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I Used Duolingo to Study Italian Before Traveling to Rome. Here's How it Went

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In late January, my wife and I decided to go on our first international trip together. We met with a travel agent and booked a trip to Rome for May. This would be our first trip outside the US, and it would be the first time I was in a country where the primary language wasn't English. 

I wasn't sure what to expect in terms of a language barrier, so I asked our agent if we needed to learn any Italian. She said it doesn't hurt to know some basic words and phrases, like hello, good morning and thank you, but it wouldn't be necessary.

That information did comfort me, but I wanted to know a little more Italian than the bare minimum. So I did what any person in my situation would do: I downloaded Duolingo to my iPhone and set off to learn another language in four months. At the end of four months, I knew a few Italian phrases and words, but I saw some of the flaws within Duolingo. Here's what Duolingo struggles with, what it gets right and how it helped me fare in the Eternal City.

Read more: Best Language Learning Apps of 2024

What is Duolingo?

Duolingo language education app logo
Sarah Tew/CNET

If you're unfamiliar, Duolingo is a popular language-learning app that's been awarded the CNET Editor's Choice across multiple years. Our review says getting started with learning a new language on the app is easy, fun and refreshing.

One study published in Computer Assisted Language Learning found that Duolingo was about as effective as learning Spanish in an elementary school classroom. The study's authors wrote that there was "no significant difference in students' Spanish achievement or in academic self-efficacy between students who used Duolingo and students who were taught with traditional face-to-face instruction."

Another study published in the Foreign Language Annals found that people who use Duolingo to learn a second language performed at a similar language level to college students who studied the language for years.

"[Duolingo users'] reading and listening scores were comparable with those of university students at the end of the fourth semester of study," the study reads. It suggests, "Duolingo can be an effective tool for foreign language learning."

With that information in hand, I felt confident in January that Duolingo could help me communicate in Italian by the time my trip arrived in May.

How does Duolingo work?

After I downloaded the app, it asked me what language I wanted to learn, how often I could practice and how much I knew about the language already. I answered Italian, about 15 minutes a day and no experience at all. The app took this information and presented me with my first lesson.

This is what Duolingo looks like as you progress through different language lessons and units.

Duolingo/Screenshot by CNET

This lesson was titled "Ordering at a cafe" and taught me how to say please (per favore) and thank you (grazie), as well as the words for tea (te), coffee (caffe) and sugar (zucchero). And I wrote that whole sentence without double-checking those translations so I guess you could say I mastered Italian.

Each Duolingo lesson has multiple exercises in it that range from asking you to differentiate between two similar sounding words, presenting you with new words and asking you to construct sentences based on what the app said. As you progress, these lessons get more difficult. Soon, the app is asking you what someone is saying in your chosen language and how you would respond to certain sentences.

Some of the lessons didn't feel all that helpful, though. For example, some of the exercises involve distinguishing between two similar sounding words, and plenty of times I asked myself, "How could someone mix these two up?" To be clear, some of these exercises were difficult and asked you to differentiate between a word with back-to-back "Cs" as opposed to a singular "C." In other cases the words were different by one letter, but the different letter would be a "Z" instead of "G" or something similar.

How does Duolingo's XP system work?

Duolingo gamifies its teaching method by rewarding people with XP and other rewards, like in-game currency called gems, for completing lessons and challenges. And as a lifelong gamer, XP and collecting in-game currency makes my lizard brain happy. 

But while you can usually use XP in other games to level your character up, you can't do anything with Duolingo's XP. The XP is tied to a series of leaderboards, and if you get more XP than others you can ascend those leaderboards. In that way, XP is kind of like your score. Except your XP resets every week and you either climb to the next league, drop down a league or stay in your current league.

These leagues are good for people who are motivated by things like competition, but they don't offer much beyond that. Plenty of times I felt myself getting excited about climbing to the next league, but then I'd fall out of the league and realize that I still completed lessons and made progress. You can still advance through lessons despite your league. So, if you use Duolingo, don't feel discouraged about whatever league you're in. They aren't important to the overall learning experience.

