Are Duolingo’s Arabic lessons useful for learners?

Duolingo’s Arabic language course takes the learner through the teaching process in steps. It introduces the Arabic alphabet with sound exercises. (Shutterstock)
Updated 27 July 2019

Are Duolingo’s Arabic lessons useful for learners?

  • Online portal with over 300 million users recently added Arabic to its language offerings
  • Some users find Duolingo useful but not sufficient to master language with many dialects

DUBAI: Duolingo, an online language-learning portal with over 300 million users, recently added Arabic to its course offerings. Luis von Ahn, a Carnegie Mellon University professor, launched the app along with Severin Hacker with the aim of creating a free language-learning platform in 2012.

But with Arabic categorized as one of the “super hard” languages by the US Foreign Service Institute due to its complex grammar, varied dialects and rich lexicon, are the app’s “game-like lessons” enough - or even useful - for a learner?

Hope Wilson, a learning scientist at Duolingo, wrote in an essay on the official website on June 26, 2019, that just because a language is difficult to learn doesn’t make it “un-learnable,” “After all, babies can learn to speak any language on earth - and so can adults, given enough time and effort,” he said. In theory, Wilson sounds right.

But as Muhamed Al-Khalil, director of Arabic studies and associate professor of practice of Arabic language at New York University Abu Dhabi, points out, Arabic presents a more complex system than many other languages.

But Russian, for example, shares with Arabic certain characteristics that make it relatively easy for a Russian speaker to learn Arabic, Al-Khalil told Arab News. But the same cannot be said about native English speakers.

Likewise, May Zaki, associate professor in the department of Arabic and translation studies at the American University of Sharjah, said Arabic is not very difficult to learn for native speakers of Farsi or Urdu. “Arabic can be easier to learn also for a Spanish speaker than an English speaker because of similarities in grammar and even some vocabulary,” she told Arab News.

Zaki said there are complexities in Arabic in matters of script, root and pattern system compared with most European languages. So, it takes longer for a learner to make progress in learning Arabic as opposed to learning, say, French or Spanish, she said.

She commended Duolingo for including Arabic to its menu of language offerings. “I have personally tried it to see how it feels from a teacher's perspective,” she said. “It would be a great addition at a later stage if Duolingo offers the option of learning one colloquial variety as well. Egyptian Arabic and Shami (Syrian) Arabic could be the most popular options,” Zaki said.

Duolingo’s Arabic language course takes the learner through the teaching process in steps. It introduces the Arabic alphabet with sound exercises. In his essay, Wilson said: “The challenge level of these exercises will ensure that our learners are forced to engage their brains to internalize the new alphabet.”

Yomna Taha, a native Arabic speaker, tried out a few Arabic lessons on Duolingo and was impressed. “I was curious to check it out and, from my experience, it was pretty good,” she told Arab News. “Not many language teaching apps work that well.”

The verdict of Mariam Hammad, another native Arabic speaker who tried out Duolingo, was mixed. “The app is easy to use but I don’t believe it will have a big impact on teaching Arabic,” she said.

She said the only time she would use the app would be during emergencies or when in need of immediate translation while in a foreign country. “Arabic language is very nuance rich and probably needs an actual tutor, preferable of an Arab origin,” she said.

Al-Khalil, of NYU Abu Dhabi, said Duolingo has created possibilities for practice and provided an opportunity not only to learn the Arabic vocabulary but also build sentences.

At the same time, he pointed out one limitation of Duolingo: language is a social activity whereas the app lacks human interaction in terms of body language and facial expressions. Thus, the platform by itself may not be sufficient for a learner to master Arabic.

Linnette Schoeman, who is trying to learn Arabic, found the Duolingo lessons unhelpful. She said she would rather learn the language through YouTube videos or take one-to-one classes. “Also, the Arabic lessons lack visuals unlike the Spanish lessons, which provide them from the start,” Schoeman said.

