Beta in Norwegian: how Duolingo is developing free learning

Hja! x Duolingo

The internet: what a place. The amount of information we have available through the magic of our glass screens is astonishing, helped by the development of crowd-sourced projects that have moved the level of shareable knowledge to new standards throughout the world. Increasingly, the internet – along with today’s offering of worldwide travel options – creates closer communities, a vibrancy of cultures and backgrounds, and our exposure to other languages.

You may have been taught a language at high school or learnt the local lingo while travelling or working abroad, through the use of books, in a class or with the help of acquaintances. The internet is a relatively recent addition to that list, with many online courses, tutorials and communities available, in as many languages you can shake a map at. There is currently huge competition within the market from the likes of Babbel, Livemocha and Busuu, who each have a good selection of languages to choose from. There is also Duolingo, a crowd-sourced language-learning platform and app, who believe that “everyone should have access to education of the highest quality – for free.” And it is.

Duolingo offers a host of courses for different speakers and continues to add more. English speakers are catered for the best, with languages as you might expect such as Spanish, French, German and Italian; but even Klingon (the language spoken by the fictional extraterrestrial Klingon species in Star Trek) is currently in development.

The course of another lesser known language from a far away Viking universe is also in development and now available to start using: Norwegian! Yes, Bokmål is in beta mode, under the supervision of a group of passionate contributors; one of whom is luke51991, otherwise known as Andrew Feinberg from the United States. Hja! spoke to Andrew about developing the course, learning languages and his connection to Norway…

Interview by Tom Lenartowicz

Hi Andrew! What’s your background?

My nickname is Luke, but my real name is Andrew. I grew up in the city of Boston, Massachusetts, on the east coast of the United States. My family is Russian-Jewish, and English is the only language I heard growing up, with a few Yiddish words here and there. I have an uncle who’s fluent in Hebrew, but no other people I’m closely related to speak a language other than English. I was very interested in politics abroad when I was in high school, which is when I started learning Norwegian on my own. I later got an undergraduate degree in Political Science from Macalester College in Minnesota. I was fascinated by everything that Western Europeans had that we were lacking in the US: a generous welfare state with a lot of vacation time, high-speed trains, foreign language skills, and so much else. Norway came across as especially wonderful at a time in the US when it felt somewhat embarrassing to be an American.

What attracted you to Duolingo?

My Norwegian roommate, actually, first introduced me to it while the whole website was in beta, well over three years ago. I’ve been an active participant ever since. I was drawn in because the nature of it being free of charge allowed me to try out whatever languages they happened to be offering at the time, which was two or three when I first joined. Now there are thirteen languages for English speakers, and that number rises every couple of months.

Andrew Feinberg at the Duolingo Summit in Berlin

Andrew Feinberg at the Duolingo Summit in Berlin

Can you explain how it works?

For most of the “non-major” courses on the Duolingo website and mobile apps, such as Norwegian and Esperanto, the only aim of the coursework is language acquisition and not real-world translation. For languages like French and Spanish, there are additional functionalities available. All Duolingo students progress through a linguistic curriculum called a “tree” divided into units called “skills.” Each skill has a theme rooted in either grammar or vocabulary, with one to ten lessons each. A lesson takes about five to ten minutes and consists of fun and interactive listening, speaking, and translation puzzles where students learn two to nine new words. Each word is contextualized in at least three sentences using only words that the student has been exposed to before. As such, sentences increase with complexity as the student progresses. At any given time, you can click or tap on a word to see its closest English translation.

How many languages can you speak?

My usual answer to that question is three. I learned French in grade school for many years, and at one point I could speak it very comfortably after living in France for a month, but my ability to do so has almost completely eroded away. I would be lucky to pass for an A2 speaker nowadays. German was my minor in college, and I can speak it fluently with very few mistakes. English is my mother tongue and Norwegian my side project for eight years, but other languages have come and gone in the meantime as intense and short-lived passions.

How much of your learning has been down to Duolingo?

It’s helped me more with some languages than with others, of course. For example, I knew no Italian before I began with Duolingo, and it has quickly become one of my favorite languages. I try to make an effort to learn every language the company has to offer at least through the first few skills. Contributing to the Norwegian course has been a wonderful exercise for my Norwegian, as one would imagine after translating or editing more than 13,000 sentences.

What’s required of you to contribute to a course on Duolingo?

There are essentially two components of being a course contributor: building the course and dealing with post-launch error reporting. Each have advantages and disadvantages. One first builds the layout of the course either using a template, as we did from the Swedish course, or from scratch. Course building is a highly creative process. We need to decide which skills and words should be taught at which time and contribute sentences that we’ve invented ourselves. The beta phase and beyond consists of responding to user feedback, in the form of reports, and making changes accordingly. What’s frustrating about this phase is that some things become more difficult to deal with, such as faulty audio examples or a misplaced word or two. Once we receive the ability to create a new tree version, we can finally deal with some of those kinds of problems.

Some of the many contributors to Duolingo at their summit in Berlin

Some of the many contributors of Duolingo at their summit in Berlin

What’s your connection with Norway?