What are some of Duolingo's issues?

While Duolingo presents you with new words and phrases to memorize, the lessons don't explain grammatical rules or structures. As I progressed through the different Italian lessons, none of them explained why you use certain conjugations instead of others in particular instances. It didn't feel like the lessons were interested in explaining Italian, but were more concerned with simple memorization. 

For example, Italian has gendered words that are spelled differently but mean the same thing, like Italiano and Italiana, which both translate to "Italian." A word's gender influences how the words around it are formed and spelled, but the lessons never explain this. They simply expect you to be able to recognize and use them. It would be like arriving at a new job without any prior training and being expected to know what to do.

Similarly, the app's lessons on possessive sentences and phrases aren't super helpful. I crawled through those lessons at a snail's pace, and I'm still not confident I could use the possessive in Italian. 

A statue of three men being wrapped up in snakes

I would have asked these guys for help with some grammatical structures, but they seemed a little preoccupied.

Zach McAuliffe/CNET

Only after I dug around in the app did I find explanations for these rules and structures. The app also provided a few examples of these rules in action. Here's what the app wrote about gender.

"In Italian, nouns are either masculine or feminine. This is known as gender," the app reads. "Articles change to show gender … Most adjectives change to show gender."

That's the app's whole explanation, minus the examples. Which adjectives don't change to show gender? Are all gendered words spelled with either an "O" or an "A" at the end like in Italiano and Italiana? If you listen closely, you can hear me sigh.

And here's the app's explanation on possessives:

"In Italian, possessives change depending on the number and gender of what you're talking about," the app reads. "Most of the time, you also include the definite article … But when talking about singular family members, the definite article usually gets left out."

This is somewhat helpful, but still not very clear to me. I think lessons on possessives took me the longest to get through because I kept using up all my mistakes and would have to wait until the next day to try again. These lessons were deeply frustrating, and I would greatly appreciate further clarification for grammatical structures. I would have appreciated some short video explainers of some kind to go over these rules.

I also didn't find some units super helpful for everyday conversations, and I felt like I wasted time on these particular units. There are units called "Ask for help," and "Order in a restaurant," which I feel are useful for traveling abroad. But some other units are titled "Shop online" and -- my personal favorite -- "Describe a scary hotel." Despite my hours of preparation, not once while I was in Italy did anyone want to discuss scary hotels. You can skip units if you want, but you'll likely miss something from these lessons, like translated words, that are applicable in later lessons, so I wouldn't advise skipping ahead. 

What does Duolingo get right?

The main thing is the lesson's aren't behind a paywall. I used the free version of the app the majority of the time and had access to the same language lessons as the premium version, Duolingo Super, which starts at $7 a month

I was able to try a free trial of Duolingo Super, though, and I didn't find it particularly helpful. Mostly because you can make unlimited mistakes. This meant I could just keep plugging words and phrases into translations without thinking about what I was doing until I got it right. 

Using the free version, you're only allotted five daily mistakes. This felt more worthwhile because it made me focus on what I was doing. I only had five mistakes after all, so I better pay attention and get this stuff right. While some might feel discouraged to only have a limited number of mistakes, I felt like it really helped me learn the material as best I could.

A flame emoji with the words 120 day streak

I got to a 120-day streak with the help of a few in-game bonuses called Streak Freezes.

Screenshot by Zach McAuliffe/CNET

When I did use my five daily hearts, the app let me practice previous lessons to get hearts back, which was great. I never really felt locked out of progressing because I knew I could practice a little more and try a new lesson shortly.

Meanwhile, there are a few extra lessons you can access with a premium membership, but those lessons are more practice as opposed to learning anything new. Some of these lessons were fun, like a timed word and translation matching game, but I wouldn't spend $7 a month for them.

I also found that the lessons and sections were full of repetition, which has been proven as an effective teaching method. According to a study published in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, repetition learning can lead to better retention of what you learned over a longer period of time. And in Duolingo, I repeated myself over and over again. Some exercises, especially early ones, felt like they repeated the same questions a few times in the same exercise. However, this might be because I found myself returning to these early lessons to sharpen up on certain skills.

