Hurrah for me! Yesterday I did my 365th day with Duolingo, learning Spanish and “playing” with other languages. As I’ve mentioned before I originally set out to develop an extensive glossary of Spanish terms for food and for restaurant menus WITHOUT attempting to learn the language itself. I was relatively sure I could accomplish this goal despite persuasion from others that I should learn the language.
My main resistance to trying to learn Spanish was failure in my previous attempts using conventional learning materials, initially audio tapes, then later with DVDs. These materials weren’t much help but also used a different learning technique (also more traditional) than Duolingo. So when I discovered Duolingo AND began to try to learn some Spanish with it I found it was much more helpful. And the early success I had encouraged me to keep going, ultimately leading to much of my available time devoted to learning Spanish rather than working on menus, as was my original intent.
Not only does Duolingo take full advantage of newer cloud-based technology it seems to have the attitude of making learning “fun” through various gamification tactics. Since it’s free and its revenue comes for ads it also encourages you to do more study than you might otherwise so. Over the year Duolingo has even increased these incentives with various “competitions” (just for bragging rights) but designed to give you more “rewards” than just learning the lessons. All this worked for me and I soon found myself nearly addicted to doing Duolingo every day.
I mostly used the PC version of Duo instead of the phone app version. Mostly I hate trying to type on phones (plus spell correct initially changed some Spanish words to English and thus I got the drills “wrong”), but also typing, especially after I learned how to setup typing on my PC to type Spanish (i.e. accents and ¿ and ¡ easier. Since Duo drills involve a lot of typing (transcribing audio, translating sentences) the PC version worked better for me.
As I used Duo more and more I decided to also explore other languages. While I’m doing the Spanish lessons thoroughly (each “skill” has five levels, in Spanish I complete all five levels before moving on (the next lesson is “unlocked” after finishing level 1, but I do all the levels) I also decided to have “fun” with other languages. I had two years of French in middle school with a very conversational approach and then two years of German in high school with a more conventional “academic” approach. Duo is a mixture of these two styles of learning language. So, despite German being my least well learned foreign language I actually rushed through the lessons and got my first “owl” (completing all lessons to at least one level) in German. I remembered French better (plus it’s an easier language) so I went through more levels in French but haven’t finish the entire “tree” (the complete set of “skills”).
For fun I also did some Portuguese, Italian and Catalan. I’ve visited Portugal, without knowing any of the language (again I got tapes and a book and learned nothing). I’d had some exposure to Italian because my first attempt, decades ago, at developing a glossary for food/restaurant terms was for Italian, after once visiting a restaurant in California where the menu was entirely in Italian and I was lost ordering. So since I, someday, want to do Italian and Portuguese more thoroughly I only did a few of those lessons. Interestingly learning Catalan is not available from an English base; instead you learn Catalan from Spanish and since I didn’t know Spanish I couldn’t get far with those lessons.
And, then, after reading a lot of the comments the Duo community generates I also decided to start the learn English from Spanish tree after I’d done about 20 skills in Spanish. The vocabulary used in the English lessons generally matches the vocabulary in the Spanish learning so by the time I started “learning” English I knew most of the Spanish words used to create the drill questions.
So the consequence of all this is I’ve: a) learned quite a bit, and, b) piled up a lot of the various scores Duo uses for incentives to keep learning. So, as a summary I’ve accumulated 118,559 XPs. Usually 10 XPs are granted for completing a drill (usually about 20 questions) with some bonus points, in any language. Also I soon discovered “stories” (for Spanish, English, French, German and Portuguese) which are a dialog (rather than isolated drill sentences) and generally completing one of the stories generates about 24 XPs. So this translates to having done about 8000 individual sets of drills or stories, or about 20/day, which translates to about an hour a day, well over the “minimum” (15 minutes) that Duo recommends. That means I’ve done about 400 hours in Duo and they claim 35 hours is equivalent to a semester. Now for Spanish I’ve acquired 71,691 XPs which means about 60% of my time in Duo is for Spanish or approximately 160 hours. So, have I done five semesters. NO WAY! Using a different system of rating language fluency, the CERF system, I’ve done online tests and have just barely achieved the A1 level (and maybe 1/2 of A2). One could expect to achieve this level of fluency in less than a year of classic classes (either high school or college level). I’ve spent more hours than classes would require but I’ve learned less. BUT, I’ve learned way more than I could have expected based on previous (failed) attempts.
