Duolingo Chinese: First Impressions Review

Duolingo, the go-to app for language learning, offers an opportunity to boost vocabulary and supplement your language learning experience through a simple interface that works around you. Didn’t remember a word? We’ll come back to that later, don’t worry! Know these words already? Great! We’ll move further on to something you can learn right now. Either way, you are going to make progress of some kind, and will be rewarded in the long run.

Duolingo, however, has been catering for a large number of languages without perhaps catering for the most emergent language in the world: Chinese. Finally, though, Duolingo has released an addition to their excellent array of language learning tools, but how does it fare?

My experience with Chinese (Mandarin) has been thin thus far to say the least! I took a few Chinese lessons in Germany back in 2007, have followed the excellently approachable Coffee Break Chinese lessons casually, used the always intuitive approach of the Michel Thomas series when time has allowed, but could this finally be the solution to a casual learner such as myself, someone who would like to pick up some new vocabulary in my down time without worrying about the hassle of the written characters, which although essential for a full, rounded understanding of the language, present a barrier to communication in the early stages of learning a system that is so different to my native English?

First impressions suggested that lesson one was to be more challenging than the other courses I had undertaken with Duolingo. Although capable of working with another alphabet (Cyrillic, for instance, proved to be much less intimidating than I had anticipated when I moved to Russia in 2013), the Chinese script has always seemed like a mountain too high to climb without a rounded understanding of at least a pre-intermediate spoken and aural comprehension of Chinese.

It was with this thought that the first lesson in the Duolingo course jarred with me somewhat. At the beginning, you are given the basic words ‘nĭ hăo’ and ”hăo’, which are straightforward enough for a beginner such as myself, but within a few moments you are asked for the Chinese script equivalent of these words. Instead of learning this new lexis as a duality (English vs Chinese), I am confronted with the script immediately, leaving me with a triumvirate of challenges before I have even started! Okay, I know the script for ‘nĭ hăo’ is going to be longer than that of ‘hăo’, but what about ‘jiàn’, a word I am uncertain of after a mere few seconds? I have to memorise this symbol, but what meaning does it have without a grounding in my own language? And ‘zài’? Okay, I think I can memorise this symbol, but this still has no meaning to me. Will I need to learn Chinese by rote in this case and not assign meaning to this new vocabulary I am facing? Next up we have the numbers, but is this how the course will continue?

Should I have been surprised? Perhaps not, considering the Greek and Russian courses require a similar understanding of the alphabets before you can make any progress on the Duolingo courses, but perhaps the complexity of Chinese could have been taken into consideration for the casual learner? Can a person be expected to memorise such a complicated, unfamiliar script each time a new item of vocabulary comes up? Does the challenge of absorbing a new lexical item need to be complicated with another challenge? Can’t these written characters be learned later when they actually mean something to me, not just a strange, new sound as they are now? After all, in some of the other courses I have tried with Duolingo (Italian, French, for instance) that involve a familiar, Latin alphabet present enough of a challenge, how difficult will these basic communicative elements be when I have to memorise a completely new shape for each word and sound? Am I expected to remember the image, or imagine how to draw each character with my own pen if it features so predominantly at this early point of the course?

Perhaps my priorities are wrong? Should an anglocentric learner of other languages such as myself approach Chinese differently, dedicating more time to the language and avoiding the pitfalls of seeing the initial stages of learning a language as a hobby? Perhaps an ‘app’, podcast or audio course is not the best way to introduce myself to the basics of a language of this magnitude; a language which has intrigued me for a long time but I have not yet accessed to the degree I have wished?

These are my first impressions of the new Duolingo course. I am going to invest more time in this, as well as trying to round my basic understanding of Chinese through other sources. Your thoughts on my first impressions here are definitely welcome, though, and I would love to hear how you have approached a language such as this in its initial stages and what results you have garnered from your approach.


1 comment

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful review.

    I’m skeptical of Duolingo in general. A far better option, if you can’t take a class, is http://www.yoyochinese.com – it was created by an experienced teacher, which is so important for guiding you through a very different language. They take an interesting approach of teaching a fair amount of vocabulary and some grammar first using pinyin, with a separate course on learning characters, which I found worked well.

    It’s not free, but it’s well worth it! I don’t work there & don’t have any affiliate links to it; just a customer (and an experienced Russian language teacher) who’s very impressed with their courses.


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