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January 20, 2020  |  Duolingo Latin, Part 1: It's ALM!  |  390 hit(s)

A couple of months ago, I started learning Latin by using Duolingo, a language-learning app for your phone or browser. I sort of knew about Duolingo because my kids had been using it, one to work on Spanish and the other to work on Japanese. They'd shared with me some of the amusingly strange sentences that Duolingo produces, like "A cat does not play piano" in Japanese.

When I learned that Duolingo had a course in beta for Latin, I thought I'd give it a shot. I'd somehow managed to never study Latin, a language that's always seemed not only inherently interesting but useful for understanding Spanish and, of course, for grokking English word origins.

We pause briefly here for my favorite scene from the movie "Life of Brian":

As soon as I started Duolingo, I recognized the pedagogic technique they were following. When I was learning German in high school, we knew this as the audio-lingual method[1]. To quote one source, this "foster[s] naturalistic language acquisition in a classroom setting." The idea is that you learn (internalize) patterns of the language. They don't explain any grammar. Instead, the instruction teaches you short snippets that it then changes in very controlled ways so that you can follow along. Here's an example:

Femina domi est. (The woman is at home)
Vir domi est. (The man is at home)
Puer domi est. (The boy is at home)
Puella domi est. (The girl is at home)

The hope is that you internalize xxx domi est for "xxx is at home." Once they've drilled you on this for a while, they change the pattern:

Feminae domi sunt. (The women are at home)
Viri domi sunt. (The men are at home)
Pueri domi sunt. (The boys are at home)
Puellae domi sunt. (The girls are at home)

Now they've introduced the concept that xxx domi sunt == "xxx are at home". You spend a fair amount of time drilling these variations until you seem like you've mastered both domi sunt and the various plural forms.

At no point do they stop and say that est and sunt are verbs, and est is used for 3rd person singular, or any of that stuff that you get in traditional language learning. The "naturalistic" approach of ALM is supposed to follow how children learn a language (I guess?), since we all learned our mother tongue without a single grammar lesson.

How can you use this to learn a language from scratch? I'll show you in the next installment.

[1] When I got to college and was studying German, one of our professors who specialized in pedagogy was from Germany and had a strong German accent. Ever since those days I only hear this as "ze odd-yo ling-val messod."

Patty   21 Jan 20 - 7:19 AM

Good for you for stretching your brain, Mike! I use Duolingo for Turkish, but I never realized it's following the ALM system. In Turkish, at least, there is a huge amount of user discussion on, for example, why certain endings are or are not used. All of this discussion is pure grammar. So I wonder if the ALM is enough for adults who know grammar, since it's impossible for us to think from a blank grammar slate. But thanks to Duolingo, I do know how to say "The elephants are not pink" in Turkish!

mike   21 Jan 20 - 1:27 PM

Yeah, there's discussion (see the forthcoming part 3), but it's not part of the pedagogy. Their method, as far as I can tell, aims to be explanation-free.