A couple weeks ago I woke up with a strong desire to learn German. There is no reason for me to learn German; the few people I know who speak it do not speak it as a first language and are fluent in at least one language that I already speak. There aren’t German TV shows, radio, or movies readily available here, and I can’t imagine it being a practical skill unless I go to Germany (which I certainly wouldn’t mind doing). But… I feel like learning at least a little German, so I’ve followed my usual pattern by starting off with Pimsleur.
Everyone I mentioned this odd desire to said I should check out Duolingo. I’d checked it out before, and my impression was that it was kind of like a user-created Rosetta Stone. I have strong negative feelings towards Rosetta Stone (another post, perhaps), so I’d never been particularly tempted to give it a fair trial, but after so many people said the same thing, I thought I’d see if it had improved since the first time I’d seen it.
Here’s why I didn’t stay on the page long:
1. The audio is horrible: I don’t know how German should sound, so I’ll admit that the computer voice speaking German didn’t sound particularly off to me, but I could tell it sounded very different from the Pimsleur and authentic German recordings I had access to, particularly with regards to inflection. I’m no expert on the German, but I’m pretty dang comfortable with Spanish, so I checked out their Spanish audio. Emphasis was on the wrong syllables, some vowels were omitted, and some consonants had the wrong quality. If the German is as bad as the Spanish, and I assume it is, then this is not where I want to practice my listening and speaking skills.
2. Nouns were introduced without articles. Again, I’m no master of German, but I know enough about it to know that it has male, female, and neuter gender. I made some major mistakes my first time around learning Spanish by making flashcards without the articles. The last thing I want to do with a new language is make the same mistake — especially if I have a less than 50% chance to get the article/gender correct. Some of the activities used articles, and some did not. I think it’s inexcusable to ever not use them in any program, but especially one designed for learners whose first language does not have gender and who may not realize how important it is to learn the gender of the word from the start.
3. The sentences were nonsensical. There was no apparent thought put into the order or usefulness of sentences introduced. I’m not sure that I need to know how to say, “I have seven ducks” ever (I got that example from the Spanish, but the examples from the German were equally useless).
4. The grammar support was lacking. There are grammar “tips,” but they appear to be rules without any opportunity to practice them meaningfully. I much prefer to get a feel for the structure and sound of the language for a month or two (this is the way Pimsleur works) and then start learning the why. In just three Pimsleur lessons, I can already conjugate verbs for first person or formal second person (which I suspect is the same as third, but I could be wrong… I’m not going to jump to any conclusions) and I can restructure a statement to become a question and vice versa. Being able to do that comfortably and being able to hear the difference is going to help me immensely when/if I start studying the rules of grammar (I most certainly will if I stick with it, but as I have no idea where this motivation come from, I anticipate it may disappear as suddenly as it appeared).
5. It’s translation based. In a perfect world, I’d be thrown into a room with teachers that only speak my target language, who understand both how to make input comprehensible and how to make me create new constructions with the words and rules I’ve absorbed. I’m a Krashen fan. Alas, my life does not allow for such an experience, and so translation is always going to be a part of my learning process. It doesn’t have to be direct translation, though. Again, I’m going to make a comparison to Pimsleur: With Pimsleur, there is some repeat-after-me practice, especially at the beginning when the learner knows absolutely nothing and when a new word is introduced, but it always then forces you to use the new language in context. For example, I may have to respond to someone asking me if I understand German, and I have a few different options: I can simply say “no”, I can say, “I don’t understand German” or I can say, “a little bit.” It’s up to me to make that decision. The narrator will sometimes tell me, “Say you only understand a little German”, but just as often he will say, “Respond to what the woman says”, and I will have to understand what the German speaker says and respond with what little is in my language arsenal at that point.Having done Pimsleur Thai and Japanese before, I know it will get more complicated and require me to be a more and more active participant as the lessons continue.
In Duolingo, it says a word in English, and I choose a picture that matches it that happens to have the German word below it (sans article). It says a sentence in German, and I write the sentence in English. It says a sentence in English, and I write the sentence in German. It says the sentence in German, and I write the sentence in German, etc. There is no thinking on your feet. I checked out more advanced Spanish lessons and found just more of the same.
I’m not saying no one can learn from Duolingo; it’s probably a decent place for supplemental vocabulary practice, but I think it’s not a good start for people interested in speaking with at least somewhat comprehensible pronunciation and sentence structure. I do like the game format; I think that’s probably pretty motivating, and I wish someone would design something similar with better audio and conversations instead of context-less vocabulary and random sentences.
I did read the research article that Duolingo links to show how much students learn from it, and… I had some issues. The biggest problem I have is that it used the WebCAPE to test progress, and, as far as I know, that is a 100% multiple choice test. A multiple choice test may test comprehension, but it doesn’t test production well, and it certainly doesn’t test the skills I find lacking in Duolingo: pronunciation and spontaneous language production in context.
On the plus side, Duolingo is free, and it’s better than nothing, especially since my favorite options are not cheap. I just don’t think it’s the best choice for building a foundation.
I’m going to end this here so I can go to a local German conversation Meetup. I won’t be able to participate much, but I will get some necessary listening practice in.