How to use Duolingo


Language Hacks

duolingo-logo Today we are going to look at In my humble opinion one of the best language learning systems yet to be invented. And it doesn’t cost a cent.

Let me explain. I never really thought that I was much of a language learner. I have always wanted to learn another language however I spent a year in middle school Spanish and didn’t learn a thing. Later in college I took a French course and did a little better, but had to drop it after a term because of course loads. I still didn’t feel that I was brilliant at languages. In fact I was far from it. But I still had a burning desire.

So many years passed. My family and I finally made a trip to Paris and I fell in love with the place. A few months prior to leaving on a trip I took an evening course in French but it wasn’t enough. I began searching the internet for more information on language learning. Steve Kaufman (lingoSteve) at LingQ has some brilliant videos on language learning.

The two things I learned from LingoSteve is that language learning should be fun and you should do it daily.

Daily language learning sounds like a lot of hard work, especially for someone like me who never liked home work. This is where Duolingo’s system came into play.

        Gamification ˌɡeɪmɪfɪˈkeɪʃ(ə)n/ noun

The application of typical elements of game playing (e.g. point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to other areas of activity, typically as an online marketing technique to encourage engagement with a product or service.

I think the fancy word for it is “gamification” which just means to make a game out of it. Duolingo is a bit like a computer game. You as the user acquire points (called Lingots) as you progress. A record is kept of the days in a row you have logged in and completed your lessons.

As silly as it sounds this “gamification” awoke the inner gamer in me (I use to be addicted to computer games).  I became very protective of my daily log-in tally. Missing a day causes your days log-in score to  go back to zero, which kind of hurts once you get into it.

You can buy a protection with some of your acquired points (there are absolutely no hidden costs in Duolingo). But this protection only lasts a day.

For some reason this running score was the motivational factor that I needed. So was the acquisition of  Lingots.

289 Days and 742 Lingots
289 Days and 742 Lingots

This gamification through the acquisition of days and Lingots tricks the brain into thinking that you are being paid to work on your daily language lesson. (This is the good kind of trickery.)

Often when learning a new language you feel that you are just spinning your wheels. But the running tallies make you feel like you are making progress.

Educationally the doing a little bit daily is the best way to learn a language. Duolingo allows you to pick your daily language goal. To start off with I chose 10 words a day. (I really had very little faith in my language learning ability.)

After about 14 months I moved that up to 30 new words a day. I was kicking myself for not doing this before. But I had been worried about feeling overwhelmed.

Duolingo will require you to go back every so often and relearn some of the words that you have already learned. This revision count towards you score and it is very very helpful.



I’m a poor speller and didn’t want my language learning to be hampered by having to memorize the spelling a bunch of words in a new language when I could hardly remember the spelling of words in my first language. So I came up with some hacks to get around this.

I used the hacks because I didn’t want to become frustrated with my daily language learning, especially in the early stages when I had so little faith in myself. I wanted to expose myself to the words but I did not want to be tortured when I couldn’t remember how to spell them.

So I started a running Word Document. Every day before I started the lesson, I opened the Duolingo word document. I wrote the date. (After a while I started writing the date in French.)

I would then open Duolingo.

Duolingo would show me the words I was to learn next. I would copy those words onto a Table on my Word document. This table had three columns. One was for the French word the next for the pronunciation as the last was for the English translation/s. Sometimes there are more than one translation for a word. (I would add more words to this table during the lesson as Duolingo would sometimes add different conjugations of the daily word list.)

I would then open google translate.

I would then translate each word. Typing the translations in the third column of my table.


tumblr_mjg0xebmgk1s56exfo1_500In Google translate there is a little speaker icon that you can click on. This will say the word out loud for you. I would do my best to write down the phonetic sounds of each word as best I could.

I hope this isn’t sounding like a lot of work. It really wasn’t. It was a sort of system that I built up over time. In recording it now there seems to be a lot of steps, but as I was originally doing it I added a few steps at a time.


French letters also comes with accents. At first I used to skip over using the accents. Duolingo will still count your spelling as correct if you leave off the accents; however I wanted to get use to learning accents so I looked up the short cut keys for PC. Here is my list. I cut and pasted this key to the end of my word document so that it was always just below where I was typing.

French Accent Alt codes for PC
French Accent Alt codes for PC

The daily lesson.

A daily lesson for ten words in Duolingo usually has less than 20 questions. These questions are a combination of Translating short French sentences into English and or from English into French. This is very helpful as you learn the differences in sentence structure between the two languages.


You are also learning your daily words in the context of a sentence rather than just on random flashcards. This gives you a real feel for the rhythm of the language.

There are also exercises where you are asked to read a French sentence allowed, into your computers microphone.*

For the first year and more I skipped the spoken part of the French lesson. You are given the option to click on “Can’t talk now” and then you aren’t given any more questions that you need to answer verbally. The first time I tried a verbal question I kept failing and felt my frustration start to rise. But after a year and a few lessons with a tutor, I gained some confidence in my ability to speak French and now do this as part of my daily routine.

Duolingo is a wonderful system for building up a language vocabulary. After a year or more I began to look at finding a tutor. (I will talk more about finding a tutor in future posts.)

How much have I learned?

I have come a long way in the 20 months that I have been using Duolingo almost daily. I use it one my iPhone or on my iPad or on my computer. I no longer keep a running record on a word document, but I still think that was a good idea in the early days.

Picking up a book in French before I started using Duolingo 99% was alien to me. Now I can read about 60 to 80% of a Tintin comic without help. I can read most French menus in French restaurants. I can even read and understand most of the headlines in French newspapers such as Le Monde. (Use to be able to buy Le Monde locally but all my sources for this French newspaper have dried up. So I try to read on story a day on the web.

Most importantly my confidence has been built up. When I started working with a tutor after 18 months of using Duolingo my tutor was really surprised at my vocabulary.

It was all thanks to Duolingo.duolingo-owl

* [I have a Dell computer these days. Someone at Dell has decided that I shouldn’t be allowed to pick my own microphone! So my Dell computer does not have a microphone jack. I can plug in my headphones but not my microphone. Dell has a hidden microphone somewhere in the keyboard. The exact location is a secret.]

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