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Tech Talk

Learn a foreign language with Duolingo

5/14/2014

Learning a foreign language can be tough — really tough. Just ask the thousands of graduating high-schoolers who only took two years of Spanish or French to meet the requirement of Iowa’s three public universities. For years technology has been trying to soften the education gap in the foreign language venue. In the 1980s and ’90s, it was audio cassettes. The turn of the millennium ushered in Rosetta Stone, a costly software package. Today, the mobile application Duolingo may have finally solved the puzzle of learning a second language.

Founded in 2011, Duolingo has accumulated more than 25 million users to date and is so effective that Apple named the application the iPhone’s app of the year in 2013. It is easily the most disruptive force in foreign language education. Built using crowd-sourced linguistic and programming knowledge, the application is available for free on Android, Apple iOS devices, as well as online. Currently the English-user platform offers lesson plans teaching French, Spanish, German, Italian and Portuguese, with many more being developed. 

The reason for Duolingo’s popularity and effectiveness is a programming practice known as gamification. Gamifying education or informational content means turning a learning environment into a passive, reward-based setting that mirrors elements commonly found in video games, which can be very addictive to the user. Unlike traditional classroom- and vocabulary-based learning, where the focus is on memorization and vocabulary building, Duolingo users receive points, badges and “level-ups” while progressing through the application’s lessons. Other popular applications that employ gamification to engage and retain users include Foursquare and www.Mint.com.

An unexpected feature of the gamification model is the rapid progress through levels. A common complaint of foreign-language courses is how students fail to retain information because of how quickly the classes progress. Turning that issue on its head, a study from University of South Carolina found that, in 34 hours on Duolingo, users learned and retained more than 60 hours worth of information offered by classrooms and other software settings. CV

Patrick Boberg is a central Iowa creative media specialist. Follow him on Twitter @PatBoBomb.

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