Baris Dur, who completed the Duolingo Arabic course, found the lessons useful and the app easy to use. But the problem he faces is all too common in the Middle East: none of his friends speak standard Arabic. “It is difficult for me to understand their different dialects,” he told Arab News.

Zaki said the differences between the formal and colloquial forms no doubt add to an Arabic learner’s challenges. Under the circumstance, she said, the solution is this: “A learner who wants to be fully proficient in Arabic should learn both varieties and master the skill of using the right varieties in the appropriate situation.”


Twitter shuts more than 200,000 Chinese accounts targeting Hong Kong protests

Updated 20 August 2019

Twitter shuts more than 200,000 Chinese accounts targeting Hong Kong protests

  • Twitter traced the Hong Kong campaign to two fake Chinese and English Twitter accounts that pretended to be news organizations based in Hong Kong
  • An additional 936 core accounts Twitter believes originated from within China attempted to sow political discord in Hong Kong

 

 

WASHINGTON: Twitter said Monday it has suspended more than 200,000 accounts that it believes were part of a Chinese government influence campaign targeting the protest movement in Hong Kong.
The company also said it will ban ads from state-backed media companies, expanding a prohibition it first applied in 2017 to two Russian entities.
Both measures are part of what a senior company official portrayed in an interview as a broader effort to curb malicious political activity on a popular platform that has been criticized for enabling election interference around the world and for accepting money for ads that amount to propaganda by state-run media organizations.
The accounts were suspended for violating the social networking platform’s terms of service and “because we think this is not how people can come to Twitter to get informed,” the official said in an interview with The Associated Press.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns, said the Chinese activity was reported to the FBI, which investigated Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election through social media.
After being notified by Twitter and conducting its own investigation, Facebook said Monday that it has also removed seven pages, three groups and five accounts, including some portraying protesters as cockroaches and terrorists.
Facebook, which is more widely used in Hong Kong, does not release the data on such state-backed influence operations.
Twitter traced the Hong Kong campaign to two fake Chinese and English Twitter accounts that pretended to be news organizations based in Hong Kong, where pro-democracy demonstrators have taken to the streets since early June calling for full democracy and an inquiry into what they say is police violence against protesters.
Though Twitter is banned in China, it is available in Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous region.
The Chinese language account, @HKpoliticalnew, and the English account, @ctcc507, pushed tweets depicting protesters as violent criminals in a campaign aimed at influencing public opinion around the world. One of those accounts was tied to a suspended Facebook account that went by the same moniker: HKpoliticalnew.
An additional 936 core accounts Twitter believes originated from within China attempted to sow political discord in Hong Kong by undermining the protest movement’s legitimacy and political positions.
About 200,000 more automated Twitter accounts amplified the messages, engaging with the core accounts in the network. Few tweeted more than once, the official said, mostly because Twitter quickly caught many of them.
The Twitter official said the investigation remains ongoing and there could be further disclosures.
The Twitter campaign reflects the fact that the Chinese government has studied the role of social media in mass movements and fears the Hong Kong protests could spark wider unrest, said James Lewis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“This is standard Chinese practice domestically, and we know that after 2016 they studied what the Russians did in the US carefully,” Lewis said. “So it sounds like this is the first time they’re deploying their new toy.”
Twitter has sought to more aggressively monitor its network for malicious political activity since the 2016 presidential election and to be more transparent about its investigations, publicly releasing such data about state-backed influence operations since October so others can evaluate it, the official said.
“We’re not only telling the public this happened, we’re also putting the data out there so people can study it for themselves,” the official said.
As for state-backed media organizations, they are still allowed to use Twitter, but are no longer allowed to pay for ads, which show up regardless of whether you have elected to follow the group’s tweet.
Twitter declined to provide a list of what it considers state-backed media organizations, but a representative said it may consider doing so in the future. In 2017, Twitter specifically announced it would ban Russia-based RT and Sputnik from advertising on its platform.