Duolingo, the immensely popular app for people looking to begin learning a new language, released a Mandarin module this week. The app has been around since 2011 and offers courses in dozens of languages, but it’s only now getting to Chinese. With everyone from Mark Zuckerberg to Amy Adams trying to learn Mandarin, the delay isn’t due to a shortage of demand.
What’s more likely is that Chinese is ridiculously hard to teach. The dialect is notoriously vexing to learn for people, such as myself, whose native tongue is a Romance or Germanic language. The insurmountable number of characters, mercurial tones, and perplexing use of portmanteaus all weighed down on my GPA in college. Yet Duolingo claims that by the end of the course, which requires just five minutes a day, you’ll “be able to introduce yourself, discuss topics related to your daily life (work and school, family, weather, feelings, etc.), get by while traveling in Chinese-speaking countries, order at a restaurant, haggle for a cheaper price while shopping, and much more.”
So, when I tried Duolingo’s Chinese course today, I was curious to see if I could’ve skipped the grinding handwritten workbook exercises and daily character quizzes—plus an amazing yet rigorous year abroad—by just downloading an app.
The Duolingo curriculum is structured as a series of interactive exercises a user is supposed to complete in daily increments, similar to the iffy Lumosity brain training app. There are no lectures, no vocabulary lists, and no example dialogues. Instead, users are thrown into the deep end of the pool. The app quizzes you on different characters without necessarily telling you first what they mean or how they sound, so you learn through trial and error. As the Mandarin expert at Duolingo told Quartz, the intent is for users to “learn by doing.”
Here’s a sample of a couple of the exercise:
As you might be able to tell, what’s tough about this approach is that Mandarin students have to learn at least four different components for a single word. There’s the character, the sound, the pinyin (a Romanized alphabet used to represent Chinese words), and the meaning. For example, the word “eat” in Chinese is written as “吃” and written in pinyin as “chī.” The line over the “i” denotes that the speaker is supposed to pronounce the letter with a high-pitched monotone. And then there’s the grammar.
Sounds difficult? Well, try conveying that all in an app.
After using it today, I was surprised how well it does getting you to associate a character with the pinyin, and the pinyin with the sound, and the sound with the meaning. And it quizzes you on all the various permutations an actual speaker could come across, such as knowing the sound of a character on a subway stop or the meaning of a word you hear on TV.
Of course, I have a few quibbles. The app sometimes oversimplifies words for the sake of expediency. This exercise requires users to choose the correct English words that reflect the meaning of the character:
“再见” does broadly mean “good bye,” but I think it’s also useful to know that “再” means “again” and “见” means “to see.” So it literally means “see you again.” The individual definitions, at least initially, get lost in the app.
There are slight discrepancies like this throughout the exercises, and it may sound like nit-picking to point them out. But it could make it difficult to develop a solid grasp on the language without fully memorizing these individual building blocks. And I’m also skeptical that users will be able to intuit the grammar without explicit direction about the various structures.
The app also won’t help much beyond listening and reading comprehension. You’re never asked to write out the pinyin, which is crucial to typing in the language, or to try vocalizing the tones yourself, which is one of the most bedeviling stumbling blocks for people learning the language. These educational goals, though, might be a bit difficult without a good pinyin keyboard or advanced voice recognition software. It’s worth noting that Duolingo's Spanish module does have an impressively sophisticated practice dialogue function, which understood my mangled attempts at speaking the language even though I haven’t used it since high school.
From my cursory tinkering with Duolingo, it seems like the app would be optimal for people sitting on a flight to China who want to dig a little deeper than their touristy phrase book, or for people like me whose Mandarin is getting rusty and could use a daily refresher.
But for people who want to attain a conversational fluency in Chinese from scratch, the app probably won’t suffice on its own. I highly doubt anyone is going to be able to "haggle for a cheaper price while shopping" after taking the course. You probably still need to practice with a native speaker and crack open a textbook if you can, but the app is a decent supplement to these and other learning methods. And it’s free, so why not?