Friday, November 16, 2012

Learning a Language and Translating The Web: Does Duolingo Work?

Luis von Ahn - Pop!Tech 2009 - Camden, ME
Luis von Ahn - Pop!Tech 2009 - Camden, ME (Photo credit: kk+)
by Dr Ignacio Garcia, Senior lecturer and academic course advisor for Interpreting and Translation courses at University of Western Sydney, The Conversation:

Duolingo, a new free language-learning site, says it can help you learn a language for free while simultaneously using your learning exercises to translate the web.

A pretty big claim, but at the heart of Duolingo is an interesting idea - that people can use computers to do something while computers, in the background, achieve something else.

It’s much the same idea behind the founder of Duolingo, Luis von Ahn’s other venture - reCAPTCHA. This program uses the simple tests that prove you’re a human (and not an internet bot) to also help identify words scanned from old books.
reCAPTCHA form (reCAPTCHA/Wikimedia Commons)

Released to the general public in June 2012, Duolingo already boasts over 300,000 active learners and has raised $US15 million of venture capital.

But despite a great deal of attention, all the information we have on how it works is from one condensed TED talk. And as yet, no formal independent review of the program has been published.

Earlier this year, I took the program for a test-drive (as a reviewer, not as a genuine learner), to check whether what Duolingo offers matches von Ahn’s promises on language learning and translating.

The new lingo

Von Ahn claims that with Duolingo people can learn a language about as well as with the leading language learning software through translation.

For centuries, translation was the core of formal instruction for language learning but then, in the sixties, the communicative approach replaced it. Duolingo is basically bringing the translation model of language learning back.

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