I’ve also now done 78 of the Spanish “skills” so I’m only about half way through what Duo has to offer. So projecting it’s going to take me another full year to finish the Duo Spanish course. I would expect after completing my next year to be somewhere past the A2 level which should be good enough for most “tourist” conversations in a Spanish speaking country. Duo makes the learning fun so I do believe I will finish all Duo has to offer for Spanish and then I’ll need to supplement my learning with other sources.
In addition I have received 1114 crowns, an award given for completing any level within a skill. For Spanish I have 388 crowns which is nearly half of the 797 maximum. I’ve also gotten 300 crowns in French and 288 in German. Duo says I’ve learned 2174 words in Spanish. Since I’m obsessed with this I wrote my own program for drills (smart flashcards) and so I accumulated all the vocabulary I’d encountered in Duo (along with both masculine and feminine forms (mostly for adjectives) and plurals, even though Duo doesn’t count all these variations). For verbs I also enter all the conjugations (the five persons used in all Spanish countries, Duo doesn’t do much with the plural “you” (vosotros)). By now at 78 lessons I’ve had three conjugations in indicative mood (present, preterite and imperfect) and one conjugation in imperative. Spanish verbs are fairly regular but nonetheless there are still two indicative tenses (future and conditional) I haven’t hit (yet) in Duo and all of the subjunctive. So still a lot to do with verbs. But according to my drill file (the XML that contains all the words from Duo, with all the variants) I have “learned” (at least encountered) 1453 “root” words (the masculine singular or verb infinitive) and 3129 total forms; IOW, assuming I actually know all these (and I usually remember about 98%) that’s learning around 9 “words” per day. And that is a tiny fraction of the vocabulary (even only considering fairly common words) of Spanish. For instance, in comparison, I’ve encountered 128 verbs and meanwhile, as part of my original project, I’ve found over 500 verbs related to cooking. I believe one needs to know around 300 verbs in order to at least stumble through simple conversations, so again all these metrics indicate I’m still about a year away from any conversation in Spain or Ecuador (I could probably stumble through ordering in a restaurant, in conjunction with the 2000+ words I’ve accumulated through menu study (only a few of these appear in Duo).
SO, IOW, I’ve made a lot of progress, more than I could have expected, and simultaneously I have a huge amount left to learn. Maybe I’ll keep doing this blog long enough that eventually I can claim “fluency” in restaurant and/or cooking conversation.
All of this is a pleasant achievement for me BUT there is a major flaw in my learning. Most of what I “know” is in written form, not audible. Duo provides some practice in listening but almost none in speaking. Thus “conversation” would still be nearly impossible for me.
When I first heard audible drills in Duo (beyond just a word or simple phrase) it was all just a jumble of sound. Spanish is spoken rapidly and pauses between words are almost non-existence. Thus “parsing” an utterance was nearly impossible for me, at first; now, it’s just hard. So I’ve tried to supplement Duo with an obvious resource: TV. My cable subscription has tons of Spanish language stations, some of which have closed captioning (not the same as sub-titles) and a few channels allow selecting either English or Spanish captions. Listening to those, without captions, I hear almost nothing, and with captions I hear a little more. So I have a huge hill to climb before I could understand what a waiter might say to me in a restaurant.
Speaking and listening are different problems. While I have no way to practice speaking, nonetheless I can probably stumble through that better than listening. While speaking I can take time, in my head, to think of what I want to say. And while I might pronounce the words badly I could probably (mostly) use the right words, at least for a simple request or query. But listening one has to do in “real time”, i.e. the sounds flies by and you get it or not, with no control over the speed.
So I have two major challenges, on top of learning to read/write Spanish and that is hearing (just have to get faster at parsing utterances) and speaking (pronunciation, plus details of sentence structure that sound correct, rather than sorta Spanglish). I do know that knowing more words (and at least having heard them in Duo exercises) makes hearing a sentence easier. Listening to Spanish TV I literally wouldn’t “hear” anything without the work I’ve done, but, still, unlike reading (where I can skip an unknown word and “read” the rest, then maybe guess the unknown word from context), I’ll just have to have a ton more practice before I can hear.
So on one hand I’m happy with my first year of Spanish and simultaneously totally unhappy about how little I really do know, especially for a conversation.
So, Dear Reader, catch up with me in a year and see whether I can claim at least simple conversational fluency. At least, both from Duo and my menu reading project, I should be able to read the menus and order in Spain.