Recently I was browsing the Duolingo forums and saw a question I must have seen a thousand times before:
Is Duolingo enough to learn a language?
It’s a vague, open-ended question that can mean a great many things.
But, no matter which way I look at it, I arrive at the same conclusion:
By itself, Duolingo is not enough to comprehensively learn a language.
And I don’t think it’s supposed to be. As with any healthy diet, we need to strike a balance.
Duolingo can teach us the basic structures of a language, provide us with some interesting vocabulary, and improve our comprehension. It’s also brilliant for keeping us motivated.
But if we want to start actually using the language–speaking, watching movies, reading novels–then we need to supplement Duolingo with other activities.
Fortunately there are plenty of interesting and effective ways we can plug the gaps.
In this article, I’ll go through 6 of my favourites.
Duolingo is my go-to app when starting a language. I use it to stay motivated. I also use it when I’m pushed for time.
But when it comes to taking the next step in a language, I’m convinced I wouldn’t have made the progress I have without LingQ.
For the most part, LingQ focuses on comprehension. Reading and listening take centre stage. It’s all about building your understanding of your target language using interesting, authentic content.
The beauty of LingQ is that it doesn’t take a traditional scholastic approach to language learning. Like Duolingo, it emphasises making the process enjoyable. The focus is on pleasure rather than perfection.
It does this by inviting us to learn from content that is of interest to us. There’s no place for the textbooks that bored us to death at school. Instead we learn from novels, podcasts, news articles and other such compelling content.
Essentially, LingQ can turn anything written in your target language into a lesson.
Steve Kaufmann—a polyglot who speaks over 20 languages, and the founder of LingQ—explains how he uses it in the video below:
As you can see, each lesson is presented with highlighted words.
If a word is highlighted in blue, it means you haven’t seen it before. This would be an unknown word.
If a word is highlighted in a shade of yellow, it means you have seen it before, but don’t yet know it. The shade of the yellow correlates to how familiar you are with the word.
And if a word isn’t highlighted, it means you know it. This would be a known word.
As you work through content at LingQ, your database of known words will grow. In theory, the larger your number of known words, the more familiar you are with the language.
LingQ has a massive library of interesting content for learners of all levels. But probably my favourite aspect is that we can import our own content. Books, articles, song lyrics (see below), recipes — anything that is textual can be turned into a lesson.
In this way our favourite content can become our best lessons. We can consume it in the usual way, while simultaneously building our database of words and phrases.
I often use LingQ for reading news articles. It automatically pulls them into my library via the main feed. But if I find article in my target language on Google or Twitter, I can use the import tool from the share menu on my phone, and within 30 seconds I can be reading the article in LingQ.
It’s extremely convenient.
Away from news articles, I’m currently working my way through George Orwell’s Animal Farm, one of my favourite works of fiction, in Italian.
At end of each lesson we can review the words and phrases we’ve saved using flashcards and some Duolingo-style games. I find this really useful for cementing some of the trickier words I’ve encountered.
I really do credit LingQ with taking my Italian to the next level. It’s exploded my vocabulary and added an extra layer of enjoyment to my language learning routine. It’s the perfect tool to build on everything we acquire from Duolingo.
Listening to music in my target language is comfortably one of my favourite, and most used, forms of passive learning.
While it might not seem as helpful as trawling through grammar books, it’s been a massive help with my Italian.
For me, it all started after playing the FIFA 17 demo.
Every FIFA game has a unique soundtrack, a collection of songs from artists of different genres and languages.
One of the songs was called Sto Bene Così, by an Italian rapper called Rocco Hunt.
Admittedly I couldn’t really understand the lyrics. But I still sensed they were Italian. Soon enough I was humming, then singing, along to the hook:
“Sto beeeeeeeeeeene, sto bene così
Sto beeeeeeeeeeene, sto bene…”
It was such a catchy tune. I understood the hook, but not much else. Not that it mattered, because all the while I was becoming more and more familiar with the language without even trying.
Of course, it wasn’t long before I went in search of it on Spotify. I found it was part of a chunky album, which I promptly listened through.
Before long Spotify was recommending tracks from other Italian rappers. Gue Pequeno, Gemitaiz, Nto, J-AX. In a very short space of time the flavour of my Spotify went from being overwhelmingly EDM to unmistakably Italian rap.
All because of a 3-minute song I heard on the FIFA 17 demo.
This required absolutely no effort. The Spotify algorithms did all the legwork for me, adding songs to my Daily Mixes based on what I was regularly listening to.
Needless to say, I’ve now amassed quite the library of Italian music.
And it’s not just rap. There’s a lot of pop and classical stuff, too.
I still don’t understand every word. It’s especially difficult with Italian rap. Not just because it’s so quick, but also because it’s laced with a lot of regional dialect (variants of vulgar latin that aren’t always intelligible even to Italian-speakers).
But that’s OK. I listen not with the intent of ‘studying’, but because I enjoy it. And with every listen I become a bit more familiar with the language.
It also presents another great opportunity to use LingQ. I simply find the lyrics on Google, pull them into LingQ using the import tool, and follow along as the song plays.
This helps not only with understanding the lyrics in real time, but also contributes to my database of words and phrases.
Naturally listening to rap exposes me to a lot of colloquialisms that I wouldn’t ordinarily encounter. So when it comes to using the language in a natural setting, I’m much better equipped to both produce and understand it.
Video streaming services
But there’s more to learning a language than just reading and listening to music.
Visual media is an important part of modern culture. Certainly in my case, I’m always streaming TV shows and going to the cinema. I also regularly tune-in to news channels to stay abreast of the day’s events.
