As someone who takes interest in languages, I was somewhat excited about Duo Lingo’s long awaited Chinese course. As someone who speaks Chinese reasonably well (HSK level 5) but is having some issues with linga-rust after 3 years out of China, I thought it’d be the perfect way to brush up my Chinese. What actually happened, was I got more confused and frustrated when I saw how the course is put together and how well I did.
First off, I should point out that I or no one should expect to become fluent from taking a duo lingo course. It serves a purpose of helping memorize certain bits of information like a basic grammar structure or maybe a group of nouns, but to put this simply, you cannot learn a language without speaking with other speakers of the language. The best parts of learning a new language is that you start to learn about the culture of a place in context of its local language. For example, you wouldn’t start a conversation with a Mexican about a cricket game. To learn a language, you have to enter a new world with its speakers, and an online platform will never be capable of that. However, taking this into consideration, there are still huge flaws with this course that will cause confusion for those that want to learn Chinese.
The first problem and this is perhaps the most important. There are NO mentions of tones at all. Without tones, your Chinese is literally nothing – gibberish – senseless alien language. Every word has a tone, that can change depending on its place and its context. Duo Lingo cannot teach this. Bear that in mind.
The second and most frustrating problem is one that plagues every Duo Lingo course, but is particularly dreadful for Chinese – the translations are too specific. Chinese is a very direct language and as a result, doesn’t have as many words as most European languages. It’s also quite a casual language and words like 的 （de）which could mean of or be used as a possessive adjective can be dropped in a lot of cases. For example instead of saying 我的朋友的狗 (my friend’s dog) with 2 的 characters, you would just drop the first one and say ,我朋友的狗。 Now, the frustrating bit is that Duo Lingo acknowledges this…. but not in every question and you have to keep guessing when to use it or not. In fact, the translations get so specific sometimes that even a Chinese native speaker would get thrown off.
The first 2 problems I’ve mentioned are frustrating, but will probably just slow you down. The third issue, however, really gave me huge doubts that this course wouldn’t actually harm your Chinese if you’re at a certain level. A word in English, as I’m sure you’re aware, can have multiple meanings and Duo Lingo struggles to recognize which meaning of the word you are using on some occasions. The worst one being the verb ‘to know’. In Chinese and most languages, the verb to know someone and something are two different words. However, the only accepted answer for ‘I know her’ was 我知道他 and the correct verb of 认识 was not accepted. That is piss poor Chinese and even after a month of learning, people tend to stop making that mistake. The reason this is so severe when learning Chinese is because there are lots of these words and when you learn the wrong words, no one will make sense of the sentence.
There are other minor issues which cause minor frustrations, such as the use of 做什么 instead of the more commonly used 干什么 or 干嘛。 These are more informal phrases, but this should be an informal course where the language learnt is what’s commonly spoken. A big problem with most Chinese courses and study books, is that they try and teach what they think learners think they should say. The second thing you usually learn is 你好吗 which means how are you … except no one EVER uses it and some people don’t even respond to it because it throws them off.
It’s weird to think that this language course is built from translations used on the internet and that it takes submissions from real people like me (trust me, i’ve submitted over 100 mistakes) because it is the most robotic, rigid course I’ve seen. It is nowhere near the standard of similar apps such as ChineseSkills, but I’m sure you could learn bits and bobs. What needs to happen is Chinese speakers should be taking the tests and correcting the translations, so more translations are accepted. If this was to happen, I’m sure the course would be a lot better and maybe even valuable to someone like me who can already speak Chinese.
If you want to try the course or want to help improve the service by correcting dodgy translations go to http://www.duolingo.com. Right now, the course is only available on a computer and the app will be out soon.