May 16

18 Months of Feeding The Owl

I’ve just hit my 589 day streak on Duolingo.

In other words, I’ve spent some time every day, for the last 589 consecutive days, learning one or more foreign languages using the superb Duolingo app on either my phone, tablet or laptop.

Having recently broken the 18 month mark (548 days) and now bearing down on the two year target, I thought it was time to put some thoughts down about the process of learning a language as an adult, having tried night school and used both Duolingo and the equally excellent MindSnacks app, which I was introduced to by a colleague just a few weeks ago.

I’ve wrestled with language learning since I was at school as it wasn’t something that I ever managed to connect with in early life. I could easily point at the teachers I had, many of whom didn’t measure up to teachers of those subjects that did inspire me – but really, if I’m honest, it’s also fair to say that I couldn’t see the point. Childishly, it seemed like an imposition to wrestle with languages that seemed irrelevant in all but the most occasional of circumstances to my 14 year old self.

Having travelled fairly extensively from my early twenties onwards with my wife, who studied language up to University and lived in France for several years, my attitude changed enormously, to the point where I now feel obligated to at least attempt a few words in the local language of wherever I happen to be, despite full awareness of sounding either (/both) pompous or imbecilic.

So, I took my first stab at adult language learning in my mid twenties during a year of travel. Somewhere around Asia, I got into a CD programme by ‘language teacher to the stars’ Michel Thomas, who offers 8 hour programs that promise the reader an entirely different experience to how languages are taught in school, based solely on listening and interacting with two virtual classmates. I tried both Spanish and Italian – the former being significantly easier. This was fine, but it didn’t seem to lead anywhere, or provide for ongoing development.

Thereafter, aside from a couple of stutter starts with various bookshop-bought courses, my main engagement with language learning was when we were on holiday – and I could never get past the fact that everyone spoke English better than I could hope to speak their language, which was a complete disincentive to trying.

Roll on 10 years or so and, having spent the entirety of my thirties on my family and building a business, I thought it was time to have another crack at improving my foreign language skills.

Most people would start with something they are familiar with – but I was convinced that it was a good idea to try to learn Japanese. One term of three hour-a-week night school plus homework (involving learning the first of the three Japanese character sets – the Hiragana) later, I came to the conclusion that I’d bitten off more than I could chew.

So, I put some thought to what next. I have some French and Spanish, but very little Italian. However, I had tried it previously and as a Latin-based language, I thought it might at least provide some familiarity as a starting point. I opted to start what turned into two years of night school, plus started Duolingo, which has some modest social networking functionality, effectively gamifying the learning experience.

Somewhere along the road in the last 18 months I decided to add German and later French to my daily task list on Duolingo. So now, I spend 10–15 minutes every day on at least one short lesson in each of those three languages.

If you don’t know DuoLingo, it’s a free-to-use service, available via app or browser, that covers a growing number of languages (Hungarian, Ukrania, Esperanto, Welsh, Vietnamese) through a crowd-sourced approach to collaborative contribution and endorsement. One of the founders met President Obama last year and you can see him explain it – plus Obama’s implicit endorsement – here.

On a different front, Mindsnacks is a paid-for (£3.99, at present) IoS-only app that offers a gamified approach to not only languages but also US-system oriented Math (sic) and SAT Vocab. Having used Duolingo daily for so long, I jumped at this like a life raft – but in truth, it’s another very fun way to get into a language.

It’s been a fascinating process. At it’s height, Duolingo told me that my Italian fluency was about 49% and my French about the same (my German *cough*cough* 5%). You can add these estimates to your LinkedIn profile, which look like this:

What I’ve really learned is that doing something which was neither for the business nor the family – but actually for myself – has been it’s own reward. However, I think there is a ceiling that it’s almost impossible to break through with any solitary language learning. What is needed is practice – and I still find the hardest part of any conversation in one of my chosen languages is the starting point. Once you get going, it’s not too bad. Most people I end up talking to speak better English than I speak their language – so persuading them to let me persevere and stumble is often a barrier in itself.

I’ve also learned that the process extends far beyond whatever media you choose to tackle the problem. My attempt at Japanese was hampered by having no ear for the language, down to lack of exposure. Having travelled more to Mediterranean countries than to Japan, it was inevitable that I’d be more comfortable with the former – and of course there’s the shared roots with the English language.

At present I’m wavering, wondering whether I’ve reached a plateau with what can be achieved with these apps, if you’re not actually spending some time with people speaking your chosen languages. But then part of me really wants to get to the two year mark (and beyond…). So now I’m wondering about whether it’s moved from healthy side-interest into unhealthy obsession. I’ll push on for now as I’m convinced that my grasp of these language is still improving, albeit very slowly.


Duo Reminder


As the helpful/super-annoying daily DuoLingo phone prompt says: “Learning a language takes practice every day. Practice your (insert here) now on Duolingo.” Which reminds me, as soon as I’ve finished writing this up, I’ve still got to log on and continue to feed the owl.