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Duolingo now offers Chinese (but keep your expectations limited)

The hugely popular language-learning app finally unveils its Chinese course

After years of waiting, Duolingo finally offers Chinese – and it’s a pretty big deal. Since launching private betas of Spanish and German back in 2011, the language-learning app today boasts over two dozen language courses, including High Valyrian (Klingon’s also currently in the works). As the most widely-spoken language in the world (with roughly 1.2 billion native speakers), Chinese has always seemed to be a fairly glaring omission from its ranks.

Besides Japanese, which launched in May this year, Chinese was unsurprisingly the most requested language course at Duolingo. Arguably one of the most useful languages to know when it comes to business – and claiming high-profile figures such as Mark Zuckerberg and Donald Trump’s poetry-reciting granddaughter as students – learning Chinese has never been more popular.

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The Duolingo Chinese courses teaches Modern Standard Mandarin (known as putonghua) using simplified characters. There are 88 mini-lessons (that auspicious number must surely be intentional) to make your way through, based on a specific topic such as sport, family or shopping. Like all of Duolingo’s other courses, users can choose how long they’d like to study, ranging from five to 20 minutes per day.

But is Duolingo’s course actually a good way to learn Chinese?

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Well, yes and no.

Duolingo’s course places emphasis on listening comprehension exercises that ask you to match sounds to pinyin and pinyin to characters. On paper, that doesn’t sound like a bad idea, particularly when you consider the fact that Chinese is a tonal language. And while Chinese might not necessarily have the most tones of any language (shout out to Thai and Cantonese speakers), accurately distinguishing and pronouncing the four different tones can be a particularly tricky stumbling block for students whose native tongues are Romance or Germanic languages.

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The problem is, when Duolingo teaches pinyin, it offers a multiple choice set of options so distinct that tones can be disregarded entirely. It’s doubtful that anyone’s ever struggled with Chinese because they couldn’t hear the difference between líng, shí and yuán (like in the example above), yet those are the sorts of vastly different options you’ll consistently be tasked to choose from. A better alternative would be if students were required to differentiate between the same sound, but with different tones, such as bái and bǎi. Even correctly pronouncing different consonants and vowels can be deceptively tricky, such as shi versus xi, or qu and chu, yet that’s also ignored.

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While you’re matching sounds to pinyin, you’ll also note that translations of characters into English aren’t featured. That’s due to the fact that Duolingo wants you to 'learn by doing', according to Lynn Xiaoling Mo, a co-designer of the course. What that means, though, is that the app doesn’t really explain anything to you.

Instead, you'll need to rely purely on trial and error. Rather than teaching you a translation, then seeing if you’ve retained that knowledge with follow-up questions, it’s not until the very end that a unit will ask you to translate characters and phrases. If you’re someone who has absolutely no basic knowledge of Chinese, then you'll end up just randomly guessing translations and attempting to memorize your errors as you go.

That same approach follows on when it comes to grammar. While Chinese doesn’t have grammar in the form of conjugations, grammatical genders or overly complex syntax, there are definite rules when it comes to sentence structure. Duolingo’s curriculum assumes that you’ll pick up the grammar intuitively by going through the exercises, but it seems like an overly complex way to learn a language when most grammar rules can be explained quickly and concisely.

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The way it goes now, users are asked to muddle their way through translations and random phrases without ever knowing why a sentence is actually structured a certain way. Correct answers seem to be the product of luck, rather than being the result of properly applying learned knowledge. Mistakes are also inevitable, simply because there’s no material to actually learn from.

According to Duolingo, by the end of the course you’ll be able to attain a Chinese proficiency of up to HSK 4 and be 'able to introduce yourself, discuss topics related to your daily life, order at a restaurant, haggle for a cheaper price while shopping, and much more' – a claim that seems quite optimistic. To Duolingo's credit though, it's free, and you’ve got nothing to lose by giving it a whirl. The graphics are nice, the daily reminders can be quite motivational, and if you already know some Chinese, it can be fairly useful as a refresher course. Just don’t expect to be able to 'haggle while shopping' by the end of it.

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