Duolingo’s Oddball Content Bloopers
The Duolingo app, like many others has a lot of good things going for it. It’s a fun, short practice you can do almost any time or place. If you’re a commuter like me, you’ll find it’s great for doing short practice on the train. Like many similar apps it tracks your progress and encourages you to go for longer and longer streaks without interruption.
The colors are bright, the illustrations are cute and it has lots of languages to practice.
It’s just a shame the content isn’t better.
Of course I can’t confirm the content in each and every language course they have on offer but let’s look at some of the more “interesting” entries.
By using the app you score points and earn in-app currency called Lingots. You can then use these or buy more through the App Store to make in-app purchases like character outfits and to put your study queue on hold for a day.
If you miss a day in your study streak you can also pay real money to get it back which seems counterproductive. The point of forming streaks is to form good study habits, keep them up, and hold yourself accountable to continuing. It’s a motivating tool. Breaking the streak means a break in your learning, and a small failure of habit. Buying your way out of that is the opposite of good habit formation. It’s a lack of accountability.
As for the outfits or decorations, I just don’t care enough about them to bother interacting with them at all.
Lack of options
In my case I use the app for Japanese. Take a look at this screenshot though. Even without studying Japanese you can make an English sentence with the option at the bottom pretty easily. It means that I don’t need to understand any of the study materials in order to get the right answer. More options or terms with similar meanings in the word choices would be an easy way to fix this.
Gaming the system
This isn’t really a fault of Duolingo but I found that by doing matching activities like this, you can kind of game the system a bit. Do all the easy ones first and the last one that’s left you can just match. That means that I can actually do the hardest one the easiest. But I strongly believe there are ways to game any app or activity. After all, most test-prep classes actually don’t teach the content and mainly focus on test-taking techniques.
It’s sometimes too basic
Which of these pictures is sunny? Again, I don’t need to engage with the target language, Japanese, in any meaningful way here. Take away the English word, “sunny” and replace it with the target language and then you’ll have an activity worth doing.
A is B
Here the word choice is odd. This sentence can help you with word order or very basic understanding of grammar but can it be more meaningful? There is literally no time when I ever need to use this sentence. Ok, if I’m describing something unusual I might say “A Shiba is a dog,” or more naturally, “A Shiba is a kind of dog.”
This isn’t really all that bad but it’s symptomatic of many of the language choices the content creators made when making the app. I’ll list more below. But in case you’re wondering the little button where it says “report” next to the flag doesn’t seem to get much of a response from anyone. That or they are sick of me reporting these things.
My dog also sells hats.
How I know on one at Duolingo is doing much about this is that this particular example came up in Phillp Kerr’s short piece on Adaptive Learning (click here for more)
That was in 2014 and they didn’t even have the Japanese learning section then so I can only assume this is pervasive in all their language courses.
Here the word for table has been mixed up with the word for desk. So although the activity asks you to put in the word table, it’s not in the choices and the corrected sentence says desk. I don’t think it’s the end of the world for there to be little slips like that, but for learners it can be quite frustrating.
Put your pants on!
I take off my clothes in summer.
What? All of them? This sentence doesn’t make any sense. I mean, unless you’re a nudist or a streaker or some naked bandit running around the city in summer. Put your pants on and go back to work!
Here the sentence is “I play with her.” This is translated from a Japanese word that means to play. The direct translation is something like, “I played with my friends.” This is fine for children but wha about adults? In Japanese we would say the same thing. It directly translates as “I played with my friends on Saturday night. We went to a club and hit a couple bars.” But in English we don’t say play. We say, “I went out,” or “I hung out,” or anything else.
So the translations shouldn’t be so direct. They also capture the usage and real meaning.
Clearly this is not the end of the world. The things I’ve talked about here are the exception not the rule. Despite the occasional odd expression or the random error that creeps in, the app is stable and works well. I should mention that I speak of the app but there is a browser based version as well.
In my case it has helped me with word order and some simple phrases I always get wrong. It has also been a nice habit for me to have during my morning commute.
These tiny flaws are more a symptom of the industry. After all, these sorts of apps have a very high drop-out rate and are generally targeted to beginners.
Check out more about Duolingo at Duolingo.com
And just in case you were wondering, I have no affiliation
Good guy Duolingo
A short while ago I started getting some emails from Duolingo. If you’ve used the service you may have gotten these as well if you’ve reported a problem. When you write an answer, you may be told it’s not correct. But if you click the report button you’ll have a chance to say your answer was actually right.
So the number of correct answers is on the rise as alternate translations are getting added to the system.
It’s not a fix for everything we’ve seen above but it is a good step in the right direction.