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The Portuguese Speaker in the Basement

Duolingo Swedish’s 241st word of the week, written by contributor Super Svensk, is KARANTÄN, a temporarily appropriate cognate to the word “quarantine.” 

Ben Kramer ‘23, Super Svensk’s real name, is a Gold Contributor for Duolingo Swedish. His responsibilities include vetting and hiring new contributors to the Swedish program, as well as constructing new Swedish practice material for the Duolingo online course. His unpaid contributions exemplify Duolingo’s crowdsourcing structure, a content model that allows the app’s lessons to be as fluid and diverse as the languages themselves. Contributors like Kramer are essential to the maintenance and expansion of Duolingo courses, despite being involved on a strictly volunteer basis. 

Kramer is proficient or fluent in at least seven languages, which he accomplished with the help of digital language acquisition resources.  “The internet is the only way in which I’ve been able to be exposed to that many languages,” Kramer said in an interview with The Politic. Duolingo allows users to select from 23 languages, available to all those with the desire and tenacity to learn. 

“Take Portuguese for example…. I have read entire novels in Portuguese, but I have never spoken with a real Portuguese person,” Kramer said. “Unfortunately, I do not have a Brazilian Portuguese-speaker in my basement, but the internet does.”

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While Duolingo comes in a much prettier package, with its slick color scheme and interactive avatars, it is pedagogically very similar to its predecessor, Rosetta Stone.  

Founded in 1992, Rosetta Stone—a software company based out of Arlington, Virginia—became the first company to utilize technology to help people learn a foreign language. Through a set of easy-to-use tapes and, eventually, DVDs, anglophones could learn up to 30 different languages at a fraction of the price and time commitment of formal classroom instruction. 

Rosetta Stone’s teaching strategy was simple: listen and repeat, listen and repeat, listen and repeat. The phrases start simply and become increasingly complex, the same way that babies learn to speak. Since the advent of Rosetta Stone, however, language-learning programs have become exponentially more technologically advanced. From Babel to FluentU—and Rosetta Stone in an attempt to keep up—language programs now allow for students to type in translations and give written input to practice different skills. 

There are hundreds of apps online and on the app store that promise to make users fluent in a matter of months. Far from the original Rosetta Stone DVDs, they have colorful user interfaces, “achievements” for using the app multiple days in a row, and bright affirmations with energetic sound effects when the user gets a question right. Duolingo is by far the most well-known example of these technologies. 

The Duolingo and Duolingo Mobile software have the ultimate goal of bringing more languages to more people in an increasingly globalized world. As Kramer explained, “Duolingo will always be free…. The goal of the crowd-sourced and volunteer-based program development is to allow the courses to be fluid in the way that language is fluid. Crowd-sourcing does this while also driving the development cost down.” In this way, Duolingo strives to bring world languages back to where they started—the collective minds of human beings. 

Duolingo, as a company, has three main goals: making language-learning personalized, fun, and accessible. That is why Duolingo has such a variety of languages, has fun game-like qualities—like the brightly colored owl who encourages the student along the way—and is completely free (or, at least, freemium, with the option to pay for Duolingo Plus). 

However, Duolingo, like any technology, has its peaks and pitfalls. Crowdsourcing in Duolingo poses many of the same challenges of the original crowdsourcing of Wikipedia. It relies heavily on unpaid volunteers like Kramer, contributing to a wide range of material quality between the different languages Duolingo offers. Furthermore, like many well-established programs, Duolingo does not thrive in developing oral proficiency. As Kramer explained,“I have learned to read, write, and listen on Duolingo…. The only place we could use improvement is with the speaking part.” 

Yet according to Director of Undergraduate Studies of the Russian department Irina Dolgova, the “speaking part” remains a formidable, critical challenge, a challenge due to the fact that native speakers are immersed in the world of their language while non-natives view the language from a screen. It is this contextualization gap that Duolingo and Rosetta Stone have yet to fill. 

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Sofie Zander ‘23 had never thought about what language programs might look like for her native Swedish. But when she tried to take Duolingo’s Swedish placement test as a linguistic experiment she couldn’t stop muttering, “this is so weird” under her breath. The exam’s questions had felt “random and rather illogical,” Zander said in an interview with The Politic.

As her confusion at her contextless Swedish-language exam illustrates, repetition alone does not actually teach the inner-workings of a language or the natural sequence of thought inherent in the Swedish language. Memorization is part of language education, but it is not enough. Natives of a language have the advantage of being immersed fully in a language. Duolingo, on the other hand, asks that students go back and forth between English and the foreign language like a game of tennis.

