Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Learning languages online with gamification

Gamification—the use of game-like mechanics to motivate non-game activities—is a bit of craze at the moment. There is all manner of websites popping up to help you solve all of your problems. Whether or not they'll work remains to be seen, but for now, I've been experimenting with two that help you to learn (or, rather, consolidate learning of) languages. I'll save comment for later on whether or not gamification works, or even should or can work. Here, I'm just summarizing tools I've been trying, but if you've found others, let me know in the comments.


The idea behind Duolingo is to teach by immersion. This is achieved by forcing you to do a lot of translating and occasionally teaching you new vocabulary. It currently offers to teach English-speakers French, German or Spanish. 

You gain points by completing lessons that involving translating to and from the objective language, or by translating sentences from online content. This content translation is how Duolingo claims to remain free, but I'm not really sure who would be paying for such content. I could imagine a mass-translation of, say, Wikipedia articles by Wikimedia, but not by many others that wouldn't do it in house anyway.

From my experience so far, Duolingo is okay as long as you're building on existing knowledge of a language. In particular, it doesn't seem to be much use for learning the grammar of a language. You pretty much have to infer that for yourself. But if you've previously learned the language and just  lack vocabulary and some idiomatic expressions, Duolingo is probably a reasonably good way to stay in practice.


Memrise helps you remember any list of associated things by forcing you to recall them at increasing intervals. This is one area where I also found Duolingo a bit lacking, so it makes for a pretty good complement. I think it limits itself to testing you on 50 items at any one time, which is long but not too long. Possible its biggest downside is its lame metaphor about watering plants and moving them from the greenhouse to the garden...

So far, I've only used one of the officially-endorsed vocabulary lists but there's an enormous number of community-supplied courses, too, including a few grammar courses. I'll let you know how these pan out. For vocab lists, it seems pretty good so far.

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