beginning, general interest, intermediate, reviews

Duolingo Arabic is coming: What should we expect?


Duolingo is a wildly popular website and app for learning foreign foreign languages. English-speakers are currently able to learn over 25 languages on the platform, ranging from the tried-and-true French and Spanish to the more adventurous Ukrainian, Swahili, Vietnamese, and Esperanto. Spanish-speakers can even take a stab at Catalan or Guaraní.

Although there has been an English course available for Arabic-speakers for some time now, there is no course for English-speakers wanting to learn Arabic. But it appears that this will soon change. In November 2017, a project for just such a course appeared on the Duolingo Incubator page. While the current release date is set for March 1, 2018, initial project release dates on Duolingo are often painfully unrealistic. On the basis of what I have seen for some other Duolingo courses, such as Indonesian and Hindi, it would not surprise me at all if the Arabic course weren’t released until sometime in 2019.

So, since we may be twiddling our thumbs for a while, I thought I’d share my thoughts on what we should expect when the course is released, based on my experience with two other Duolingo courses I’ve completed (Polish and Portuguese) and two others of which I have completed a portion (Russian and Hebrew). So, this piece will be a review of Duolingo courses in general, but also with an eye to predicting what issues we might expect specifically with the Arabic course.

As you will see, while I enjoy using Duolingo, it’s not going be the magic bullet that gets you speaking Arabic. Duolingo is the sugary cereal that is “part of this complete breakfast”; it cannot be considered a complete breakfast in and of itself.

Describing a Duolingo course. Before I go into the details of what I consider the pros and cons of Duolingo, I should give you a better description of how it works and what a course looks like. Each Duolingo course consists of what is called a “tree”, which consists of a number of “skills”. The Portuguese tree (the one for English-speakers) consists of about 67 skills, some of which are centered around a conceptual theme (e.g., family, household objects, education) while others focus on a particular grammatical concept (e.g., future tense, participles). You are forced to work through the tree in a specific order, as only a few new skills will be “unlocked” at one time for your to work on. When you have finished the last skill of the course, you are said to have completed your tree, and all your friends on the platform will congratulate you.

A skill may consist of up to nine lessons, which in turn consist of a number of words and sentences that are presented in the form of exercises. These exercises can take several forms, such as “translate into English”, “click the relevant picture”, “choose the correct form of the verb”, or “match each word to its English equivalent”. Some of the question types used in the Web version are different from those used in the app for smartphone or tablet.

The course has been “gamified” (made into a game). With each exercise you complete, you rack up points. You can make friends and compete against them in how many points you gain. Duolingo also keeps track of how many days in a row you have worked on the course, which is called your “streak”. So, if you complete or review one lesson each day for ten days in a row, you have a ten-day streak. For many people (including me) these features are very motivating. I would literally freak out if it were getting close to midnight and I risked breaking my “streak”!

Duolingo also keeps track of how “strong” your knowledge is of a given lesson based on how long ago you and how frequently you last worked on it, forcing you to go back and review lessons you completed in the past.

A good way to get a feel for Duolingo would be to sign up at Duolingo.com or by installing the Duolingo app and then selecting a course. Your easiest option will be the Esperanto course for English-speakers. Complete one lesson, which will probably take you less than 10 minutes. You will now have a feel for Duolingo.

So that was the general description of a Duolingo course, now for the critical review.

The pros. Here is what I like about Duolingo:

  • Motivating. I find Duolingo a lot of fun, and when I’m working through a new course it can be downright addictive! With the tree you are trying to complete, the strength of older skills weakening in strength, and the streaks, it is easy to set goals for yourself. If you find friends you can compare yourself with, that can also provide a lot of incentive to achieve.
  • Convenient. If you have a smartphone and headphones, you can do a lesson whenever and wherever you have a few spare minutes.
  • Good audio. Most of the courses have good audio, and for most exercise types you hear the sentence pronounced. (For a minority of courses, they seem to have opted for a computer voice, which can be awful. For a case in point, listen to the dreadful voice in the Catalan course for Spanish-speakers.)
  • Amusing. Duolingo will often surprise you with amusing, surrealistic sentences, like “She replaces the baby with a black dog” that will make you laugh. (A competing platform, Babbel, recently poked fun at this in an ad in which two young women—one a Babbel-user and the other a Duolingo-user—are both in a French café and talk to the waiter in French. The Babbel-user competently orders a drink, whereas the Duolingo-user tells him “The octopus wants to date me.”)
  • Community-based assistance. If you don’t understand a particular word in a sentence, why a certain form of a word is used, or you have doubts about the correctness, you can click to read questions and comments on the sentence from previous users or leave one yourself. Questions are sometimes answered by native speakers.

