Over the years I’ve attended several talks and read a number of presentations where someone makes the point that English is the language of the Internet. This sounds all well and good from a dry, analytical perspective, but anyone who has to live in the real world, where they communicate, meet, and do business with people from around the world understands how hard it can be to get things done without a basic understanding of other languages.

And the way the world is moving, more and more of customers, partners and colleagues won’t be native English speakers. In this environment, being able to even speak and understand a bit of other languages can be a big asset to any professional. Any frequent traveler will point out how much it helps to just be able to say “Hi”, “How are you?” and “Thank you” in the native languages of the people you meet.

The traditional way to address a need to speak other languages has been to invest in costly and time consuming courses or purchase fairly high-priced language courseware. And while there’s nothing wrong with these approaches, there’s a freely available service that uses gamification and strong language teaching methods to make learning another language easy and, yes, even fun.

DuoLingo is a language teaching application that can be run in a web browser or as a mobile app on Android and Apple iOS devices. The application is free on all platforms and, unlike some “free” mobile applications, DuoLingo does not run advertisements on its apps. The developers get their revenue by leveraging their platform as a kind of “crowdsourced” translation service. Currently, DuoLingo offers courses in French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and English (for native speakers of other languages).

Having used DuoLingo now for a couple of months, I have to say that it is not only one of the best language translation apps that I’ve tested, it’s one of the best mobile apps period that I’ve used. Through simple use of gamification tricks (in the form of four hearts or “lives” per lesson), the app has proven sneakily addictive, where the user is constantly thinking, “just one more lesson”.

Anyone who has used other forms of language software and training courses will recognize many of the teaching elements of DuoLingo. The application uses a combination of visual recognition cards, spoken phrases and translation tests to help users recognize and reinforce understanding of words, phrases and grammar.

When starting with a language, users can choose to start from the basics or, if you have some experience with a language, take a placement test in order to start at a higher level within the app. Lessons are grouped within a number of skills and language basics, for example working on plurals, use of possessives or talking about specific subjects like food.

Phrase translation can be visual (see this English sentence and type the translation in Spanish, see this Spanish sentence and type the translation in English) or audible (program speaks a phrase in German and you type what you hear, or program shows a German sentence and you need to speak it into the device’s microphone). Users can also be asked to translate sentences using provided word blocks.

Overall the program does an excellent job of building on knowledge of a language and helping to reinforce lessons throughout the use of the app. While simple, the gamification worked well. Every time you get something wrong in a lesson, you lose a heart and, once all four hearts are gone, the lesson ends and you need to start over again. DuoLingo also makes it possible to compete against friends also taking courses in DuoLingo, so, for example, your spouse can lord over you with her superior German skills (not that I’m speaking from experience).

Will DuoLingo turn you into a veritable James Bond, able to converse fluently around the world? Not likely, but it may help you have a much better understanding of other languages, which can only prove valuable the next time you work with a key partner, prospect or contact who isn’t a native English speaker.

Parlez-vous de la technologie? Mais bien sûr !

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