Language Tools for Short Term Missions, Part 1: Duolingo

Over the years we have had many visitors from the US who have come to help us with sundry projects here in Brazil. They have stayed for anywhere from a few days to a few months. They have come by themselves or in groups. And invariably, as plans are being made for their visit, they ask for tips on picking up Portuguese.

The language barrier is one of the main hindrances to short-term missions, and is even seen by some as a deal-breaker for the entire concept. That has never been our case, but it is true that ministry is severely limited when one does not speak the language. And when it comes to language acquisition, there is really no substitute for long-term immersion.

But there is some good news for people who are planning a short-term project, and who want to learn as much of the language as possible. Due to digital tools that are available, it has never been easier to learn the fundamentals (and possibly even more) of a foreign tongue without setting foot outside of the United States.

In three installments I want to share some tips for making the technology work for you. Said tips are based on my own experiences in learning Portuguese, as well as a year-long (almost to the day) project I have undertaken for learning French. Both experiences are important for our purposes here. Because I have obtained fluency in Portuguese through immersion, I have something against which to judge the effectiveness of the tools we will discuss.

So let’s start by talking about the language app du jour


For those not in the know, Duolingo is an app that purports to be able to teach anybody a language. Once you download it on your phone you can choose from an impressive array of languages, from Norwegian to Navajo. The app then guides you through the language-learning process. It does this through a variety of types of lessons: translating from English to (in my case) French, from French to English, listening to and reproducing phrases, speaking phrases into your phone, and dialogues that tell stories in ever-increasing levels of complexity. Duolingo also makes use of a number of game-like incentives which add a layer of fun to the process.

My Experience

As mentioned before, I’ve been using Duolingo to learn French for almost a year now. I am currently well over half-way through the course. I can read at what I consider to be an intermediate level. I can understand about 70% (my estimate) of what is spoken at in formal French (news reports, narrations, etc), and somewhere around 30% to 40% of what is spoken on a street level (sitcoms, comedy acts, etc). Other than the speaking feature in the app I have no way of judging my conversation level, because as of yet I have found nobody to parler avec moi.

Overall I’m very satisfied with the results, so much so that when someone asks for advice in learning a language, my first recommendation is always Duolingo.

What follows are some tips as to how to make Duolingo work for you.

1. Do a few lessons every day. Languages are learned by repetition. There is no way to get around it. The “use it or lose it” principle applies to languages, and doubly so in the learning phase.

2. Repeat all the phrases out loud. There can be a temptation to hurry through the lessons, and be satisfied with just listening and reading the phrases. But that leaves out a key component to language acquisition: speaking. Hearing yourself say the words will reinforce them all the more in your mind.

3. Write down new phrases, and phrases you have trouble with. I’m not always able to do this (I do a lot of my Duolingo while waiting in lines), but when I can it has been a tremendous help. Languages have important details (accents, spelling, word order, etc), and writing them down will help you remember them.

4. Look for chances to use what you have learned. Earlier I mentioned that I have not been successful in finding someone to speak French with me, so my conversations in tend to be rather one-sided. But when I go to open a door (for example), I say to myself “Je vais ouvrir la porte”. When I have car trouble I mutter to myself “la voiture est tombé en panne”…and so on. It sometimes garners some strange looks, but…”c’est la vie!”

Of course if you can find someone to talk to in your target language, great. All the better if it is a native speaker. My process of learning Portuguese by immersion was greatly facilitated by help from Brazilian friends in the US before I ever arrived on the field.

5. Don’t get distracted by the games. Duolingo has some features that make language learning fun, and help the learner advance. But some of the bells and whistles can be a distraction. I pay no attention to the tournaments, for example. I did at the beginning, but found myself becoming more concerned about my placing in the contest than about actually learning French. Friend’s Quests are fun, but I don’t obsess over them. Daily Quests give me goals to aim for every morning, but I don’t lose sleep if I don’t achieve them. I have but one goal for the app: to help me learn French.

6. The free version is probably better than the pay version. Duolingo is set up like this: You start out with five hearts. Every time you make a mistake, you lose a heart. If you get down to zero hearts, you either have to stop and wait for the hearts to build back up (it takes four hours to get one), buy more with cash or gems (that you can earn in various ways throughout the app) or do some practice lessons to build them back up. All of this goes away if you get the pay version, as do adds that pop up between lessons.

On a couple of occasions I have gotten temporary use of the pay version – once by referring someone else, and once as a prize…just because. On both occasions I made a lot more progress…but it came at the price of actual learning. It turns out that those practice lessons to earn hearts are an excellent way to reinforce vocabulary. So, in my opinion, if you can put up with the adds, save your money and do the work of the practice lessons. It will be better for you in the long-run.

Duolingo is one part of a three-part strategy I use to artificially reproduce the benefits of immersion. In the next articles we will go over the other two. In the meantime, if you are using Duolingo, I would love to hear about your experiences.


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