With over 500 million users worldwide, Duolingo is the language-learning app and website that has, since its inception in 2012, stormed the planet.
Promising to get even the most basic of speakers to a conversational stage in their chosen second language, it’s no wonder that Duolingo – and its mascot owl, named Duo – have also become both fixtures within pop culture (even gaining a shout out in Saturday Night Live) and a subject of excitement and controversy within academic circles.
While the app claims to be the “world’s best way to learn a language”, the reviews are mixed. The New York Times concluded that after 500 days, the “short answer is that you can definitely learn some things from an app, but if you want to become fluent in a language – or even conversational – they won’t be enough”.
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With a holiday in Spain looming, I decided to try the app out for myself. For full disclosure, I am terrible at languages. I had weekly French lessons in primary school that snaked up to Year 11, 13 years of classes – with sporadic private tutoring – climaxing at a B grade for GCSE; and despite a decade of Saturday morning synagogue school Hebrew lessons throughout my youth, I still only really know how to say hello and goodbye. And that’s only because they’re the same word!
My knowledge of Spanish is minimal, restricted to the bare minimum I’ve retained from Dora the Explorer and knowing that ‘casa amor’ means ‘house love’. I’m not proud that my understanding of a language as beautiful and old as Spanish is the result of a kids’ cartoon series and Love Island, but there you go.
But could Spanish be the language for me? Are languages like sports; some may be broadly good at all, but most of us have the one speciality? Clearly, many other Duolingo users have wondered the same; out of the wide spectrum of languages offered, from Scottish Gaelic to the fictional High Valyrian used in Game of Thrones, Spanish is one of the most popular, used by over 35 million, a whopping 12.84 per cent of all users globally.
Downloading it is free, and while there is the option to upgrade to premium that eliminates advertising and offers more features, my resolution – to use it once a day, 15 minutes a day, for a week before the trip – didn’t justify, I believed, the price for premium, which is £6.99 a month.
I spoke to a friend of mine who pays for the upgraded service, and she said she didn’t subscribe to enhance her language skills per say, but because the app is so addictive and she felt the need to eliminate the adverts, “whatever the cost”. She’s not wrong. Within just five minutes, I was hooked.
Arriving into Malaga airport one Sunday morning and taking a shuttle bus to Estepona to meet my friends- just in time for lunch, isn’t it great when things work out like that, especially as my morning sandwich tasted like a punishment I wasn’t too sure I deserved – my 90 total minutes of Duolingo were ready to be put to the test.
Paella and sangria had already been ordered by the time I arrived, but after a 4am start to get my 7am Gatwick flight, there was one thing in particularly I truly, desperately wanted.
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“Hola,” I said to the waiter. “Buenes tardas.” “I speak English,” he replied. Of course he does, we were in the Costa del Sol. They must be so sick of us Brits coming over with our shoddy attempts at speaking Spanish, and I wasn’t sure my past week would prove any different.
“Quisiera un latte, por favor,” I said. Duolingo puts a lot of emphasis on speaking out loud within the app, but not a lot of concentration on accents, and the waiter joined my friends in a round of laughter.
“Sure,” he replied, tucking his pen behind his ear. When out of earshot, I asked my friends how I was. “Terrible,” one replied.
The waiter ended up returning with a cup of tea, rather than the latte I thought I had so perfectly requested. Latte isn’t even Spanish, it’s Italian, and I still managed to mess that up. Perhaps there is truth in languages being like sports; some you’re good at, some you’re not; but as someone who has never known school PE lessons outside of bottom set rounders, if there is any truth in this comparison, I suppose I’m stuck with English.