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  • Writer's pictureAdam Gammons

Duolingo: Yes or No? How Language Acquisition Works

Yesterday on Instagram, I posted a video about language acquisition with a quick and dirty explanation of how it works. Now obviously I couldn't go into detail there because I'm working with a time limit, but I wanted create a space where I could expand on some ideas as needed, and above all, I wanted to create a space where I could easily point out to so that you all have these resources at the click of a button.

The conclusion I led to was that Duolingo, while free and very popular, is basically not worth your time because its translation-based, mechanical drills do not go far in fostering language acquisition. Tandem Language Exchange is a much better solution for those people who are looking to acquire a language, not just learn about the language. It includes tons of cool features from simple text chat to video chat options (whatever you're comfortable with!) to tutoring services. The paid version is great, but you may not find you even need those features, making the free version an excellent options.

We also brushed on the fact that I don't like the term "fluent" and I introduced the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines. I think it's important that all language learners familiarize themselves with this framework and be realistic in their expectations. Language learning does not happen overnight or even in a month or three months, but over the course of long spans of time and with continued progress toward better proficiency. Any and all ads you see that tell you that you'll be fluent (or any variation of that word) in a remarkably short amount of time, are lying to you outright. It doesn't work that way. Boy oh boy, do I wish it did, but it doesn't. That's just the science talking, not me.


Probably the best place to begin if you want to understand how the brain acquires a language, is the concept of input. As Bill VanPatten (one of my favorite people) and James Lee put it in Making Communicative Language Teaching Happen, "Without [input], acquisition simply doesn't happen. (pg. 26). Input is the "language that learners hear that is meant to convey a message." The most important aspect of good input for second language (or L2) learners is that it absolutely must 1) be comprehensible, 2) bear meaning, and 2) be attended to for meaning by the learner.

Corrective feedback is not good input. Translation work is not good input. Fill in the blanks exercises are not good input. These sorts of activities do not center on communication, and thus do not foster the construction of an implicit system, which can be thought of as the abstract and unconscious grammar system that exists in the brain. For example, your native implicit system is the grammar system that you know intimately and use daily without much thought or effort. You use it to distinguish those phrases that "just sound right" and those that "just sound wrong". If you’re a native English speaker, you can probably tell pretty quickly that “Why don’t you go get some air?” is not in fact a question meant to illicit an actual answer so much as it is a suggestion. That is your implicit language system telling you that, sociolinguistically speaking, whoever is asking you that question thinks you need to take a minute and chill out.

To build an implicit system, the process sounds easy, but it’s actually more nuanced that what I’ll get into here. For that I’ll refer you to VanPatten and Lee above and to their other work, From Input to Output if you’re really interested. Otherwise, you‘ll have to take my word for it! But you cant trust that I have put a great amount of time and energy into understanding these concepts and putting them to use to facilitate successful language acquisition with my students for years. Basically, you start with some good comprehensible input which leads your mind into a system change (building and adding onto the implicit system), and then on to output processing where you learn and manage your ability to produce language in real time.


Now I’m no dummy. I know it’s not easy as a beginner learner of a language to gain access to comprehensible input. For instance, you jump into a classic novel like Les Misérables, you’ll find yourself overwhelmed pretty fast. That’s because your implicit system isn’t yet equipped to comprehend the more advanced input that particular book will supply. So on that note, I’ll reiterate what I talked about in today’s video. So find a book that you’ve read before. One that you love. For me, it’s unquestionably the Harry Potter books. Buy or borrow that book translated into the language you want to learn. Simple as that.

This works particularly well for languages related reasonably closely to you native language. The easy examples for me are all French because that’s where my personal experience lies. But I’ve also used this method for Spanish and found it helpful. As you read, though your progress may be slow, you’ll start to pick up on things little by little until you find yourself reading along more easily. This is especially effective if you know the book backwards and forwards (like I do with the Harry Potter books!). You already have tons of context for the story, so now you’ll be able to figure out what certain words mean. It is very important to remember that you don’t have to understand every word. Acquisition is slow and you don’t have to be at a superior proficiency level by the end of chapter 1. Be. Patient


If you’re a beginner/intermediate learner of Spanish looking for something to read, I highly recommend Bill VanPatten’s series of short stories (pictured below) with book covers by yours truly! No one spins a tale like Bill, who is a Spanish speaker and who wrote these stories with Spanish learners in mind. You won’t be disappointed.


If you use a Kindle (or just download the Kindle app) and use their dictionary and translation functions, you can click on words as you go to get translations if you really get stuck on something.

So, good luck and I’ll see you all soon with more video and blog content built to help you on your language learning journey!

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