Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Duolingo review, Portuguese

Have no worries, I'm not making a habit of reviewing apps. But many people know I love languages, and I've spent the last year playing around with this app and just finished the final Portuguese lessons, so I thought I'd share my thoughts.

First, a bit of background to explain my experiences with learning languages. If you want the short version, I'm good with languages but no savant. If that's enough background, feel free to skip the next five paragraphs.

I didn't begin learning Spanish until my junior year of high school. I remember a brief vocabulary unit in grade school, and starting at age 9, I worked in the fields in the summer time, often interacting with migrant workers from Mexico, so I'd picked up a bit of (mostly inappropriate) words, but not much even there. My high school Spanish teacher had a reputation for pushing his students. Some responded very well, while others, even those who did well in other classes, really struggled. I did well. Usually, language teachers say each year of high school foreign language is the equivalent of only a semester at the college level, but after two years of high school Spanish I tested into third year college classes.

I went on to major in Spanish, spend a semester in Spain, worked part-time one semester for a Spanish-language newspaper in Grand Rapids, MI, and generally brought my ability to a pretty high level--reading, writing, speaking, listening, each of which can be a very different skill. I am not at the level of a native speaker, by any means, but fluent.

I was always interested in other languages as well...but had less success, especially when it came to trying to teach myself. At a friend's urging, I tried to learn Welsh at one point. That went nowhere. Just before my semester in Spain, I spent a month trying to learn Catalán and picked up...a bit. While there we were exposed to quite a bit of Valenciano, which some linguists consider a dialect of Catalán and many of its speakers consider a distinct language (a political debate I won't get into). Between the two, then, and with its similarities to castellano Spanish, I could understand moderately well the general gist of what people were saying. But I couldn't speak it beyond a few words. (¡Bona nit!) I also recall watching Italian- and Portuguese-language films and barely relying on the subtitles.

Near the end of college, I had some extra time in my schedule and decided to add another language. I wanted to learn Portuguese, but the only option there would have been an independent study, and the prof who might have done that couldn't that year. I was also tempted by Dutch because of my ancestry (and given the college I went to, it was actually an option), but I ended up taking French. It was easy. French is another romance language, so even if the pronunciation is markedly different, the grammatical rules and root words are often enough the same. Still, I only took one year of that, so I wasn't fluent in the least, but enough to muddle through a text or catch the drift of a discussion.

After college, I lived in Dearborn, MI for four years, and given the number of Arabic speakers who live there, decided to try to teach myself. That went barely farther than the Welsh I'd attempted earlier. I found the materials I got from the library just poorly arranged for how I processed things.

So that brings us to Duolingo. If you're unfamiliar with it, it's a free app that lets you learn any of a handful of languages. It actually has quite a few options for English learners coming from many different languages. At the time I installed it, I think the only options from English were German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, and Italian. Finally my chance to learn Portuguese!

After almost exactly a year, I've completed every exercise, and I'm very pleased with my understanding of Portuguese. I never really took advantage of the social competitive aspects of the gamification, but the quick mini lessons and interface worked well for me.

It helps that Portuguese is so similar to Spanish. There are differences, but generally even those differences follow a pattern, so once you notice one thing, it's easy to extrapolate to other vocabulary or grammar.

The app progresses through a number of topics, some vocabulary-related, some grammar-related. (I've only used it on my phone--there may be other aspects of the browser-based lessons that I missed.) Then each topic has anywhere from a few to ten lessons which you have to complete before you unlock the next topic. The lessons are a mix of translating from Portuguese into English, from English into Portuguese (sometimes by choosing and properly arranging words, sometimes just with a blank text box), identifying a word based on a picture, recalling a Portuguese word, and listening to a Portuguese speaker and transcribing what she says. The transcription has both a normal speed and a half-speed option, which is helpful. Really quite slick...most of the time.

Some of the grading gets confused at times, if you don't translate exactly how the app expects you to. Primarily the problems come up in translating from Portuguese into English rather than the other way around. It usually has some leeway for alternate translations, but sometimes it expects the English to be closer to a word-for-word translation even if no one would speak like that (or vice versa, if you try to guess an awkward translation because you think it's what the app expects). And sometimes the nonsense of the practice sentences might trip up some learners--"The bears write the letters" takes the cake there, though perhaps that's pedagogically intentional...

I probably spent anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes a day most days, during that time. As you go through the lessons, the earlier lessons will change color as you move away from them, to indicate that you need to practice some of the words or structures in them again. Early on, I was doing as many as five new lessons a day and keeping everything up to full strength. After a few months I gave up worrying about keeping earlier lessons at full strength, and I dropped to one or occasionally two lessons each day, and had more gaps where I missed a day or even two. For the final couple of months it's been more like two to three lessons each day, with occasional but rare missed days.

After a year, how does it compare? Most closely with my year of college French, actually, and far better than the other languages I attempted to teach myself. In the classroom setting, we did much more listening to the prof speaking French and much more speaking the words ourselves (something the app doesn't require at all--understandably, but to its detriment). So you definitely miss out on that. I made myself speak the Portuguese words as often as it made sense, but I'm still not creating, but reading/reciting sentences. So that's on the con side, but I'm actually quite impressed with how much of the grammar and structure the app teaches over the course of its lessons, more in fact than we ever got to in a year of French classes.

If I were faced with having to speak the languages, I'd probably have done better in French after a year of studying (not anymore--it's been, umm, a decade and a half...), but I think I'd read a Portuguese text better now than I would have been able to manage a French text. In fact, that's one of my next goals, to find some Portuguese stories and give them a read. (Preferably Brazilian Portuguese, as that's what the app teaches--if anyone has suggestions, let me know!) If I found myself in São Paolo, I think I could make myself understood. My pronunciation would undoubtedly be more Spanish than a native speaker's would, and I'd probably slip into some Spanish vocab now and then, if I forgot the Portuguese word. But I think it's at a point where I would just need to be in a situation where I had to use the language, and after a little while I'd feel pretty comfortable, though not anywhere near my comfort with Spanish.

Ah, but is that really much more than if I'd just gone to Brazil knowing Spanish? That's the big question I have now. The muddling around and confusion would have lasted longer, but remember I watched Portuguese films in college without too much difficulty.

So...now on to Dutch, which is one of a few languages that Duolingo has just added. Despite my ancestry and despite growing up in an area with a high concentration of people of Dutch descent, I know next to nothing of the language. Like English, it's a Germanic language, so in some ways I'm sure it will feel familiar. But I suspect it will be much more of a challenge than learning Portuguese was.

I'd love to hear how others have found the app for their language learning. And any other language related things that fits here--comment away.