Duolingo finally released a Chinese course—here’s a guide to get the most out of it

By | 17.11.2017

Learning Chinese is a thing now. Mark Zuckerberg is doing it. Donald Trump’s granddaughter memorized a 13th-century Chinese poem for Xi Jinping, the president of China. Many Hollywood films depict celebrities speaking bad Chinese.

For those who would like to join the ranks of new Chinese speakers, the most obvious place to start for many learners has been unavailable. Until now. This week, Duolingo—the handy app that has become one of the most popular and ubiquitous ways for people to get started learning new languages—launched its first Chinese module. The company said it was one of its most-requested languages.

But is it a good way to learn the language?

Sort of. Learning any language requires practicing a few different skills. Duolingo is good at teaching some of them, and the app does provide a good basic curriculum. But using Duolingo on its own will mostly teach you how to be good at… using Duolingo. You’ll need to break out of the app if you want to really learn and make it stick. Here’s what Duolingo does well, what it doesn’t, and how you can supplement it with other tools on the way to Chinese mastery.

Characters, reading, and writing

This is the very first thing I see when I begin Duolingo’s Chinese course:

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This shows that Duolingo is serious about characters. To read Chinese, you need to learn a bunch of characters like this one. Each one contains a bit of information, like 水 (water) or 火 (fire). Duolingo promises to teach about 1,000 characters—and 1,000 words made up of those characters—by the end of the course. That would probably allow you to read signs comfortably and struggle through a children’s book. (According to conventional wisdom, you need around 2,000 characters to read a newspaper.)

You may notice that the screenshot above does not say what the character means. That’s because Duolingo wants you to “learn by doing,” says Lynn Xiaoling Mo, a Mandarin language expert at Duolingo, and co-designer of the course. That means the app does not really explain anything to you. This first screen displays the new character, pronounces it, and asks us to select which sound represents it. It doesn’t say what the character means or why it is written the way it is. The meaning is taught on the next screen:

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Learning characters is a challenge. For each one, you have to learn both how to pronounce it and what it means. In a language that uses the Latin alphabet, you only have to learn the sound a letter makes.

To a large extent, learning characters is just raw repetition—look at a character enough times and eventually, you’ll remember it. Duolingo makes this easy, because it has repetition built in. After you see the character above for the first time, it exposes you to it many more times in the lesson, and repeats it throughout the course.

Duolingo also knows if you haven’t seen that character in a while, and its handy “strength bars” show which characters or concepts you need to review. This personalization is one of the app’s biggest strengths.

Characters: What else you need

Imagine if, instead of learning how to sound out English words by looking at the letters, you were just told, for each word, “this word makes that sound,” and then you had to memorize the sounds for each individual word. That is how Duolingo and many other Chinese teaching systems work, and it can make progress slow.

There are two things you can do to improve your character retention. The first is to learn how the characters work, not just try to memorize what they look like. This is akin to learning how to sound out words in English.

Characters are made up of smaller components, sort of like how an English word might have a root and a suffix. Learning about these components and how they work makes remembering characters much easier. For example, the character Duolingo taught above, 好, is made up of the components 女 (woman) and 子 (child). Knowing that makes it easier to remember that means “younger sister,” because it also contains the “woman” component. Studying up on the other ways that characters are formed goes a long way.

Another thing Duolingo fails to do well is get you to produce characters. That could mean either writing them by hand, or typing them in hanyu pinyin, the input system that uses the Roman alphabet to express how a character is pronounced. Learning to write thousands of characters is a major time investment that may not be worth it for you, but knowing a bit about how they are written will help you remember them more readily.

You could try using another app, Skritter, to practice writing. And you should definitely set up your computer or phone to allow character input and try typing sentences using the pinyin system.

Tones and pronunciation

Beyond characters, another thing that can be tricky about Chinese is its four tones. As a tonal language, a given sound in Chinese can take on a different meaning when said in a different way. This can trip up new learners who don’t already speak a tonal language.

Duolingo does put some emphasis on tones, but it is not likely to be enough. When Duolingo teaches pronunciation, it plays a character’s sound and offers a multiple choice set of options to match the sound. It also has a section where you are asked to match characters with their sounds.

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These are usually pretty obvious, though, with the options being very distinct sounds, like wo versus zai in the image above. It would be better if it asked more often to distinguish between the same sound, but with different tones. (This is a feature in the course, but it rarely comes up.)

