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Beyond the Duolingo Streak: Making Language Learning Fun (and Effective)

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Queen's U chapter.

Language learning is a fantastic way to expand your mind and breadth of experience. You can converse with people from different backgrounds, consume media from different cultures, and even get your tongue around pronouncing the name of your favourite food. As different languages encapsulate different ways of conceptualizing and engaging with the world—for example, having words for relationships that we do not have in English—learning a new language can even be like experiencing life in a new way.

At the same time, language learning can also be overwhelming. We live in an age of accessibility, where dozens of apps promise to improve your fluency and comprehension from studying for just a few minutes a day. One of the most popular apps, Duolingo, is as well known for its savvy TikTok marketing and its insistent push notifications as it is for its educational courses.

You may begin to feel discouraged or even question the point of trying when you realize that 285 days into your impressive Duolingo streak, you’re still struggling to remember the Spanish translation for “the woman eats an apple.” So, what next? What strategies can you use to improve your language learning while keeping it fun and engaging?

Consume media in your target language.

“Comprehensible input” is a major emphasis within most (non-app) language learning communities. The basic premise of comprehensible input is engaging with a large variety of media at a level you can roughly understand.

I like Netflix because it lets you change the language for both the audio and subtitles. Don’t be afraid to start with kids’ shows, which usually have easy-to-follow events that truly let you focus on the language. (As a bonus, it’s hilarious seeing what they call SpongeBob in different languages. Bob Esponja and Bob L’Eponge shouldn’t be that funny, but to me they are.) I also like watching cooking and baking shows because they are usually organized into standalone episodes that do not require following complex plots or character arcs. (An unfortunate side effect could be knowing 5 synonyms for “cookie” before you even learn how to work with the past tense.)

If reading is more your speed, apps like Beelinguapp provide reading material in your target language that lets you customize your reading to your interests. From translations of the current news to fairy tales, you can practice reading while engaging with the subjects you’d already gravitate towards. (Another unfortunate side effect could be knowing how to say “once upon a time” before you even learn how to work with the past tense.)

Finally, I like to listen to podcasts geared toward language learners, which slowly introduce you to vocabulary while letting you develop an ear for proper pronunciation.

Try a course in the Language Transfer app.

Beyond memorizing grammar rules by rote, Language Transfer gets you thinking critically about how and why these rules function, and has you practice applying them. The app’s name Language Transfer is derived from its approach, which focuses on the relationship between your native language (in my case, English) and your target language. The course is delivered through audio lessons: you follow along with a language learner while also responding to prompts and questions by the instructor.

Language Transfer also gets you speaking. It’s easier to read and recognize words, but generating phrases in your target language is more demanding as you are forced to find and formulate expressions on your own. Language Transfer offers both instruction and practice when it comes to speaking, ensuring you feel comfortable quickly.

To remember grammar rules, come up with your own fun (and memorable) anecdotes.

Over the summer, I was working on completing the Language Transfer course for Spanish. One helpful tip that the instructor provided was that to obtain a root verb in Spanish, you could begin with any Latinate word in English. Usually, Latinate words can be recognized for their more formal sound and their -tion endings. Some examples that spring to mind are respiration, intention, and conversation. To find a Spanish root verb, which you can then conjugate for different subjects and tenses, all you have to do is remove the “tion” ending and add an “ar.” So, our earlier examples of respiration, intention, and conversation would yield the root verbs respirar, intentar, and conversar.

A reason I find this lesson so memorable—beyond how rapidly it expanded the vocabulary I was able to work with—is that I tied it to a joke. “Yassification” was a popular joke at the time, and the words “yassification” and “yassify” always seemed to work their way into my conversations with friends. I told my friends that since yassification ends with -tion, we could technically find the root verb “yassificar” – “to yassify.”

While Duolingo may be motivational with its streak and shiny graphics, an app by itself probably isn’t going to take you from no knowledge to total fluency. These strategies won’t either, but they are a good way to keep yourself motivated while doing the tough, but ultimately rewarding work of learning a new language!

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Mariel Matsuda

Queen's U '22

I switched my major from Psychology to English Lit after three years because I realized I was better at reading books than I was at reading people. Big fan of puff-sleeved dresses, good-quality olive oil, and studying to movie soundtracks.