Zander sighed as she explained, “Translation from Swedish to English just doesn’t work. There are just some things you can’t say in English.” 

Of course, using English as a jumping-off point is a useful tool. But Rosetta Stone and Duolingo do not acknowledge, quite simply, that Swedish is not English, English is not Russian, and Russian is not Swedish. 

Zander and Kramer’s path to Swedish fluency could not be more different. But even Kramer’s path to Swedish fluency looked different than his path to Portuguese proficiency. He spent six years at Concordia Language Villages, in which he spent weeks at a time immersed in the Swedish language. It is not shocking, then, that he is a much stronger Swedish speaker than a Portuguese speaker. In his acquisition of Swedish, he did not have to use English as a constant intermediary.

Irina Dolgova has dedicated her career to teaching highly technical Slavic languages to English-speaking students. She is well-acquainted with the goals of her students as well as the creativity required in instructing students of varying linguistic abilities. “Mostly, everybody…wants to learn how to speak. Reading, writing, and even listening, then, become scaffolding in the ultimate goal of the student,” Dolgova said in an interview with The Politic

According to Dolgova, these technological methods are inadequate in this regard. That’s why Dolgova wrote Live From Russia!, a culturally immersive program which develops Russian proficiency through both an online component and an accompanying soap-opera style video. These videos attempt to provide humor and context that learning apps lack.

Dolgova continues, “In order to teach a student not only how to absorb, but to produce, we must understand that language acquisition is a psycho-linguistic process.” In Live From Russia! and the followup textbook Welcome Back!, the accompanying soap-opera follows an American photographer Kevin Jackson in his journeys throughout Russia. While the plot can be, at times, melodramatic and cliché, the story is vital to language acquisition because it provides context. 

As Dolgova explains, “Without context, words are meaningless. This is why so many [online programs] are so deeply ineffective, especially in a language like Russian.” 

Professor Dolgova is ultimately unconvinced about the usefulness of regurgitating vocabulary and familiar sentences, the pedagogical technique that Rosetta Stone once popularized. She draws a strong distinction between regurgitation and familiarity with a language. 

“I will not use Canvas’s quiz feature because telling a Russian student, ‘Write a list of all of the furniture words in Russian that you know,’ does not tell the instructor whether or not the student has absorbed the language.” 

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While online listening tools like podcasts, movies, and television shows allow learners to get unprecedented amounts of authentic language materials at no cost, the software is not yet comparable to the complex neural pathways created in an immersive, translation-free language experience. Swedish is not English; English is not Portuguese.

However, as software companies hear the feedback of language students, the pedagogy of these platforms is finally starting to shift in a brand new direction. 

“Some companies are already starting to develop software—Sims-style games—which put brand new students in an immersive experience,” Dolgova explained. “Their avatar could be at the airport or at a restaurant… something very simple… and they have to deal with the visual distractions of daily life, and, most importantly, they have to produce.” 

SimCity BuildIt, for example, now has a Spanish-learning feature. Since not everyone has the time or financial resources to travel all the way to Moscow to become immersed in the Russian language, virtual apps are aiming to bring Moscow to the student. 

One such language-learning virtual reality platform recently developed is Mondly, which puts students in immersive virtual spaces relevant to the language they are studying. While it only has a three star rating on the App Store, its intention—instantly helping students with pronunciation and oral proficiency—signifies a step in the right direction. 

These technologies, in some senses, even have the potential to be more useful to a student than the traditional classroom scenario. Dolgova raised the point that, within the language classroom, students often have access to a “sympathetic listener” who will accept any answer which is even tangentially correct. However, a language program like Mondly will only be able to understand so much divergence from correct pronunciation and correct grammar, forcing students to be more accurate. Furthermore, this tool, like Duolingo, requires input from the user and also gives context just like the Live From Russia! soap operas. However, the white whale of speaking to these interactive platforms and having them respond with speed and fluidity—while also not letting the student drown in new information—is still a task for the future.

Since the inception of technology-based language programs, the technology has come a long, long way. But it has yet to replace an immersive experience. If someone wants to be truly fluent, they still need to go to the country-of-origin and be surrounded by native speakers. Teaching Italian is still best left to the Italians. 

However, if the goal is to watch a Norwegian television show with no issues, the internet is a wonderful place to start. Learning a foreign language opens doors of human communication unlike any other skill; the psychosocial benefits of it are well-documented. Luckily, once someone acquires a second language, the third and fourth—or even the seventh—becomes easier and easier as our neuroplasticity grows and grows. Hopefully soon all people will need is a Sims account and an online microphone.