Each lesson also builds on the previous lesson. So while you might be on a lesson about how to buy something at a store, that lesson still uses words and structures similar to those you learned in the lesson on ordering at a cafe.

Because of this, when it came time to travel to Rome, I felt confident in my ability to say at least a few things in Italian and not make a total buffoon of myself.

So what happened in Rome? 

I made a total buffoon of myself.

As soon as my wife and I left the airport and got a cab, the driver rattled off a string of words faster than a Ferrari. I was befuddled. The driver was waiting for an answer, and all I could say, in my midwestern accent was, "Sorry, what was that?" The driver, very professionally, recognized we spoke English and switched languages to ask which hotel we were staying at. 

I was devastated. All that time wasted. And for what? To feel linguistically stomped out as soon as I departed the plane. 

Duolingo's explanation of what CEFR A1 is

In case you're wondering, that roughly translates to, "I'm from Mexico City. I speak Spanish."

Screenshot by Zach McAuliffe/CNET

I later learned that Duolingo says its first few sections of Italian -- and many other languages -- cover the first level of what is called the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). According to Cambridge University, CEFR is an international standard for describing a person's language proficiency.

The first level of CEFR is called A1 and it covers basic language skills. Here's how the Council of Europe describes a person's language interactions on the A1 level:
"Can ask and answer questions about personal details. Can interact in a simple way but communication is totally dependent on repetition, rephrasing and repair."

Compare that to how the council describes a person's language interactions at the highest level of CEFR, called C2:

"Can interact with ease and skill, picking up and using nonverbal and intonational cues apparently effortlessly. Can interweave his/her contribution into the joint discourse with fully natural turntaking, referencing, allusion making, etc."

I understand this to mean a person with a C2 proficiency is a native-speaker or someone who has immersed themselves in a given language, maybe by living in the country for an extended period of time. I interpret that a person with A1 proficiency, on the other hand, is communicating at the level of a preschool book. But I don't know if I'd be able to read a book like Where's Spot? in Italian, so maybe there should be another level below that where I would fit into.

Duolingo said in a blog post that for some languages, like French and Spanish, it could take a year of serious and consistent study to get through CEFR A1 and A2 content on the app -- about four sections. That means after a year you might be able to understand basic information in structured events, like guided tours.

However, after my jarring experience with our driver upon arrival, I was able to order at a cafe. The cashier asked for our order, and I said, "Due caffe e due cornetto," which roughly translates to, "Two coffees and two croissants," and he rang us up without issue. Was the guy being nice and just moving us along? Maybe. But I was elated in this small moment of time thanks to Duolingo.

Is Duolingo worth it?

Duo the Owl is always watching; he's on a purple background

Yes, but it could be improved.

Screenshot by Sarah Tew/CNET

I think it's worth it. I was able to communicate at a very basic level in Italian, which is exactly what I wanted from the app. However, I don't think I spent enough time with the app, or that all the lessons were particularly beneficial. 

I learned enough words to have some basic interactions with people, like ordering at the cafe, and I could say other words in certain contexts. I didn't always understand what people were saying, but every now and then I would recognize a word and feel a little proud knowing what they were talking about.

If I were to do this again, I would have started learning Italian with Duolingo much earlier than four months, but that also means I would have had to plan this trip further out. How far out you should start these lessons depends on how much time and focus you can spare. Again, Duolingo wrote that a full year's worth of time and focused effort should get you to a point where you could probably communicate well on a trip. But if you're raising a kid, working long hours or have any kind of time constraints, that means you'd have to start even more in advance.

I think Duolingo would benefit from truncated courses for people who are traveling to other countries. These would be separate from the main language courses and center on the material you would need while traveling. That way you could focus on the important lessons and words without any talk of scary hotels. 

You can download the Duolingo app for free from either Apple's App Store or the Google Play store.

For more, check out how to choose the best language-learning app for you and our best language-learning apps.

Source: cnet.com

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