Talky Tuesday Returns: Do the Duo

While Duolingo can help teach the basics of language, it’s not the best long-term tool. Here’s why.

As of today, I’ll have completed a streak on Duolingo, the language learning program, of 2,834 days. That works out to 7 years, 9 months, and a few days. However, I started Duo a few years before I decided to keep the streak going.

The primary language I studied there was Spanish, although I did attempt a few others with varying degrees of success, which taught me something very important: Duolingo is only going to get you so far. I managed to become completely fluent in Spanish, but didn’t have the same luck with German, Norwegian, Swedish, Hindi, Dutch, French, Romanian, or Irish.

A site like Duolingo really can’t stand on its own. With Spanish and German, I’d taken classes before, back in high school and college, although I studied Spanish for about three times as long as I studied German. The others, I had no experience in.

The other advantage I had when I took up Spanish again was immersion. I could set the car radio to Spanish language stations, as well as doing the same for all of my devices. Spanish language magazines are available everywhere here, as are books. Spanish TV or movies were also just as accessible.

The other languages, not so much, really. I think there is (or was) a classical music station that has a program entirely in German on weekend mornings, but the rest are a lot harder to find.

But it leads to a really interesting paradox because, despite using Duo on a daily basis, it really feels like someone just handed me a kid’s book in English and said, “Here, practice.”

I don’t know why I continue on, but there are a few very consistent student misunderstandings that crop up regularly that I find either amusing or infuriating, depending on my mood.

The first, and most infamous, is the first time the phrase “el agua está fría” comes up. This usually happens fairly early, and it sets off the same discussion every time in the comments.

A number of students will latch onto the “el,” a masculine pronoun, and say, “But ‘agua’ ends in -a, so isn’t it feminine?” Others, who are just a little more clever (or not) will ask, “Why is it fría and not frío here when el agua is obviously masculine?”

Yes, this one makes heads explode.

The simple answer is that “agua” is never masculine. The only reason the “el,” or masculine definite article (“the”) is there for the same reason that English uses “an” before words that start with a vowel — it’s easier to pronounce.

Any Spanish noun that starts with a stressed “a,” regardless of gender, will always take “el” in the singular because it’s just easier to say.

“La agua” is just as difficult and odd-sounding to a Spanish speaker as “a elephant” is to an English speaker.

This is very quickly followed by all of the nouns whose spelling doesn’t apparently follow gender rules, and this is another point when heads explode. Cometa, programma, planeta, mapa, and sistema are all masculine nouns despite the “a” at the end. Most of them come from Greek, and when grammar moved from Greek to Spanish, Greek nouns of this form were masculine, so they kept their gender. It’s just something that needs to be memorized.

There aren’t as many variations the other way around, with feminine nouns that end in “o,” but one of the first ones learners will run into is “mano” for hand, which is feminine: la mano. This is because the word came from Latin, where the adopted word form was feminine.

I’d like to say that the confusion people experience stops there, but it doesn’t. The next big one that English speakers just flip their shit over is translating something like “he is eating dinner” to “él come la cena.”

The reason that English speakers get so bent out of shape with this one is because they’ll insist that it’s wrong, and has to be a literal translation from English. “Él come la cena” translates from Spanish as “he eats (the) dinner,” but in Spanish it’s also understood to mean that he is eating dinner.

It’s surprising how many English speakers will try to argue that the only right translation is “él está comiendo la cena,” and while this does literally translate into “he is eating dinner,” it’s rarely used in Spanish. The reason for this is that the present progressive form in Spanish is generally only used when something is happening right this moment.

“Él está cayendo del avión” would work – “He is falling out of the airplane,” as in right this very moment, and as a way to stress the urgency of the situation. Dinner is rarely that urgent.

Don’t worry. There are more, and as soon as we get to discussing liking things (or other feelings about them) there are more exploding heads, particularly with the phrase “me gusta…”

I think the problem here begins when people first learn the greeting, “Mucho gusto!” It’s usually translated as “Nice to meet you,” or something like that, but easily leaves the impression that “gusto” is just the first-person present tense of the verb “gustar,” and so learners might go away thinking that “Mucho gusto” means “I like it a lot.”

It’s not, though. Here, gusto is just a noun, and a better translation that they should teach alongside it (but don’t) is, “Much pleasure.”

Then we get into the verb form of “gustar” to express liking for something and this is where explanations often fall down because they don’t start out with the lesson that the verb “gustar” in Spanish works the opposite of the verb “to like” in English.

In English, you say, “I like horses.” In Spanish, you’d say, “Me gustan los caballos.” The first thing that confuses learners is that the verb “gustar” here seems to be third person plural, and they wonder why it isn’t “me gusto los caballos.”

The simple explanation is that the object of the sentence is different. In English, horses are the thing that is liked by the speaker, or subject. I (subject) like (object). In Spanish, the horses are the subject and the speaker is the object, which is why the “backwards” grammar.

In Spanish, it’s literally (object) am pleased by (subject.) “Horses are pleasing to me.” The verb gustar matches the subject, which is why it’s plural when it refers to plural things even if the object is singular.

The two big things that Duolingo will never really teach you are the two most important things to learn in any language. The first is that the rules are not set in stone. In Spanish, masculine and feminine are not always determined by their spelling. Generally, they are, but there are exceptions, and people just need to learn these.

It’s the same in English with, for example, such a well-known “rule” as “I before E except after C, or when pronounced A, as in neighbor or weigh.” But there are all kinds of weird exceptions to this rule — in fact, probably more of them than actually fit the rule. Go ask Keith. He can tell you.

The other big thing is this: You cannot just translate literally from your language to your target language. That’s not how they work, and you’re just going to get in trouble that way. English and Spanish don’t even have the same number of words for “to be,” “for”,” or “on/in.” And Spanish word order can be very different because it can use pronouns before verbs to indicate who is doing what to or for whom.

English doesn’t have that feature plus it also always requires pronouns. In Spanish, it’s perfectly fine to say, “Como fresas,” and everyone will know that you mean, “I’m eating strawberries.” The “yo” (or I) is implied in the verb “como,” which is first person singular and might as well just translate as “I eat” in the first place.

It saves time and is a really great feature, although you’re always free to throw the pronoun in to remove ambiguity — for example in some tenses where the first and third person verb forms are the same, or when you’re using third person in general and the subject isn’t clear.

You can’t leave out pronouns in English, so a sentence like “Eats strawberries” doesn’t make sense. Who’s eating them? And in cases where the verb would be “eat,” leaving out the pronoun can make it sound like a command or ad slogan: “Eat strawberries!”

The flip side of this in English is that we get to leave out articles, though, where Spanish doesn’t. But, again, that’s just one more reason to never translate literally from one language to another. You really have to take the time to learn the word-order and syntax of your target language.

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