language you are learning. This made it difficult to determine the conjugations of verbs initially, especially the irregular verbs essere (to be) and avere (to have). You are basically left to figure it out yourself or look it up elsewhere.
- A lack of feedback on mistakes: beyond basic feedback such as typos and the errant accent, you don’t receive much instruction as to why the answer is meant to be written the way it is, especially for words with multiple meanings or unusual grammatical constructions.
- The voice input questions are easy to pass: given the difficulty of creating a voice recognition algorithm that works with the large variety of voice types and accents, they have to set the bar low.
It’s frustrating and demotivating, especially for words like “kilometre”, where due to the continued intransigence of the United States in adopting the metric system, there is no functional claim to the American spelling of “kilometer”. After all, how can you change the spelling of a word you don’t use?
Okay, I’ll get off my high horse about that and stop trolling the country I am living in (and two thirds of the world’s native English speakers). Overall the program is convenient, functional, and the source of the occasional laugh. The gamification is well executed, blending well with the learning mechanics of the application, and being just overt enough to drive that psychological reward mechanism and keep the user hooked. The price is also great in that it’s free, both in cost and in terms of not having any advertising revenue – their revenue model is based on third parties paying for the crowdsourced document translation mentioned earlier.
But does it work? Duolingo themselves make reference to a study (commissioned by them) showing that 34 hours of practice with Duolingo is equivalent to a semester of university level instruction. That said, individual results may vary, so I’ll be testing my knowledge on the new group of Italian exchange students.
If they don’t fall over laughing we can consider it a success.
If they do I’ll be getting a copy of Rosetta Stone.