Is Duolingo audiolingualism reinvented?

I really like Duolingo.

For those who are not familiar (really?) with the app, you sign up, choose a language, and work your way through a series of lessons devoted to different language areas, supervised by an over-enthusiastic cartoon owl. Who then follows you around your phone reprovingly if you do not keep up with your daily exercises.

Photocredit Uschi Dugulin from the site Pixabay

There’s a lot of repeating what you hear, copying what you hear, translating in and out of your language but, and this is the interesting thing, quite a lot of it is not meant to be particularly challenging. In the sense that I’m not sure you are supposed to be cognitively working out the right answers, or logically applying your analytical skills.

My excitement about this is odd. Firstly, there is my imminent redundancy as an English teacher and teacher trainer if it works. But also, if we were sharing our teaching philosophy, I would say that mine runs very much to making people intellectually engage with what they are doing. Not just the topic, but in actually understanding the grammar, or certain patterns attached to phonology, or words, or the whys and wherefores of strategies to help them process texts.

When I was first formally learning Russian, I was also a newish language teacher, and it was genuinely interesting to sit in someone else’s classroom to see all the techniques I wanted to master applied. Or, in some cases, not applied. Bonus professional development. Wheee!

The problem with this is that eventually I began spending more and more of my professional life watching other people teach, and there does come a point, even if you really like your job, when you do not want to do any more of that in your free time.

So, I stopped attending Russian lessons and moved to the UK. Oddly, this worked out, language learning-wise, as I got to speak more Russian. Which is a story for another day.

I am now the proud possessor of an extremely spikey profile; while I can listen and communicate quite effectively, I also butcher grammar and rely on about five basic verbs to do the heavy lifting, vocabulary wise.

I still cannot bring myself to go back into the classroom though. Hence, turning to apps.

Plus I do still enjoy looking at others’ materials design and spotting the underlying theories of teaching and learning involved. Useful, when part of your work involves helping others to see the same things.

Which brings us back to Duolingo.

Because, yes, we can all see the gamification involved in the carefully structured levelling up, and the earning gems, and the being in different leagues competing against other Duolingo participants and so on. And so forth.

But what I think it owes a debt to is audiolingualism.

What is audiolingualism?

Audiolingualism is a methodology associated with the theories of B F Skinner, who once taught a two year old to be deathly afraid of his mother’s fur coat. 

Similarly, language is also considered to be learned behaviour.

Small children copy what they hear around them, get corrected, and eventually end up with the full range of utterances. There’s not much thought involved – it’s an automated process mostly to do with good habit formation.

Audiolingualism took this idea and ran with it – the method consists of students repeating a model and being immediately corrected to stop any bad habits getting embedded. It was particularly helpful in contexts like language learning in the US army in the 50s, where you didn’t necessarily need to say anything too sophisticated, but you did need to be able to deliver an appropriate phrase under  pressure without needing to sit there and think about how to conjugate it or whether this word or that might be more appropriate. 

So grammar was not explicitly taught.

Now there are all sorts of objections to both the underlying theory of language learning and the methodology which I am not going to go into. Generally they focus on the idea that if language is so automated, how do we account for new variations? Not everything is a copy of what has gone before.

Of course, one of the things that access to corpus data of what we actually say has shown is that while it’s not the only thing going on, there is indeed a certain fixed chunkiness to what comes out of our mouths. Not having to construct completely new utterances from the ground up each time is, indeed, a thing. Getting your mouth and brain lined up at speed is not just a problem when you have a gun in your hand.

Audiolingualism, however, never did go in purely for the rote-learning, tourist phrasebook approach to language. And neither does Duolingo.

Audiolingualism and Duolingo

Famously, Duolingo has sentences like ‘Men are people too’, ‘Do you want to buy my giraffe?’ or, one of my favourites so far, ‘Take the cat and meet me by the bridge’, none of which you can really imagine being sentences that you need to actually say very often – they are not worth learning off by heart. 

Although I do think the last one has possibilities as an opening for a spy novel, and I was half way through plotting it by the time the sentence had recycled five times.

The idea, then, is that there is no need to explicitly wave the rules governing the structures around in front of our brains – they are perfectly able to sort out the underlying patterns for themselves if exposed to enough examples.

Take the lower levels of each lesson, where you get to select the words to make a translation of the sentences you are working on.

There’s very little need to think about it – they are not giving you distractors that give you much pause for thought. The idea, I think, is to do it at speed, allow your subconscious to recognise the pattern, without needing to get to the point of actually thinking about it carefully.

And then there is the repetition, over and over again, and by opening up a few more lessons at a time, Duolingo is signalling clearly you are not supposed to just stick to one set at a time. You do have to keep hopping around, circling back and though, giving your brain a bit of a rest from that pattern and then hitting yourself with it again. And again, And again. Until, tada! It has sunk in.

But there ARE grammar rules given, I hear some of you cry. Mmmmmmm. Not on the app version though*. And surely very few people are doing this anywhere other than their smartphones. I wonder if this is one of those grudging compromised most education professionals will be familiar with, the need to square what the teacher thinks is the way to go about it with the suspicion of said approach by the people you are trying to teach. 

Does it work?

Not for me. I saw a lovely tweet that said that after 365 days of using Duolingo, what they had got really good at is Duolingo. I rather agree.

The thing is, I find that unless I know what the rule is, I am either just learning specific, sometimes nonsensical sentences off by heart, or guessing, or applying a rule I have picked up from a grammar info dump app I downloaded after realising I had out precisely two rules from pure Duolingo. Everything else, not only did I get frustrated that I could not see the patterns, but I didn’t even realise there was a tendency I should be absorbing until I had come across it somewhere else.

I suspect the Duolingists might be coming around to this point of view as one of their new things for the paid version is to add little pop up messages explaining the rule you have just broken when you get a sentence wrong. Still not up front instruction, but fostering the noticing process, and fostering it in a nice interactive way. Because just reading about grammar (or having it explained to me), well, that doesn’t work either. Duolingo, in fact, now seems to me to be accelerating towards a much more cognitive approach. Good say I. It’s not that explicit instruction is wrong – it’s how you go about it.

Anyway, despite my reservations, I am (now) finding Duolingo beneficial. And even before I expanded my horizons it had got me back on the language learning horse. I was already able to decode Cyrillic reasonably comfortably, but all the typing involved in Duolingo got me much more up to speed on written production too. I also like the breadth of things being worked on at any one time. And the repetitive practice that other app is very short on, well, that is indeed a major bonus. AND just as you think it’s all over, they add another level to each lesson to squeeze that little bit more out of it and you. Whoohoo!

But I get a little toe curl of joy every time an idiotic sentence heaves into view because in my head I am having a little AUDIOLINGUAL KLAXON ALERT squee. It’s nice to see an old idea being reinvigorated, and this, just as much as the judgmental owl keeps me coming back.

Well, that and the fact that they are clearly on a roll right now and I’m interested to see what language learning/ teaching methodology will pop up next. I generally approve of not being so dogmatic in your approach to language teaching/ learning that you discount the idea that there might be other ways of doing it. That COMBINING other ways of doing it might indeed actually be the way forward.

And, of course, there’s the need to end up top of the leaderboard and out earn my teaching colleagues/ family/ friends. I’m stalking the top spot in the Diamond league this week. Wish me luck.

*It turns out that it depends which language you are learning – the big ticket languages do, in fact, have rules on the app version. You have to choose to click on them though – and we all know how difficult it is to get people to do extra clicking. And my other points still stand. She says, never one to give up on a theory too quickly.