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.”


Abu Dhabi’s new creative hub aims to attract 16,000 film, TV, gaming professionals

Updated 25 November 2020

Abu Dhabi’s new creative hub aims to attract 16,000 film, TV, gaming professionals

  • The Yas Creative Hub will open phase one in Q1 2021 and has already sold 80% of its space
  • While Hollywood, Bollywood shut down, Abu Dhabi was one of the few global entertainment centers to remain open during COVID-19, with $100 million worth of production

DUBAI: Abu Dhabi’s new 270,000 square meter creative hub, which is set to open in 12 months’ time, is aiming to attract over 16,000 professionals from the entertainment, film, TV and gaming sectors, and position the emirate to compete with international locations such as Hollywood, Bollywood and the UK.

“Abu Dhabi is beginning to look like a mature part of the media ecosystem, not just an appendage,” Michael Garin, CEO of Twofour54 Abu Dhabi, told reporters in a virtual press conference on Monday.

“Up until now, our experience has been for people to come, work on a project, and leave. While that was a helpful step in the development of our ecosystem, it's not really what we need. What we need is for people to come here, work here, live here, send their kids to school here, and that's really the impact that the phase we've now entered will have,” he added.

The size of 40 football pitches when complete, the first phase of the Yas Creative Hub is nearly 75 percent built and will be nestled among Yas Island’s other entertainment attractions, such as Yas Marina Circuit, Ferrari World, Yas Waterworld and Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi.

Michael Garin, CEO of Twofour54 Abu Dhabi

When it opens in the fourth quarter of 2021, around 600 companies and 5000 professionals will relocate to the facility, including industry names such as CNN, Ubisoft and Unity Technologies.

Facilities will include five towers, the Arab Film Studio, a 26,000 square meter external amphitheater, a public park and 26,000 square meters of rooftop space. The campus will double the amount of studio space available in the emirate.

One of the ways the Abu Dhabi Film Commission attracts blockbuster productions to the emirate is by offering a 30 percent cashback rebate on production spend. Garin believes the new campus will help generate a higher return on investment. He pointed out that for every dirham the Abu Dhabi government spends on the rebate, three dirhams is generated in income for the emirate in spin-off revenue for hotels and associated businesses in the surrounding area.

“But once we build the sustainable ecosystem and people live here, because they can work here, that multiplier expands from three to four. Why? Because they're sending their kids to school here, they're renting apartments or buying houses or buying cars, they're spending money on food. So, the implications of this creative hub and the ecosystem that we're building transcends just the industrial impact,” he said.

Around 80 percent of available space in the campus has already been sold, and Garin, who has worked in the entertainment industry for over 40 years, said the campus has already shown proof of concept.

“We will shortly be able to announce major Hollywood productions that are already scheduled to be here… We know it's sustainable because we already know what our pipeline is for 2021. Our problem now is not to bring in the productions, our problem, and our challenge… which we're addressing aggressively, is to have enough facilities for the productions that want to be here,” he said.

During the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, studios in the US, UK and India shut down production, while Abu Dhabi was one of the few entertainment destinations to continue operating and around $100 million worth of production actually took place at Twofour54’s facilities during the pandemic.

Katrina Anderson, director of commercial services, said Twofour54 also supported companies struggling during COVID-19. “We've done COVID support packages. We haven't just put payments on hold, because then if you put it on hold, people still have to pay that back,” she said.

“So we actually provided rental relief to partners, SMEs, entrepreneurs, any of the areas that we’re really trying to grow, provided they have been with us and they are partners on campus and they meet certain criteria. But we’ve helped so many partners, I think it’s over one hundred we've provided rent relief to and support to,” she added.

Katrina Anderson, director of commercial services

Abu Dhabi has hosted high-profile productions such as Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens, Fast and Furious 7, Brad Pitt's War Machine and the US soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful, but with the opening of the Yas Creative Hub the emirate will be hoping to attract even more blockbuster names and become one of the top entertainment capitals of the world.