The free language learning web app Duolingo now has an iPhone app, and it’s a good one. Indeed, as far as free, mobile apps for language learning go, the Duolingo iPhone app is easily the best I’ve seen. In my opinion, it's even better than a few paid language learning apps, such as the Living Language iPad app (requires a £13.99 in-app purchase) for example.
From a user's perspective, Duolingo works like most other language learning programs. You work through exercises or activities to complete lessons which are part of larger units. The structure is clear, shown on a tree in Duolingo, and the app keeps track of your progress synchronously across both the iPhone app and the web version. It always remembers where you left off.
Real world translations
But there's a second component that makes Duolingo different: Translation. Once you've successfully completed a number of lessons, you have the option to practice by translating real content from the web into English. Because you may not have been exposed to every word from this random sample of text, you can always look up the meaning of words while you're translating, without ever leaving the screen. When you finish the translation, Duolingo checks whether other users have translated the text similarly, and scores you on how closely you fit with their work.
Everyone on Duolingo can also rate one another's translations, which is how Duolingo determines which translation is "best." Duolingo then uses that translated text to make the web available in more languages. Translations aren't mandatory to progress in the program, so you can skip them entirely or experiment with them as you feel comfortable. For more experienced speakers of other languages, the translations will likely be the most challenging part.
If you've ever solved a reCAPTCHA (those online tests that verify you're a human by having you type two blurry words into a little text box) you've contributed work to a huge and on-going project, whether you knew it or not. The writing collected by reCAPTCHA is used to correct scanned pages of books and other manuscripts that computers could not read. The same person behind reCAPTCHA is also steering the ship at Duolingo.
Is it fun? Does it work?
I've been using Duolingo regularly since it was first released a few months ago, and got early access to the iPhone app before it became publicly available. While using the program to learn German and practice my very rusty Spanish, I've definitely increased my German vocabulary, and have had some success refreshing my memory of verbs and phrases in Spanish.
The iPhone app is, in several ways, easier to use than the web version. Typing special characters, like letters with accents, takes almost no effort on the iPhone app. Just press and hold the letter you want until other options pop up above it. The web app handles diacritical marks well (a few options always appear on screen that you can click, so you don't have to learn any difficult keyboard shortcuts), but the iPhone just does it better. Another neat feature: When you see a sentence in the foreign language that you have to translate to English, you can enter text using voice commands and Siri, thus minimising the amount of typing you need to do on the small phone screen.
The Duolingo web app emphasises writing quite a bit. The iPhone app swaps out about half the writing with an exercise that lets you build a sentence from a group of available words, which you have to put in the right order while also ignoring some words that don't belong at all.
Duolingo paces the activities in the app superbly. Short sessions work best on mobile devices, and while the content is almost identical to the web version, in the iPhone app enough of it is slightly truncated or tightened up to let you breeze through the activities just a bit more swiftly.
Unfortunately, Duolingo requires the Internet to work, so it's off-limits when you're out of range of a cellular signal or Wi-Fi connection. I'd love to see Duolingo add some downloadable or offline content, such as vocabulary study aids or slightly longer translations (such as full paragraphs) that might take a little more time to complete.
Another minor issue for mid-level or experienced speakers of other languages is that Duolingo doesn’t make it easy for you to skip ahead to the point in the program that's right for your level of experience. If you are not a beginner, Duolingo's exercises still work pretty well for practice, but if they're not challenging enough, you'll want to spend more of your time working on translations.
Duolingo doesn't support a wide range of languages, and on the iPhone you'll only find Spanish, French, German, and a beta of Portuguese for now. The web app also has English for speakers of Spanish, Portuguese (beta), and Italian (beta).
Additionally, the app is only available for the iPhone at the moment, although the developers say an Android version is in the works.
In my months using Duolingo and the few weeks I’ve spent with the Duolingo iPhone app, I can easily say that they are the best free tools for learning a language, outside of moving to a foreign country and hanging out in cafes and parks all day long. The Duolingo iPhone app works simply and smartly, handling special characters and some translations with greater ease than even the full web version. It's an ideal way to practice Spanish, French, German, and Portuguese anywhere you have an Internet connection and a few minutes on your hands.