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Learning French with Duolingo and Busuu

I’m going to share some thoughts of learning French with a couple of elearning tools – Duolingo and Busuu. As someone who works in digital language learning I feel I need to spend time learning a language digitally. I’ve been using both tools on the desktop and the apps. I hope to make this the first of a number of posts as I progress with the language.

Some thoughts…these are not particularly organised at the moment but are some of the things I thought about while studying.

Receptive -> Productive skills (Duolingo vs Busuu)

Duolingo has a habit of testing you on production before introducing the language. I.e. you are expected to type a translation from English into French before you have been taught the word which in Duolingo’s case is usually through a French sentence which you have to translate into English by clicking on each of the words and being given the individual translation.  I had thought this was a flaw, and it does make it impossible to answer some questions if you don’t know the word, but now I am wondering whether mixing up receptive and productive keeps the exercises fresh.

I’m not sure – I wonder if Duolingo have done any AB testing on this. It would stop frustration if all the words were introduced first before being asked to produce them. Equally, as this is machine based learning, it may be that the computer learns what to introduce later by testing first (test-teach-test); there is little point spending time with basic introductory exercises if you already know the words.

Busuu does this in a much more structured way – and I personally prefer this. Being introduced to the core vocabulary with flashcards first is helpful and I find myself repeating the words and therefore practising my spoken skills. I don’t find this with Duolingo – maybe because I can’t bring myself to say some of the daft sentences, and also because I’m not so confident with full sentences yet – whereas the isolated words that Busuu introduces makes it less daunting.

Caught out by unreal language (Duolingo)

Duolingo is a shocker for this. The language is so unealistic at times. Sometimes this can be fun (the cat has a red boot, L’ours est orange!) but sometimes it is annoying – whenever would you talk about a single glove for example (Il a un gant rouge). I kept thinking in the plural as it was unnatural to think of this sort of sentence in the singular. At least it kept me on my toes.

Busuu’s most unreal part is the shiny happy stock photos they use throughout.

You’ve learned clothing. (Duolingo)

That was the congratulatory message I received after three short exercises with quite a few new words. (I did not know, and can barely recall already, let alone write, the French for umbrella, wallet and cap). I don’t feel I have learned clothing!

I do like the way the words are recycled though – and you are prompted later to return and revise. I will learn clothing. But it will take some time longer than Duolingo would like me to believe. This though is one of the reasons behind its success though I think – the praise, the feelgood factor, the feeling of progress, even if unrealistic.

Peer correction (Busuu)

I like this part of Busuu. Submit some writing based on an exercise and get people from the community to comment on it. And comment on other’s attempts at English. I like being able to give some advice to language learners (my English teaching background). I am finding this area needs some UX work however. I submitted some work via the desktop and received a couple of notifications in the app – but clicking those went no where and I can’t find where my work has gone in the desktop version. (I later found it, but it was buried under some Spanish I had previously done and I struggle to recall where it is).

One thing that I found frustrating was the difficulty of recalling words when it came to write my texts. I want a vocabulary list of words I had covered but can’t easily go back and review the words from a unit without having to plod through all the multiple choice questions again. There is a vocabulary section – but nothing in it apart from a few words I had got wrong.  Duolingo has a good view of the words that have been introduced and this would be helpful in Busuu – although I would like to see the translations in this list.

Desktop vs apps

The desktop is definitely easier for the type of questions in Duolingo. The speed of typing on a keyboard makes it much easier and faster to get through the exercises.

The apps have the benefit of having the microphone built in – no messing about with Flash permissions – which took a good five minutes of failed attempts in Busuu on the desktop.



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