The cons. Here is what I don’t like about Duolingo:

  • Translation-based. Essentially all of the question types involve translation of some sort. That is a very poor design feature of the platform. As you learn a language, you should be learning to think in it directly, not constantly referring to your own language.
  • Little cultural content. The platform isn’t amenible to teaching you about unique aspects of the culture in which the language is used. This sort of cultural content is not only important when learning a new language, but it also makes the learning process more interesting.
  • Poorly thought-out question types. This platform has great potential, but the designers have underutilized it, avoiding any question types that would make you think directly in the language. For example, imagine a question type where you see a picture, and then have to click on the word or sentence that correctly describes it (a question type that Rosetta Stone is so good at!). No, once again, the designers of Duolingo seem to attach no value to actually thinking directly in the target language. Such a waste of potential in this regard!
  • Fraudulent measure of fluency. Your “fluency” of the target language is presented as a percentage. For instance, Duolingo says that I am currently 17% fluent in Polish. This is utter nonsense! Fluency could only be measured by evaluating my oral performance in tasks such as answering questions (e.g., What did you do today? What do you think about global warming?) or narrating an event (e.g., describe what happened in the video clip you are about to see). Duolingo has no knowledge of how I do at these tasks, making the percentage meaningless. Duolingo also has a professional evaluation service for competence in English, meaning that the outfit know something about languistic evaluation. So, they can’t plead ignorance here. The fluency percentage is simply fraudulent.
  • Lack of context. Duolingo presents your new language as a collection of disjoint words and sentences. This does not promote the development of coping skills, which allow you to learn by making inferences and guesses based on context. You will need to develop these skills elsewhere.

Overall evaluation. Duolingo can be a fun, motivating tool for learning a new language or reviewing one you studied in the past. Some will even find it addictive. However, the platform is not a magic bullet. Its rigid dependence on translation will keep you from thinking in the language, and your ability to complete the exercises will not necessarily reflect your ability to use the material in an active situation, such as using them in a conversation. Duolingo should be considered one tool in a toolbox containing textbooks, grammars, simple reading materials, and other resources that will help you develop your knowledge of different aspects of the language.

Isues with Arabic. So now we come to the question of what to expect from the Arabic course when it is finally released. Well, it should not be fundamentally different from other other Duolingo language courses. The issues that are specific to Arabic are basically these three:

  • What kind of Arabic? I think we can safely presume that the course will teach Modern Standard Arabic. The question is how formal it will be. For example, would the sentence هذه المرأة المصرية تتكلّم خمس لغات ‘This Egyptian woman speaks five languages’ be pronounced haadhihi l-mar’atu tatakallamu khamsa lughaatin (with all the case and mood endings) or as haadhihi l-mar’a tatakallam khams lughaat (without them)? My personal preference is that beginners be taught the latter style, which although less “correct” is much closer to how native speakers actually talk.
  • How correct will the Arabic be? The fact is that only a small percentage of educated speakers have a good command of Standard Arabic grammar. This is because the rules of Standard Arabic, which is essentially Classical Arabic, are in many aspects quite different from those of the modern dialects. This means that if there is not at least one person on the Duolingo Arabic course development team who has thorough knowledge of Arabic grammar, there are likely to be grammatical mistakes in some of the sentences presented. This is all the more likely if they opt for a formal style in which all of the case and mood endings are pronounced. Such errors will be confusing to learners, especially those who also using other learning tools.
  • How will the writing system be taught? Arabic will not be the first Duolingo language in which a new writing system needs to be taught. Others include Russian, Japanese, and Korean. I think the Hebrew course offers the best glimpse of how the Arabic writing system will be taught. In that course, each of the first few lessons introduces a small number of new letters, on the basis of which simple sentences can be constructed. So, the alphabet is introduced gradually, simultaneously with vocabulary and structure. In my view, this is the best way to go about teaching the alphabet, and it is also the approach I take in my book Bite-Size Arabic: Learn to Read and Write Arabic Using the Tiniest Bit of Vocabulary and Grammar.

Conclusion. I really enjoy using Duolingo. It’s a fun and motivating way to learn some vocabulary and structure in a new language. However, it’s important to realize that it’s only one tool of the many you are going to need to build competence in Arabic.

I hope that the designers of the upcoming Arabic course make wise choices in terms of the variety of Arabic they will present (hopefully not overly formal), the voice for the audio, and their approach to teaching the writing system.

Given that it will probably be quite a while until this course appears, why not start out by learning the alphabet using my textbook Bite-Size Arabic? Then you can come back to this blog for other resources for beginning learners. That way, by the time the Duolingo course is released, you will already have a good head start, increasing your chances of completing the course!



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