Starting to learn a foreign language as an adult can be boring. Over the years, I've used various methods from books to CDs and have more recently added apps and online courses.
I've always found the early stages of learning a language somewhat frustrating. You mostly just plow through basic vocabulary and grammar.
However, once you've mastered the essentials of a language, continuing to learn becomes much more enjoyable. Things start to click. You begin to see patterns, get grammar points, understand idioms.
You can start reading articles and stories, listen to podcasts, watch videos and movies. In real life, you start having conversations that work.
As I described in a previous post, I am currently learning Dutch (from scratch) with Duolingo, while continuing with my (intermediate) Spanish with a Babbel course.
This presents me with an excellent opportunity to look at and compare the two programs.
There are other reviews of both programs. The Economist did one in 2013, which - due to to the improvements of both sites - is already somewhat dated.
A more recent one by Angel Armstead for Fluent earlier this year, describes well both programs' different approaches, but Fluent's Kerstin Hammes was also quite critical of Duolingo in her subsequent March 2015 post.
I started Dutch with Duolingo just a few months ago. Also, I had used Duolingo for several months for continuing with my Spanish.
With Duolingo, you follow a nicely laid-out lesson sequence with various categories or topics: Basics, Phrases, Food, Animals, Clothing, Plurals, Possessives, Adjectives, Indefinite & Definite Pronouns, etc.
You do one lesson after another. That means, you can “unlock” the next lesson only after you've completed the previous one.
One way to move faster is to “test out” of all the lessons in a category or topic. That's only possible if you already know the words, of course. (Note that during a test, you “can't peek” at the translation.)
Duolingo's set lesson sequence has several advantages:
- Beginners can build up their skills slowly but surely.
- Lessons build on each other. Earlier words show up again and again to be recombined.
- You don't have to make any choices about what to study until you've finished your “skill tree.”
The Duolingo Method
With the Duolingo system, you learn mostly new words by first correlating them to pictures. Some of the more abstract words, you'll guess from the context of a sentence. If you're not sure, you can always check the translation by tapping/clicking on the English.
New words are the practiced in various ways. For me, it's the variety of tasks which makes the learning engaging. There's plenty of hit or miss involved. But hey, making mistakes is all part of the learning process.
You translate the words you just learned back to English, together with other familiar words. You write what you hear and learn spelling as you do it. You fill in missing words in a sentence, or select the correct translation from three options.
There's also a sort of pronunciation check, which seems to respond more to the cadence and intonation of your voice than to correct pronunciation. (I once used the wrong language but still my voice was accepted.)
A recently added feature to the app asks you to “tap the pairs,” which are simple correlations of English and foreign words.
Early on with Duolingo you could only make 3 mistakes before you had to replay the lesson. But now, both in the app and on the PC, a mistake just sets you back a little. You can continue until you complete 20 items correctly.
At the end of the lesson, you're awarded 10 points and you can then continue to the next one. Once you've completed all the lessons of your “skill tree,” you can go back to any category or topic to “strengthen your skills.” Apparently, you can do this until you've reached Level 25!
My Frustrations with the Nonsense
While I like Duolingo very much, I often get annoyed when I have to learn Dutch words such as “schildpadden” (turtles), “eenden” (ducks), “konijnen” (rabbits) etc., all words that I'm unlikely to use in a conversation in the foreseeable future.
And while the lessons get a little more interesting as your vocabulary expands, the ducks and turtles reappear in different variations. The often nonsensical sentences – try: “the ducks are reading the newspapers” - may sometimes be funny and teach you some grammatical points, but I find them mostly frustrating.
No doubt, the simplicity of the Duolingo approach, with its variety of tasks, keeps you engaged and on your toes.
I just wish that the program would replace the random and often nonsensical sentences that I have to read, pronounce, translate, and write, with real-life dialogs or at least with more useful sentences.
Duolingo's Gamification and Metrics
The various “gamification” features of the program do provide some incentive. For example, points are added to your total with each completed lesson, and you receive “lingots” to redeem in the “lingot store.”
I find the daily “streak reminder” to be a good motivator to keep learning. I'm adamant about not breaking my ever growing streak (which currently stands at day 184).
For Spanish, which I did earlier, I see a Fluency Score (currently 47%), based on the 5900 points, and Level 13 completed to date.
For Dutch, with 2,625 points and level 10, there is no Fluency level yet.
I think that I'm making progress. I've reached level 10 in Dutch so far and I continue to do 2-3 lessons every day.
Babbel's courses are structured differently from Duolingo's. You see immediately that you're not required to proceed in sequence through all the lessons. At any point, you can choose with which lesson to begin or at what lesson to continue.
In the Spanish program, there are 6 Beginner's Courses (each with 18-22 lessons); 4 Intermediate Courses (with 19-20 lessons each); 6 Grammar Courses (with 12-21 lessons each); and 6 Listening and Speaking Lessons (with 8-10 lessons each).
There are also plenty of lessons in other sections such as, Reading and Writing, Countries and Traditions, Specials (where you find such topics as False friends, True Friends, Numbers, Spanish idioms). And, the “Words and Sentences” section covers over 30 different topics.
