Language Learning

I first used Duolingo in the second semester of my first year of uni in 2018. I had heard of Duolingo before that, but I never installed it. Before coming to uni, I had studied Spanish for 13 years starting from the time I was five until the time I was 18. I have to admit that during high school, I took language learning for granted. I took Spanish, and I enjoyed the class and the teachers, but I did not have a particular interest in learning languages. During high school, I was much more focused on going to fencing or chess tournaments than sitting down and studying Spanish, let alone other languages. I was also taking many courses in high school when compared with uni, and I did not have the time (or desire) to sit down and focus on language learning.

So I went to uni in a completely new country (the UK) with the mindset that learning languages did not really matter to me. I was content with knowing English and whatever Spanish I could remember. I was not interested in taking any language courses during my first few years of uni. I instead chose to take history electives, and while I enjoyed those courses, I now wish I had taken additional language courses. I like to think that during that first year of uni, I met and talked to far more non-native English speakers than I ever had in my life before going to Edinburgh. I was so impressed with other student’s ability to write excellent essays in English when it was not even their first language. I could barely write a good essay in first year, and English was my first language! So, during the second semester of first year, I decided why not try to learn more languages, and I made an account on Duolingo.

I chose French as the language I was going to learn because I knew that it was similar to Spanish. I felt like it could not be a terribly difficult language to learn if I was already proficient in Spanish. As anyone who has used Duolingo knows, the platform is fairly addictive. Having the constant reminder not to lose your streak means that I returned every day to complete more lessons on Duolingo. And I remember feeling frustrated at first, but I stuck with it. I found that I enjoyed learning languages. I wanted to be someone who could talk to people in multiple languages. I just felt like knowing multiple languages was a very cool skill to have.

In the summer of 2018, I went to Bogotá, Colombia and worked for a NGO there called Fundación para la Reconciliación (Foundation for Reconciliation), and I was forced to immerse myself in Spanish. It was really a great experience, and I realized then that Duolingo alone was never going to be enough. If you really want to learn a language, you need to bury yourself in it and immerse yourself in speaking it all the time. And while I have been very grateful for Duolingo helping me pick up French, in order to really become proficient, I feel that I have to immerse myself in a French-speaking country and study French there. J’ai une connaissance très basique de Français parce que je n’ai jamais vivre dans un pays qui parle Français (I have a very basic knowledge of French because I have never lived in a French-speaking country).

Since I have now graduated from undergrad at Edinburgh, I have been doing Duolingo for more than three years. I will concede Duolingo’s argument that they have expanded democratic (in the sense that it is free and widely accessible) language learning globally. That is certainly something to be proud of. Many people cannot afford to go live in a country where they want to learn the language or pay expensive fees to a language school in that country. I also like how interactive the platform is, and the streak feature keeps me coming back. I have had a streak as long as 291 days and also scored in the top percentile of Duolingo users in 2020.

I also amusingly put this statistic in my tinder profile when I was using tinder at the end of 2020. I did all those hours of Duolingo, but I still felt like my French had stalled. I was learning new vocabulary but whenever I heard French people speak, I felt like they were speaking at 5x speed. Despite Duolingo telling me I had studied 8568 words, I felt like I was at best an advanced beginner in French.

There are many benefits to Duolingo certainly, but it cannot be the only tool for language learning. Other useful methods for keeping up language practice is watching shows in another language or reading books or newspapers in other languages. I admit I have not done a good job of this with French, but I have been consistently watching shows in Spanish. Shows are a great way of practicing language learning because they actually require you to understand how certain native speakers speak and differentiate accents. I also picked up cool slang and other regional words that I might not have known before. I have read a few books in Spanish, but I need to do a better job with reading in other languages.

A fourth language that I attempted to learn was Mandarin Chinese. When I attended the University of Hong Kong (HKU) in 2019, I enrolled in the beginner level Chinese course. I actually took to it pretty well, although Mandarin is a difficult language (although not as hard as Cantonese) because of tones and characters. How you pronounce words (the tones) changes the meaning of the words and the lack of an alphabet means that Chinese is also difficult to read. I regret that I have mostly given up on learning Mandarin at the moment, although I may return back to it. Right now, I am more focused on learning French and improving and practicing my Spanish.

Another way that I would really like to do language learning is by talking to native speakers. Even if I can’t be completely immersed in a language, talking to native speakers in their language will really help me become better at various languages. I am not entirely sure when I set the goal, but I would like to learn 5 languages in my life. So far I know English and Spanish and am learning French. I feel like this goal is fairly far out of reach now, but it would feel so satisfying being able to speak 5 languages. While writing this post, I realized that I need to do far more than Duolingo to learn languages, although I’m by no means disparaging Duolingo. So, I want to use this post as a resolution to read, watch tv/movies and talk to native speakers in other languages. Onwards toward 5 languages!

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