If you’ve been reading my blog you know that I am an old-school learner. I need a notebook, a pen, a few highlighters (the more colourful the notes, the better!), and of course a good textbook. So when I decided to start learning Hawaiian with Duolingo, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Now, after more than ten weeks, I know exactly what it means to learn a language with an app.

Virtually everything has its good and bad sides, including language apps. During the first five weeks I was ecstatic to be using Duolingo. I honestly was. I had (and still have) great fun going through the lessons. But then I began to realize that I wasn’t really learning. As surprising as it sounds, that’s the sad true.

I thought Duolingo would teach me at least the basics of Hawaiian. I was hopeful. I wanted to believe it was possible. Now I know it’s more of a mission impossible. Now I know that Duolingo is just a “game”. A fantastic game, but still just a game. Nothing more.

You may want to ask why I enjoyed the app so much at the beginning of my adventure. Well, the answer is quite simple – the first three or four modules were super easy. I’m interested in Pacific tongues, so words like “aloha” or “mahalo”, or phrases like “A hui hou, mālama pono!” were nothing new to me. I had no problems remembering the determiners, vocabulary, and the simple grammar rules. But somewhere around the seventh module (weather), I started to get lost. Duolingo has the “notes and tips” section, where they explain the grammar, but it’s not available for every single module. Besides, Duolingo is all about immersion. And personally, I don’t think that immersion is the best language learning strategy for total beginners. Especially if you don’t live in the country/region, the language of which you want to acquire.

Using Duolingo basically means you have to make up your own explanations for why a particular sentence is made this and not that way. Sometimes it’s easy, yes. But more often than not it’s just frustrating. I feel that I can make a sentence only when I have a phone in my hand, or when I’m sitting in front of my laptop. By now I should be able to say that “the rice is hot” for example, but if you asked me to say something like this, I would have no idea how to do it!

What I’m learning now is not Hawaiian. I’m learning to parrot the phrases without thinking about their construction. And yes, I am fully aware that this is exactly how we learn to speak when we are kids, but you have to remember one very important thing – a foreign language is not your first language. I can’t speak Hawaiian with my mom or dad. I can’t speak it at work. So instead of a full immersion, I’d like to be given a grammar rule. Simply tell me why this word goes at the beginning and that word at the end of a sentence. Tell me what I have to use here, and what I have to use there. Give me an explanation, and learning will become so much easier!

That’s funny how you can go from “Oh my God, this app is phenomenal” to “I wish it was better” in a matter of a few weeks. Unfortunately, the Duolingo app can’t be taken for a proverbial test drive, as new modules are active only once you’ve completed the previous ones. With a textbook it’s different. You can thoroughly check what’s inside before you decide whether it suits you or not. But again, an app is not a textbook. An app offers a whole new learning experience. An app is not for everyone.

I will definitely continue using Duolingo. It has some features I like. I am very happy that I can listen to the pronunciation, because pronunciation is crucial if you want to speak the language. However, Duolingo will not be my teacher. Sooner or later our relationship – which started out great – will end. I guess I’ll be single again. But that’s ok. I have already bought a book, “Learn Hawaiian at Home”, so I don’t think I will be crying over the break-up. Besides, I hope we’ll stay friends.


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