App

Famous language-learning tool adds bots

Price: Free
Version: 5.0.1
Size: 56.7 MB
Platform: iPhone and iPad
Developer: Duolingo

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You’ve probably heard of Duolingo. It’s one of the biggest names on the App Store; the go-to app for people looking to add another language to their repertoire. It’s helped tens of millions of people become multi-linguists, for free, and it’s no secret that it’s really quite good – so why review it now? Because robots, that’s why.

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Practicing French with a virtual person – the future is now

As of Duolingo’s recent update, you can now speak to artificially intelligent chat bots to practice your conversational skills. Whoa. So in addition to learning words and phrases in an abstract way, you can put your knowledge to the test without fear of embarrassing yourself in front of a native speaker. Or having to find one. Before we delve into the future, though, let’s step back and recap the main aspects of Duolingo…

After picking a language to learn and a practice goal (between 5 and 20 minutes per day) you’re dumped straight into the lessons. The content starts basic: foods, animals, people, the usual. If you’re confident with that stuff already you can take a test to skip straight onto the more advanced lessons, which is a nice touch.

The lessons themselves are a quick-fire affair, simplifying translations into multiple choice or drag and drop sentence-building. Sometimes you’ll need to type a response manually to prove you’ve been paying attention, and there are occasional speaking and listening questions that involve the microphone. (You can skip these if you’re in public and don’t want to look like a loon.)

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Pass enough of these snappy questions to complete the lesson

New words are introduced slowly, with grammatical concepts explained casually as they become relevant. It’s intuitive, it’s repetitive, and it seems to work. Importantly, Duolingo really makes you feel as though you’re making progress, which encourages you to keep going.

What really makes it addictive is that each completed lesson rewards you with experience points, just like a computer game might. Reaching certain milestones is rewarded, as is building an unbroken daily practice streak, and you can compare progress with your friends. By design, it all feels quite gamey, successfully tapping into basic psychological impulses to keep you training.

Now for the bots. There are a few of them, each with different personalities and professions, and talking to them looks and feels more or less like a regular text message conversation. The chats aren’t a complete free-for-all, though; they’re more focused, led by the bot and only accepting words related to the current topic. This helps avoid the generic “I don’t understand!” responses so common with chat bots, and keeps things nicely on track, but it could be frustrating for more adventurous conversationalists.

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Each chat is predefined, and you’ll be graded on your responses

Tapping any foreign word flashes up a translation in English, and the app’s multi-lingual autofill helps you find the right spelling for a word even if you only half-remember it. These features help keep the chat from becoming frustrating, and beginners especially will be pleased to know there’s a “help me reply” button if you’re feeling lost or just want some suggestions of more complex answers.

The responses are generally pretty impressive, though occasionally they miss the mark – the chef bot apologizing after being told his sandwich was delicious, for example. Duolingo promises the bots will improve through usage, though, and we fully expect these minor issues to be ironed out in time.

Though Duolingo’s regular courses span a whopping 23 languages, presently its bots can only speak French, German, and Spanish. It’s also worth noting that you can’t jump straight into a bot chat – you have to unlock the feature by passing a few basic lessons, which takes about an hour if you blast through them in one sitting.

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IT’s good practice for real situations like ordering food

AI chat bots are all the rage right now, and they’re only going to get smarter. Currently Duolingo’s chat is text-based only, but the devs are supposedly working on a spoken version for a future update. The feature is a great addition to an already very useful app, and feels like more than just novelty. Despite a few teething problems, these bots are fun to talk to. And in the education industry, that might be the most important tool of all. C’est fantastique!

Review: Duolingo 5.0 – learn a language by chatting to a robot
Duolingo cements its place as the king of language education apps with a smart new addition
For
  • Slick and addictive language coach
  • Chat bots are a really cool addition
  • It's completely free!
Against
  • The AI is still a bit limited
4.8Overall Score