If you just use the app, trying to speak to someone would probably result in many situations where you feel you’re saying the word correctly, but people don’t understand, because your tones are slightly off.

Tones: What else you need

The point about tones shows that Duolingo does not really teach you much at all about how to speak Chinese; mostly how to read and listen. This essential skill of speaking is one that cannot really be practiced without another human, preferably a native speaker.

Even of you don’t have a Chinese-speaking friend or a lot of cash to spend on private tutors, there are ways to get such practice. You can find licensed teachers, as well as unlicensed ones, who will talk to you at pretty affordable rates on sites like italki. If you really don’t want to spend any money, you can always do a language exchange. Find a partner who wants to learn a language you speak, and who speaks the language you want to learn. Italki will connect you with native speakers, as will a number of other sites.

You’ll get a lot more out of Duolingo, and your learning experience, after even just one or two hours with a native speaker working through tones with you.

Grammar

Mercifully, grammar in Chinese is pretty simple. There are no intricate conjugation rules, as there are in Romance languages. She, he, they, it, you, all use the same verb form. She eat, he eat, they eat, it eat, you eat, etc. The same goes for past, future, and other tenses.

What can be called Chinese “grammar,” then, mostly comes down to sentence structure. Because there are no past or future tenses, the time of an event is usually placed at the beginning of a sentence, like, “Yesterday I go to the store” or “Next year in July I go to China.”

Duolingo, again, doesn’t really teach any of these rules, but expects you to infer them by looking at tons of examples. It wants you to learn by doing, as you would in an immersive environment. Because Duolingo is good at repeating these sentence structures frequently and with different inputs, this method does kind of work. The course’s creators have also taken care to introduce concepts gradually.

But simply learning the rule can often be faster.

Grammar: What else you need

Most people use Duolingo as a smartphone app, but the desktop version has a lot of helpful info that the mobile version does not. In particular, it has in-depth explanations of grammar relevant to the lesson at hand. So you should definitely use the desktop version whenever possible.

If Duolingo’s explanations are inadequate, the Chinese Grammar Wiki is quite comprehensive. It is also recommended that you think about Chinese sentences in terms of “patterns”—kind of like mad libs, where you fill in a noun or verb here or there—which the wiki also has information on.

Vocabulary

Duolingo does a good job of teaching useful vocabulary. When I spoke to the creators, they were adamant about teaching words that were interesting and useful. You will learn how to ask directions, order delicious foods, and introduce yourself. Lynne, the Duolingo Mandarin expert, insisted that the course teach all-important clarification phrases like “can you repeat that” or “I don’t understand.” There are also interesting Chinese-specific modules, like Chinese food, festivals, and internet slang.

The entirety of Duolingo’s word set represents about half of the word set from level four of the HSK Chinese proficiency test.

Vocabulary: What else you need

Personalized repetition and good word choice are the two main things you need for a good language-learning curriculum, and Duolingo has those covered. So you don’t really need much more. If you want to dive in further to the meanings and subtleties of words, install Pleco, an incredibly good dictionary app.

Duolingo is just one tool among many

Finally, don’t take Duolingo too seriously. Often, it is much too strict for Chinese, which is a highly flexible language. Take, for example, this question I was given on its placement test:

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Both of these answers effectively mean the same thing, but Duolingo marked one of them incorrect. This kind of thing shows why, though it can be helpful, Duolingo needs to be supplemented.

So that brings us to…

Your study plan, in brief

  • Use Duolingo pretty much every day.
  • Don’t only use Duolingo—you will probably get frustrated when you need to actually use the language.
  • Read about how Chinese characters work, and learn how to write some of the ones Duolingo teaches you, possibly using the app Skritter.
  • Find a language exchange partner, or a teacher on italki, who you can practice speaking with.
  • Read up on and practice the sentence patterns you encounter in Duolingo. If you’re ambitious, write practice sentences on italki, where native speakers will correct them (for free).
  • Any time you’re not quite sure what a word means, explore what the dictionary app Pleco has to say about it.
  • Don’t worry if Duolingo does something silly.

You don’t need to do all of that every day. Altogether, 30 minutes to an hour a day is enough. Stick with the program and you’ll be ordering off-menu at the local Chinese joint in a few months.