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Duolingo makes learning a foreign language easy (and free!)


Duolingo and Stephane Mignon CC BY 20

John Burger - published on 01/03/18

Program makes it fun to learn another tongue

If learning a new language is one of your new year’s resolutions, you might want to check out Duolingo.

It’s a free, online program that offers self-instruction in dozens of languages.

Launched over five years ago, the interactive site and phone app now has about 200 million users worldwide. If you’re a native English speaker, Duolingo offers courses in 27 languages, including Spanish, French, German, Italian and Portuguese.

As the founders hoped, many of those users are in third world countries, where learning a foreign language normally is out of reach for the poor. In 2015, TechCrunch reported that the governments of Costa Rica and Guatemala were running pilot projects that use Duolingo in a number of public schools.

“The majority of people in the world who want to learn a language are learning English because it might get them a better job,” co-founder Luis von Ahn told Slate in 2014. “And learning a language usually requires money. You need to attend a good middle school that has a foreign languages department, or buy a program like Rosetta Stone that can cost hundreds of dollars.”

Von Ahn, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who started Duolingo along with his graduate student Severin Hacker, grew up in Guatemala but went to a school with English classes. “I was one of the wealthy few,” he told Slate.

Starting a new course at Duolingo couldn’t be less intimidating. The first frame in the introductory Spanish lesson announces, “Select the word for ‘the woman,'” and there are three photos to choose from. When you click on the right one, which also is labeled “la mujer,” the program gives you a woman’s voice saying la mujer in Spanish. You are invited to click on the “Check” button, and a nice ring tone, accompanied by a written check mark, affirms your choice. You want to go again, so you click, “Continue,” providing the next set of photos and the invitation to click on the right word for “the man.”

In time, you are invited to translate simple phrases, writing the English version into a box. One thing leads to another, and before you know it you’re putting basic sentences together.

The program is not without its critics, but if you are looking for an easy and inviting way into a foreign language, Duolingo is not a bad place to start.

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