The Babbel Method
Lesson 1 of Beginner Course 1, called “¡Mucho gusto!Part 1,” starts with four basics: Hello!, yes, thank you, Bye!
You first hear and see both the English and the Spanish Word and a picture that expresses its meaning. You then find the Spanish translation by spelling each of the words with letters that are provided.
The next step is to practice these four words again, this time as part of a simple dialogue, which includes phrases that you'll learn in the next lesson.
As I already knew some Spanish, I jumped right to the Refresher Course 1 (called, Upper Beginner's Level). The lessons have a similar structure to those in the Beginner's Course. You're taught four words or phrases in each lesson.
At this stage, a basic knowledge of the language is required. Spelling becomes harder, as you have to use the keyboard without any hint of which letters to use. Plus, exercises for word order and specific grammar points are added.
At the end of a Refresher Course lesson, you typically insert the newly-learned Spanish words into phrases that are part of a short dialog or story around a specific topic, e.g. “At the shop,” “Daily Routine,” “Vacation,” “Leisure activities” etc.
Babbel also has a voice recognition feature. But I don't use it very often because it's hard to get the pronunciation exactly the way it's required.
If you are indeed a beginner, you can choose to follow the sequence of the lessons and move from the “Beginner's Courses,” to the “Refresher Courses” and then on to the “Intermediate (in-depth) courses.”
Babbel's Other Options
After my Refresher Course, I stopped with Spanish for a few weeks, but then started up again. I redid a few previous lessons and tried out some other sections, for example “Other Verb Forms,” such as the “pretérito perfecto.”
I also tried “Countries and Traditions” where I selected “Spanish for Everyday Life.” This section has several short lessons, such as “Ir de compras” (shopping), “En el restaurante” (in the restaurant), etc.
These lessons contain a combination of exercises. You complete sentences with missing words followed by vocabulary and word order exercises all related to a specific topic.
The many lessons in “Grammar” (92), “Listening and Speaking” (46), “Countries and Traditions” (53), and the over 500 lessons in the sections “Specials” and “Word and Sentences” give learners loads of options.
Besides, you can review the vocabulary covered in the lessons at any time, either with Flashcards of by writing or speaking them. (in the case of my Refresher Course, these were mostly sentences.)
Babbel's Gamification and Metrics
Babbel's gamification features are straightforward. There are no badges or “lingots” as with Duolingo.
You have a progress bar at the top, and your score pops up at the end of the lesson, let's say, 22 out of 29.
You have the option to review and correct the errors you made. Even if you do, the guilty sentences get added to your personal vocabulary list. You can review them then at you leisure.
In the app and on the PC you can see the current total count of the vocabulary list and the count of those still to review. (On the PC you can also see how many times you reviewed each.)
It's a good way to keep track of what you're learning.
Duolingo and Babbel: A Comparison
I like the simplicity of the Duolingo approach. However, I keep getting annoyed that new words often appear and are recombined in random, unrelated, nonsensical sentences.
In contrast, new words with Babbel are typically taught as part of a useful dialogue or short scenario. The words make sense in the context in which they are set and this helps me to remember many phrases and sentences.
Once you've become familiar with the Duolingo system, you know exactly what to expect.
You see the 7 or so new words in each Duolingo lesson box before you start.
You also know that you'll be using quite a bit of English when you translate from the foreign language. If you type or spell quickly, you can be penalized for typos in English.
For each lesson, Babbel typically introduces +/-4 new words, which you then practice. Once you've learned the words, you'll hear them as part of a dialog or brief story and write them into the provided blank spaces. You always hear the full sentence that includes the new word(s).
Most importantly, in Babbel there is no writing or spelling in English.
Both courses don't require you to use the accents (for accented letters). Duolingo allows slight misspellings of foreign words, while Babbel only accepts correct spellings.
Both Duolingo and Babbel give you the correct answer after you've made a wrong entry and both tell you where you've made the mistake.
Duolingo allows you to set goals for yourself, ranging from the “casual” learner with 10 points or 1 lesson per day, to the “insane” with 50 points or 5 lessons per day. Such daily reminders to maintain one's streak have been a good incentive for me!
There are no specific goals or targets with Babbel, but you can ask for daily reminders in Settings.
A daily Dulingo lesson or two can easily become a daily habit, especially if you care about not breaking your learning streak.
Once you get going with Babbel - and pay attention to the daily reminder - the same can happen.
My frustrations with Duolingo - its nonsensical sentences, words I could do without, and lots of English sentences to type - these I don't experience with Babbel.
In fact, I like Babbel's dialogs. I enjoy the little scenes that incorporate the new words, the many Spanish sentences you hear and read, especially when you are reviewing your mistakes again.
Its many lessons, topic categories, and options make it an excellent course for learning a language.
Still, Duolingo's simplicity, also the fact that it's completely free for unlimited time, makes it a compelling choice for many learners. They may also overlook some of its shortcomings as I do.
No question, I'm continuing with Dutch on Duolingo for now, but may still subscribe to Babbel's Dutch course. I've got a Dutch family reunion to go to in the fall.
Update: On 6/4 I subscribed for 3 months to Babbel's Dutch course. My goal now is 1 Duolingo and 1 Babbel lesson per day!