I think we, as humans, take language for granted. We spend our whole lives talking and writing and otherwise producing an endless string of words, but we do most of it on autopilot. We treat it like a sterile, practical medium for ideas, without stopping to appreciate the beauty of the medium itself.
Isn't that crazy? A simple analysis of language is an absolutely brilliant and wonderful thing: it makes fascinating questions in philosophy accessible to anyone with the ability to hear or speak. What is the real relationship between sounds and the things they describe? Why do we use the sounds we do? How do these sounds actually get put together? Spend a day thinking about these things, and you'll begin to see how language is possibly the single most interesting thing that humans have ever invented.
Of course the best thing about language is that there are so many of them. With thousands in existence we have a vast number of possibilities to consider in our musings. A tree may be a tree, but it's also een boom, un arbre, një pemë, and any number of delicious sound-concoctions. And it's not just words: relationships and events can be symbolized in any number of ways, depending on which language you use. Learning multiple languages can give insight into the nature of meaning itself; and I get chills just typing that!
Being fascinated by languages, but limited in my knowledge, I spend a great deal of time looking up etymologies, foreign words, and translations. As rewarding as this is, it's also very time consuming and leads to a lot of retreading of familiar ground. Much as I'd love perfect knowledge of every language, I can barely claim meaningful knowledge of two. Quick recall of at least a basic body of words would help my linguistic explorations tremendously.
All of this is a painfully indirect way of introducing Duolingo, a website which promises to teach languages quickly through simple translation exercises. It's currently still in beta, and I waited a long time to get invited in, but it's something I think most people should definitely get in line for.
I have two Duolingo accounts, each of which I use for slightly different purposes. The first one is dedicated to Spanish, a language I studied in school for more than five years, whose basic grammar and vocabulary I am comfortable and familiar with. The second is dedicated to German, a language I know only through generalizations. These are the only languages presently available, but the sign-in page promises French, Italian, and Chinese very soon. I initially believed that each account could learn only one language, but that is because I am a very silly person who doesn't read everything before he gets started on nifty projects. You can learn as many as you want! Hopefully they'll have more than five choices in the future, but considering the scale of work necessary, I'd call it an adequate start.
Spanish of course is a very useful language. As a sometime classroom teacher in public schools, I often encounter students who come from a Spanish background. Understanding their language is a clearly valuable skill. The case isn't quite as strong for learning German, but that isn't really the point here. Learning languages for their own sake is what draws me to Duolingo, but the site is also there for you if you only want something practical. There's no reason that fun and useful can't be one and the same.
You progress through the system by completing a series of translations, incorporating text and spoken words. Vocabulary builds up slowly, and it's always possible to mouse over a word to find a list of possible meanings, so there's very little pressure to memorize. Learning the words by heart is obviously the goal, but this happens through familiarization rather than cramming.
Once you get pretty good at the canned exercises, you can try your hand at some real world examples from foreign language web sites. Duolingo will hold your hand, offering literal translations of every word, but assembling them into a grammatical and natural English sentence can be tricky regardless. User submissions are being used in the actual process of translating these sites, so there's a real tension here between sticking to the literal meaning (to conform with what is "correct" by consensus) and coming up with something a little more idiomatic. Most of the users seem pretty on the ball with their efforts. A few, however, could probably use a few more lessons in writing their first language.
Duolingo is, of course a fantastic way to learn a new language on the cheap and on your own schedule. But all good learning requires discipline, and Duolingo's primary mode of discipline is the guilt trip, as delivered by their cleverly named mascot, Duo.
To quote the website: "Learning a language requires practice. Duo will cry if you don’t practice every day." My guilt is steadily rising.
I think Duolingo is pretty damn awesome. I'd like to see it grow, both in number of users and in number of languages. It's not hard: it's actually very inviting to use. It does require some level of commitment to actually get anywhere with it, but that goes without saying.
Refreshing my Spanish skills has been mostly old hat; my greatest obstacle in that regard has been typos committed while answering too fast. But learning German has been a very stimulating experience indeed. I'm still on the basic vocabulary, but it's filled with cognates and morphological similarities to English, and learning them has answered some of my lingering questions about the relationship between the two. I've also spent a lot of time repeating that das Mädchen isst einen Apfel, but you've got to crawl before you can walk.
So give Duolingo a try, everyone. Revel in the joy of learning new words, and maybe think about English in ways you never have before. It might not inspire as much curiosity in you as it does in me, but it is a fun and easy way to do something that's usually much harder. That's got to be worth checking out.