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I’m not a gamer. I’ve seen kids and peers play Nintendo, X-box, and Candy Crush, but these electronic games have never enticed me. I’d much rather play a board game like Clue, a word game like Scrabble, or a card game like Rummy. I spend enough time using the computer and my phone for work and personal connections that I’ve never wanted to add another reason to be in front of a screen.

But in September, I discovered Duolingo. As part of a class I’m involved in, I’m required to use Duolingo or another on-line language learning platform to learn a new language. I started with Portuguese to prepare for an upcoming trip to Lisbon, Portugal and quickly found myself hooked into this language learning ‘game’.

Learning Portuguese with Duolingo has been a surprisingly positive experience for me. As a language educator, I’ve always viewed electronic programs as supplemental resources for the language classroom and teacher, not a replacement for them. I couldn’t imagine that I would learn anything from Duolingo, much less enjoy it!

Six weeks after my introduction to Duolingo, I’m shocked at how much Portuguese I am acquiring from this free application. When I log in to ‘play’, I look forward to earning ‘lingots’, points that I can use at the virtual store. I strive to complete lessons with all three of my ‘hearts’, the number of mistakes that I am allowed in each short lesson. If I see that I may make a mistake and lose a heart, I find myself ‘cheating’ by looking up a word in an on-line dictionary or hovering over the word within Duolingo! I feel a great sense of accomplishment when I ‘level up’ and earn experience points. Sometimes I just practice items I’ve learned before to keep those learned skills in the ‘gold range’.  I did not predict my enthusiastic engagement with the application.

The application is designed with many gaming principles. Duolingo scaffolds the learning with easy learning at the beginning and recognizes progress frequently with points and bonuses. Each lesson is focused, recycles previously practiced materials, and takes less than 10 minutes to complete.  Although the lessons offer many supports, there are also plenty of opportunities to make mistakes and learn through trial and error: the “failure dynamic” of gaming. After each mistake, the player receives immediate feedback providing new insights about the structure of the language. Duolingo also builds in a social aspect to language learning. I compete against others in the class and have the opportunity to ask the entire Duolingo community questions about a word, grammatical structure, or confusing translation.

I’m surprised that I can now understand much of the Portuguese at the ‘native speaker’ speed, but I’m glad I can still push the ‘turtle’ button to slow the speech down. My vocabulary and comprehension are growing, but I know I have minimal speaking skills. Because there are no speaking exercises in Portuguese, I haven’t developed fluency, but I find myself saying words and phrases aloud, just to try them out. Duolingo doesn’t provide explanations of the grammar, but I’m usually able to figure out the structures through the examples given and through comparing to my Spanish background. Duolingo has not only helped me acquire some basic Portuguese, but also a better appreciation for gaming.  I agree with Slate blogger, Seth Stevenson, Duolingo is a bit addictive!

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