Thus it’s important that I can do this in my target language as well.
While there are apps and software that can help with this, I haven’t felt the need to use them.
Instead, I’ve always gone straight to the source. I look for TV channels, shows and movies, and just watch (ideally with subtitles in my target language as well).
As with music, I’m not concerned about understanding every word. My goal is simply to expose myself to the language with as much interesting content as possible.
A great place to start is YouTube.
When I started learning Italian, I watched a lot of Lucrezia Oddone’s videos. She records a lot of her videos exclusively in Italian, but does so with beginners in mind. She speaks really slowly and includes subtitles in both Italian and English.
I credit her channel with building my confidence in a really short space of time. It’s one thing to be able to read in another language, but to actually understand what someone is saying is pretty euphoric, even if the content is basic.
Beyond YouTube, I also look to streaming sites. Netflix and Disney+ are currently my top picks. What I like about them is a lot of their shows are available in multiple languages. So you can take a show you’ve already watched in English, and simply watch it again in your target language.
The advantage of this is two-fold. Not only are you already familiar with the show—its characters, plot lines, what happens etc—but you also know it’s something that interests you.
And if you’re interested in the content, you’re more likely to want to watch it. It’s much easier watching all 30 seasons of The Simpsons in Italian than it is sitting down with a grammar book every night!
Going one further, I also use a VPN to access geo-restricted content. This allows me to watch TV shows, movies and live channels broadcast within a country that speaks my target language.
So for learning Italian, I use a VPN to access RaiPlay. (This is basically Italy’s version of BBC iPlayer). This allows me to watch authentic Italian content, both live and on-demand, across multiple devices.
This might seem like a weird one, but it’s something that just naturally entered my routine.
It’s not a conscious, focussed means of improving my target language. It’s not as though I deliberately sit down for 30 minutes of foreign-Twitter time.
Rather, I just use it as I normally would.
I use Twitter on a daily basis for a lot of things. Breaking news, football transfers, the weather, what’s happening in the White House etc.
It’s only natural, then, that when I started learning Italian I also started to engage with tweets in Italian as well.
One of the accounts I first engaged with was Tancredi Palmeri’s. He’s an Italian football journalist. And as a massive football fan, I’d been following him long before I started learning Italian.
So whenever he tweeted in Italian, I naturally found myself engaging. Whether that be replying in Italian, or just simply trying to understand what he’d tweeted.
As I became more familiar with the language, I ended up following other Italian Twitter accounts as well. Before long it seemed as though half my feed was tweeting in Italian!
Now I’m at a point that I don’t even notice. I can read and engage with Italian content without even realising. It’s as natural in my feed as English ever was.
One of the biggest holes in Duolingo is that there’s no way to practice a proper, natural conversation. We learn so much about our target languages, but we aren’t given an opportunity to use them in real world situations.
HelloTalk is a useful app with which to fill this hole.
Admittedly, I don’t use it as much as I used to. When I first started getting serious with Italian, I was on it all the time.
HelloTalk is basically a messaging app for language learners. It bears all the hallmarks of Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, but it’s structured in a way that allows you to find speakers of your target language, and equipped with tools to help you improve.
Getting started is as easy as creating a profile, specifying your level in your target language, and finding someone to chat with. You can either approach users who speak your target language and are learning yours, or wait for them to approach you.
When I first started I was a bit hesitant. I wasn’t confident in my ability, and my perfectionism meant I was terrified of embarrassing myself.
So, to begin with, I didn’t approach anyone.
But, then again, I didn’t need to. After a few hours I’d received messages from several users: Italians who wanted to improve their English, and help me to improve my Italian in exchange.
And that’s the beauty of HelloTalk: it’s really easy to find people and get straight into a conversation. And the tools make it easy to identify, correct, and explain any mistakes.
So long as the focus remains on the topic of conversation, rather than the quality of language, HelloTalk can be a really fun, engaging way of improving the communicative side of your target language. It’s a great way of taking what we learn on Duolingo and using it in a real-life interaction.
This is one of the more obscure, miscellaneous ways of learning a language. Some might even doubt its value. But hear me out.
In much the same way that reading books, listening to music, and watching TV shows contribute to our passive acquisition of language, video games can have a similar effect.
It’s a simple case of just changing the language settings. There’s nothing more to it.
I’ve done this with loads of games.
FIFA has probably been the main one. Whenever I do a manager career mode as an Italian team, I’ll change all the language settings to Italian: menus and commentary.
The result is a way more immersive experience than if I were to stick with English. Hearing the commentator scream “RETE!” after I score a goal is far more satisfying (and helpful) than hearing Martin Tyler’s typically droning reaction.
This has a really positive effect on my vocabulary. Given I’m already familiar with the FIFA menus and where everything is, the change of language isn’t too disorientating. So if I see a new word, so long as I already know what’s behind the tab, I’ll instantly know what it means.
This technique can be applied to loads of games. Even story-based ones. So long as your game of choice has subtitles (which most modern games do) and your target language available, you can approach it in much the same way as a TV show on Netflix.
Duolingo is my favourite dedicated language-learning tool. But to take our language learning to the next level, we need to supplement it with authentic content and genuine engagement.
In my case, I supplement the time I spend on Duolingo with LingQ, Spotify, video streaming sites, Twitter, HelloTalk and video games.
I’ve found these are all excellent platforms for familiarising and immersing myself in my target languages. Ultimately it’s about being creative and finding what you enjoy.
Duolingo can’t account for everything. By itself it isn’t enough to comprehensively learn a language. But so long as you plug the gaps with interesting, authentic ways of using your target language, over time your ability will grow tremendously.