Duolingo turns out to be a fine language teacher

The education ministry has selected the online language program Duolingo for use by students here. The ministry language staff appear to have made a good choice.

A two-week trial run of Duolingo shows that the five-year-old program is a good teacher.

Most Costa Rican students will want to improve their English skills or perhaps abilities in French or German.

Reporters chose Spanish and Russian, both languages in which they had been trained, to assess Duolingo. Both said that the preliminary run included words and phrases that they did not know previously even at the elementary level.

The Duolingo Web site provides free training in 23 languages with many others in beta. One could learn Welsh, Turkish or esperanto at a computer or on a smartphone in Costa Rica.

Those who select a language are given the option of testing out of basics with a placement test. Otherwise they must start at the very beginning, which usually is the alphabet and the sounds of letters.

Duolingo can be demanding. Those who fail to sign on to the site by late evening each day can expect an email reminder. And the program will not allow a learner to progress until questions are answered correctly. And there is reading, writing and oral exercises with immediate feedback.

The Web site also contains areas where the finer points of vocabulary or grammar can be discussed.

The program may be addictive. Some users have icons that show they are learning five or even 10 languages at once. One student bragged in a discussion site that he had completed 100 days straight of online classes.

The sessions are short, and someone could decide to spend just 10 or 15 minutes a day.

Duolingo says crowdsourcing pioneer Luis von Ahn and Severin Hacker created it. With over 100 million users, Duolingo says it is the most popular way to learn languages online in only two years, it said. Among the options is a language certification in English that is accepted by some educational institutions.

Test takers have to do so on camera for the full length of the test.

The program is available on the Web and on various mobile devices, such as Android, iOS and Windows Phone, the firm said.

And yes, it really is free. The Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, firm is supported by multi-million dollar grants including some from Google.

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