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January 21, 2020  |  Duolingo Latin, Part 2: How to learn a language "naturally"  |  1831 hit(s)

As I said in part 1, when I started with Duolingo, I realized that it used the principles of the audio-lingual method (ALM), which emphasizes patterns and practice over grammar instruction. But how do you teach someone a language starting from nothing? And, as per the ALM/naturalistic philosophy, without explaining anything?

When I started with Duolingo, I didn't know how the app worked. Now I'm sorry that I didn't start capturing screenshots right at the beginning. But I'll try to recapture some of it by showing you roughly how the teaching progresses.

1. Start with pictures

Duolingo started by introducing basic vocabulary with pictures, like this:

As you can see, they make these as easy get as possible. Hey, Latin is fun!

2. Solicit sentences where it's hard to make errors

The next phase is to have you recognize words that you've been introduced to. They do this in a couple of ways. One approach is the classic multiple-choice answer. In my exercises, there have only been 3 choices, and I've found that the 2 incorrect answers are pretty easy to eliminate. They're not trying to trip you up; they're trying to make you successful, so they're asking for just a tiny bit of effort. So far.

(By the time I got around to snapping this screen, I'd gone quite a bit beyond the intro to the words puer ("boy") and urbs ("city"), obviously.)

Another approach that they use is to give you a short sentence and then have you assemble the translation by selecting (clicking) words from of a limited set of choices. In this phase, they again give you choices that make it pretty easy to get the right answer.

They use this approach a lot, and it's one way that they introduce changes in the pattern. Here's a variant form of urbs in a sentence:

In the first example, Corinna built four cities. In the second example, I built the city. What you're supposed to deduce from many repetitions of these types of related sentences is that when "city" is singular and the direct object, it's urbem; when it's plural and the direct object, it's urbes. But as I keep saying (sorry), they never utter terms like direct object, or for that matter, singular or plural. With enough repetition, you start picking up patterns like these.

They also use this "click the word" approach to introduce vocabulary that doesn't lend itself to pictures, like verbs. They give you a sentence where, by process of elimination, you figure out which one is the one you don't know. In this example, it's almost impossible (imo) not to figure out what venis means, given the choices they provide:

Up to now, you're just clicking. This seems weak—as someone on Twitter said, "I dislike clicking things to try to learn a language." A fair point, but there's a method here: you're simply seeing vocabulary, with a minor boost of having to actually pick from a small selection of choices. Now they change it up.

3. Solicit sentences aurally

The next step is that they dictate a sentence to you and you type it out:

This does a couple of things. One is that you encounter the new terms in a different medium, namely through the ear. (If I were studying a modern language, this listening skill would be critical[1].) An important benefit is that you're writing the terms that up to now you've only been reading and occasionally clicking. This is stepping up your language acquisition; you're now actually producing the language, albeit in a highly prompted way.

4. Translate to English free-form

Another form of exercise is where you produce a free-form English translation of what you're reading:

This takes away the training wheels (no hints via the clickable words) and it exercises your ability to understand what the different word forms actually mean. For example, in this example, you have to recognize that sunt means "are" and that Philadelphiae means "in Philadelphia," even though there's no "in" in front of it. (These are things that you would have been introduced to and drilled on before you see this exercise.)

5. Solicit translations into Latin

The most advanced exercise I've encountered so far is when they give you a sentence in English and ask you to translate it into Latin with no clues at all:

This requires everything you've learned: what words to use, how to inflect them, and what order to put them into (lexicon, morphology, syntax). With Latin, that's as much as you'd theoretically ever need to learn, but I guess I'll see down the line.

How to make this work

Although you do these different types and levels of exercises, the information is not presented in this strict sequence. Each lesson mixes up these different approaches in a set of 10 exercises.

The teaching also relies on these principles:

  • You get immediate feedback as to whether you got the exercise correct.
  • If you get an exercise wrong, it's repeated later in the lesson, though not immediately; they seem to follow a practice of intermittent reinforcement. As far as I can tell, you can't finish the lesson until you've gotten them all right.
  • You repeat and repeat and repeat. Even as you make progress, you do the same exercise again and again.
  • The lessons are short, no more than a few minutes. Their idea is that you can spend 5 to 10 minutes a day and make progress as long as you do it every single day.[2]

I'm probably overlooking some aspects of the pedagogy here, but I think that this is the gist of how they've designed the lessons for progressive learning: see, copy, listen, produce. As I say, I'm not sure I'll get to a phase where I have to respond to a question by writing a free-form answer, which would be to create novel sentences that have no direct pattern. (That would be hard to machine-grade, I think?)

I did make progress with this approach. However, as someone's who's studied other languages before, I found the no-explanation approach a little frustrating. More on that in the next installment.

[1] Language mastery consists of four skills, in order of difficulty: reading, listening, writing, speaking. Latin might be different from other Duolingo languages in that they have you read sentences, listen to them, and write them; but so far in my experience, they don't ask you to produce any spoken language. Then again … conversational Latin?

As an aside, they don't explain Latin pronunciation; they just show you words and then say them, and you sort out how the letters correspond to sounds. That's pretty easy in Latin, although I did eventually discover that I was learning "classical Latin" pronunciation as opposed to "ecclesiastical Latin," which sounds more like Italian.

[2] These principles are similar to the ones used by Kumon for teaching math and reading.