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Learning Spanish the smartphone way

Oh Duolingo, you get me.

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Oh Duolingo, you get me. (GRANT HAMILTON/BRANDON SUN)

A little while ago I downloaded an app called Duolingo to my iPhone.

I'd read about it a few months earlier, and had even encouraged my girlfriend to download it and give it a try, but it wasn't until more recently that I figured I would give it a whirl myself.

The app, which is free, is part of the trend towards gamification — meaning they try to make boring tasks a little more engaging by incorporating ideas from games, like levels and lives.

You may have already guessed from the app's name, but Duolingo is a way to help you learn a second language. They say that 34 hours practice with the app is the same as completing a first-year college course in the that language, something that takes about 130 hours instruction.

Now, I already know a second language — I came up through the immersion francaise program at New Era and Neelin high schools — and although I think my French is getting a little rusty, it was good enough to get me through Paris and Morocco last year.

But, gearing up for a trip to Spanish-speaking Peru later this spring, I thought I would kick the Duolingo tires and see what kind of progress I could make in six weeks or so.

Of course, the fact that French and Spanish are related Romance languages doesn't hurt — I thought it might help clean out the language pathways of my brain and help out my French a little bit, too.

Now, a couple of weeks in, I can safely say that I know more Spanish than ever before.

Am I fluent? Oh no. Not even close. But when I was limited to things like "Sí, una cerveza mas, por favor" before, any progress is significant.

Duolingo has proven adept at teaching me new vocabulary, although some of the grammar isn't sticking as well.

The app is essentially a series of tests, which very gradually increase in difficulty, introducing new words and concepts as they go. There is almost nothing in the way of actual instruction — you're left to sink or swim on your own, although there is generous leeway for failure, and the tone is of perpetual optimism.

I find that my background in French has helped me immeasurably, in grasping things lke verb tenses, that might have left me floundering. They are very similar in Spanish, but both are so different from English that it might have been a difficult leap to make if I was starting from scratch.

Sometimes, I feel like the app is racing ahead to introduce me to new words and concepts before fully solidifying the things it was teaching me before, but there is nothing stopping me from going back and retaking lessons that I think I need more grounding in. And perhaps the app's designers have found that it is more rewarding for people to learn more than shore up old knowledge, no matter how shaky.

Although there are other learn-a-language programs out there, I love that Duolingo is on my smartphone. I can pick it up and complete a lesson in a couple of minutes any time I like. I often do it in the mornings over coffee, or in bed before turning out the lights. Sometimes I get a lesson in while waiting to pick up my girlfriend from work.

That's something I coud never do if I was reliant on a textbook course, or even a web-based course on a laptop or desktop. They say that the best camera is the one you have on you — it turns out that the same goes for language lessons.

The most amazing thing about the app is that it is free. Knowing how fully-featured it is, I would glady have paid $10 for it. Instead, I paid $0.

And there are no ads.

So how does it make money? Even to pay for itself? Apparently by offering translation services to websites. So you are not just struggling through translation as a way to learn a language, you're actually helping to crowd-source the translation of websites around the world.

They call it an elegant solution — and it's true that I'm definitely benefitting.

Of course, I'll have to see how well Duolingo handles the real-world test of my trip to Peru.

But I can already tell, I'm much further ahead than if I hadn't tried anything at all.

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