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.”