Doing Dutch with Duolingo: Klomp!

I feel like it’s been ages since I started using Duolingo, but it’s really become part of my daily routine. The only real gap was last week when I was on holiday last week. Overall, things are still going ok, but I’m beginning  to feel much more like a typical learner of English feels, and my complaints are really starting to mirror theirs.

Officially, I’ve completed the following lessons, with no weak words: Basics 1 and 2, Phrases, Food, Animals, Plurals, Possessive forms, Basic adjectives, Clothing, and Formal language. It also says I’ve reached level 7 (compared to level 9 in French). I think that doesn’t give such an accurate view of my actual abilities though. Things were progressing fairly quickly at first. I’m still able to repeat fairly simple sentences about people, food, and animals without much hesitation. But I started to feel a bit stuck about the time I got to possessive forms though. I at first found them a little confusing. Not all the relevant words are similar to English ones, and the words for possessive nouns and possessive adjectives (e.g. mine/my) are quite similar (funnily enough, like they are in English), making them easy to confuse.

As a result I found myself getting a few more questions wrong per lesson, and therefore getting quite frustrated. I’ve also spent more time revising these, slowing down my overall progress. It’s been the same with the following lessons too. Words and grammatical forms aren’t sticking in my head as quickly as in those first few lessons. This isn’t a complete surprise, as this is a recognisable pattern for many language learners. You make quick progress, get really excited, and then feel like you hit a wall. It makes sense: things you learn first will be easier and easier to take in than later things, but you can also only hold so much in your brain. At some point you need to take a break, or slow down, and give things more time to sink in. This is how it’s been since that first lesson on possessive forms. It’s simply hard to remember the words from all the lessons I’ve done, as opposed to the first few. And later lessons have introduced trickier obstacles, like whether or not an adjective should have an e at the end. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t, and I still haven’t figured out the pattern, if there is one. But I’m most grateful for learning that the Dutch for clog is klomp. Fantastic.

It’s interesting to compare all this with how I’m doing in French with the app. As I’m using French most days (not as much as I should, alas, working as an English teacher, and living outside the city), it’s more of a useful complement to my real-life usage. I rarely get questions wrong, but doing little tests is useful for reinforcing my knowledge of grammatical forms, reminding me of words I find hard to remember, and introducing the occasional new, useful word. As I suspected, the app works better when you’re using the language regularly. I’m impressed with how much Dutch I’ve been able to learn, but if I went to a café in Flanders I could probably order a koffie and boterham, but after that I’d probably only be able to tell people that the man eats rice, and the turtles read the newspaper. My main weakness in French is my listening. I still find it difficult to understand when native speakers speak quickly, and this is something the app isn’t hugely useful for. It does give you sentences to listen to and write down or translate, but that’s nothing compared to extended speech by a native speaker. Still though, overall it’s a useful companion, and I’ve found myself using the occasional word or form I’ve learned from it.

Finally, I’ve also started using the app to brush up on my Irish. Like most Irish people, I learned the language throughout both primary and secondary school, but unlike most Irish people I never really minded that and still have a fairly high level in the language. Certainly I’m still more comfortable and quicker in expressing what I want to say than in French. But recently I started to notice some little gaps in my knowledge. I’m fairly au fait with most grammar forms, and my vocabulary is fairly well developed, but I began to realise that I couldn’t think of some fairly common objects and situations. I realised that this was the result of learning the language solely in the classroom, and not through using it in real life. In French, for example, I’m picking these words up, if slowly at times, began I see, hear, and use them in the real world. The app does actually say I’m level 9 in both languages, which is probably fairly accurate, even though my strengths and weakness in each are different.

I’ve enjoyed brushing up on my Irish with the app. It’s confirmed that my knowledge of the language is still pretty good, and it’s provided me with those everyday words I was lacking. It’s a little frustrating occasionally, as it feels like less time has been spent on it than some of the more widely-spoken languages. On one occasion for example, I had to translate a sentence and it marked it as incorrect because I used one hundred instead of a hundred. Still, such glitches are to be expected with an app.

So while I’ve begun to notice some of the problems with such a style of learning, it’s hard to deny that my level of each language has improved since starting to use it (though that wasn’t hard to achieve in the case of Dutch). Now to find someone in Belgium who speaks Irish…

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