There is a considerable gap between the ‘value proposition’ Duolingo offers its users and how the users actually perceive, experience, and benefit

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2024-04-22 08:00:10

There is a considerable gap between the ‘value proposition’ Duolingo offers its users and how the users actually perceive, experience, and benefit from it. Critics as well as dedicated users of the platform agree that Duolingo falls short when it comes to acquiring genuine language fluency. Despite this, there is also consensus that it is a good platform to start engaging with a secondary or foreign language, acquire vocabulary, and gain familiarity. My own experience with the app supports this notion. While learning French and Russian, I accumulated an impressive vocabulary of around 2000 words in each language. However, this did not translate into fluidity in thought composition or spontaneous articulation. Upon closer examination, it becomes clear that this issue is not just unique to Duolingo. Many traditional language courses also cannot promise to deliver fluency by the programme's conclusion. To gain mastery, learners inevitably and necessarily must continue to engage with the language through multiple means, such as content consumption and discussions, over an extended period of time. Capitalising on this gap by designing a software solution to bridge it could be a complimentary value proposition of immense potential, particularly considering the market and user base Duolingo has already explored and captured.

This gap is fascinating when we consider how children acquire their native language. With a limited vocabulary of perhaps as few as 150–200 words, they begin to form sentences and are able to express themselves. Remarkably, they achieve this without memorising any grammar rules or syntax charts. Upon closer inspection, it will be evident that children are continuously immersed in contextual environments, and their vocabulary accumulation happens through the gradual internalisation of the relationships between objects and their functions. The context provided by the surrounding environment serves as an anchor for vocabulary accumulation and is one of the major factors that facilitates articulation and achieving fluency. Yet conventional language learning courses in general and Duolingo in particular often overlook this aspect or skip context completely. Instead, they focus heavily on memorising rules and structures using spaced repetition of decontextualized exercises. They value function over a deeper understanding of language in context. This is also, coincidentally, the most frequently claimed reason language learners give for their lack of fluency after completing a Duolingo course. While vocabulary building is important, fluency requires learners to go beyond isolated words and sentences and practice language in a meaningful way, replicating the contextual environment children experience. The importance of context is also highlighted by the fact that even training large language models (LLMs) in languages is extensively based on ‘context’ provided to them through the use of the mathematical value ‘cosine similarity’. However, the challenge lies in modelling software that can effectively replicate these contextual environments to facilitate seamless language learning.

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