The Linguist

The Linguist 53,1

The Linguist is a languages magazine for professional linguists, translators, interpreters, language professionals, language teachers, trainers, students and academics with articles on translation, interpreting, business, government, technology

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Vol/53 No/1 2014 FEBRUARY/MARch The Linguist 17 FEATURES courses in other languages are being developed in the site's 'incubator' section) – you work your way through a skill tree, picking up vocabulary and grammatical structures. those who already have some knowledge of the language can take a five-minute test allowing them to skip ahead to the relevant branch, with learners on the later stages doing translations. You can take a break from the course and dip into translations of varying difficulty at any stage, rating other users' work or having a go at a sentence yourself. there is an app for ioS and Android, which sends daily reminders to continue with your language practice – the company says the majority of its traffic comes from mobile. And you are encouraged to sign in with Facebook so you can share and compare progress with friends using the programme. English is currently the most popular language to learn on the site. Judith Meyer, a German computational linguist, has been on Duolingo since the beginning: completing the Spanish tree from scratch, brushing up her French and italian and now starting on portuguese. While she finds much to praise in the programme, she can also see flaws, and says BuzzFeed's claim that 'Duolingo generates translations at the accuracy level of those generated by skilled professionals' is overblown. 'the biggest advantage with the software is that it adapts to you,' she says. 'if you find a grammar chapter really difficult and keep making mistakes, Duolingo will keep coming up with new sentences to translate. if you use other software or textbooks, your only option is to keep trying to solve the same exercise and eventually you know the correct answers by heart without necessarily understanding why they are correct.' She says the option of sharing progress on social media is good motivation: 'if you go back to Facebook the next day and see those new comments, that might well prompt you to study another lesson.' however, she adds that the focus on the translation of single phrases rather than personalised dialogues is a problem for the casual learner, who will not be able to build up reflex answers to common questions, such as 'where are you from?', even though they have had such phrases as 'the girl eats the apple' drilled in from an early stage. 'it's something that most other software, most textbooks and all classes get right, and Duolingo gets wrong.' For Meyer, Duolingo suffers from the same fault as all automated web-based programmes: it cannot offer real- life dialogues in the same way as classes or immersive study. however, her biggest concern is that learners, often with less than 100 hours of online tuition, are being used as translators. 'Duolingo is hoping to make up for this by having dozens of users work on the same translation, but they are forgetting that these users are more likely to confirm each other's mistakes rather than correct them, because they are all likely to misinterpret things in the same way,' explains Meyer. 'For example, the German sentence Ich bin blau looks quite simple and innocuous: "i am blue",' she explains. 'however, in German, this sentence actually means "i'm tipsy". Unless you have a good-hearted German native speaker or advanced student working on these translations – someone who is not part of Duolingo's language- lessons-for-translations deal – this kind of mistake just won't be caught.' kelsey White, a researcher in German applied linguistics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who has written on Duolingo, praises the way it highlights translation as a language skill rather than focusing purely on communication. 'people have certain ideas that translation is old- fashioned or boring, and that it's not a good way of learning,' she says. 'i think that Duolingo debunks those ideas.' But she agrees that the translations produced, while better than those from a machine, will never reach a professional level, no matter how big the crowd becomes. 'if companies want to ensure excellent quality, they should hire a professional. i would hope that no business would use this programme to get translations for things where health or safety are concerned.' Users are devoted to Duolingo, with one posting in a forum, 'i am crying because this site is what i always dreamed of – language learning for free, in the most fun way possible.' And the site certainly believes it has the power to change the linguistic landscape, suggesting that Duolingo is the way to complete the tower of Babel! But while the free courses are fantastic and the crowd translation model impressive, they can be no substitute for immersion or for a professional translator. FUN FOR FREE Most traffic to Duolingo is via mobile (left); and (below) the BuzzFeed homepage 'I hope no business would use Duolingo to get translations where health or safety are concerned'

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