The country has been a personal interest of mine since I was sixteen and started learning about Scandinavian history and Norse mythology. Either serendipitously or by actively looking for people to practice my Norwegian with, I’ve made a handful of close friends from Norway as well.

How have you learnt Norwegian?

When I was sixteen, I purchased the “Teach Yourself Norwegian” book and made it about halfway through, enough to learn “jeg vil gjerne ha en kopp kaffe.” Over the next few years of studying German, I decided to pick up a Scandinavian language again, and it was made easier by the fact that German is so similar. I spent about four months learning Swedish through LingQ before my Norwegian friends convinced me to switch teams, so to speak, and the transition was practically seamless because the number of similarities between the languages. I used Klar Tale daily, which is a news website in easy Norwegian that offers several interesting tools for learning the language. I reviewed my old books and checked out TV2 and NRK videos targeted towards children and immigrants. Having a Norwegian roommate for a semester helped somewhat, although we preferred speaking English to one another, which is a common occurrence. I used novels, newspaper articles, podcasts, documentaries, and political speeches to get from intermediate to advanced. I have ex-Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg to thank for my accent and much of my speaking style. For the vast majority of the time I spent learning, I had no one to speak with in Norwegian, yet I’m able to converse just fine nowadays. As such, I consider myself a success story for Stephen Krashen’s “input hypothesis.”

Have you visited Norway?

I spent two days in Norway in January of 2012. I stayed at my then-roommate’s home about an hour southwest of Oslo. In his words, Norway was “at its Norwayest” that time of year, practically indistinguishable from Maine in the US in terms of climate and landscape. One jarring difference was how early the sun set. We spent most of the time there exploring Oslo, visiting parks, museums, restaurants, and bookstores. Like most non-Norwegians, I was shocked by how expensive everything was. What I remember liking the most was the amazing transit network and the beautiful typography and graphic design on signage. I don’t mean to oversimplify, but the whole country felt a bit like an Apple store—unsettlingly spotless, posh, and futuristic. Back then I didn’t speak Norwegian at a fluent level, so the only time I used any of the language was asking for the restroom facilities.

People say the best way to learn a language is to live in the country it’s spoken. Do you agree?

I believe that attitude has been used as a mental block for many language learners supposedly “stranded” in their home countries. It’s a stance that is especially troublesome for those who are learning Esperanto, Latin and Old English and don’t have a whole society to practice in. Perhaps it was true in earlier centuries, but the internet has really changed everything in this regard. On Youtube alone, the free resources for perfecting one’s grammar and accent are remarkable, and that goes for nearly any language. For most people, it was exceptionally difficult to get Norwegian news and entertainment in the US in the twentieth century. Now, it’s fantastically easy. Even native speakers can help you practice through a number of websites catering to that service.

For a relatively small population, Norway is very proud of its regional dialects and linguistic differences. Do you think Duolingo can adapt to this?

Although I’m sure that it could, I don’t necessarily believe that Duolingo should teach multiple spoken dialects of the language. Norwegian has two written standards, which is already a confusingly high number for a single language with such a relatively small population of native speakers. I think it would be a shame if Duolingo began teaching multiple Norwegian dialects, or even the Nynorsk standard, before teaching languages like Icelandic, Finnish, and Faroese.

Do you know if there are plans to introduce the Nynorsk or Sami languages on Duolingo?

The Bokmål course will be introducing a small one-lesson Nynorsk “bonus skill” as soon as some technical issues are resolved on the back-end. Beyond that, we haven’t got a clue as to which languages will be added. I would greatly applaud a Sami course due to its endangered status, but a Nynorsk course may be a bit superfluous anytime soon when there are so many more languages to cover beforehand. Admittedly, the resources for learning Nynorsk as an English speaker are rather limited.

A screenshot of part of the Norwegian course on Duolingo. Got milk?

A screenshot of part of the Norwegian course on Duolingo. Got milk?

What are your best tips for learning a language – not only on Duolingo, but in everyday life?

  1. Do what you enjoy doing, is my first and most important word of advice. If you don’t enjoy reading about medical ethics in your mother tongue, you’re not going to enjoy learning about it in your target language either. If cooking fascinates you, read a related Wikipedia article or a culinary blog in your target language.

  1. It’s always helpful to know something about the peculiarities of the language and its family before embarking on a new project, and Wikipedia is a great resource for this. For Norwegian, my strategy of learning German first helped a great deal, but I realize that most don’t have that luxury.

  1. I’m very much a believer in the Krashen-Kaufmann hypothesis that large amounts of comprehensible input are needed before a student can speak or write with any skill. I’ve used LingQ before, and although it’s not my favorite language website for several reasons, it gets a lot of things right that no one else in the field is trying.

  1. One often has to forget a word ten times before you can reliably remember it. If you don’t know a word at first, it’s better to skip it than to let it slow you down. Oftentimes you can get a scrap of its meaning through context, and from these you can eventually infer the meaning without needing to open a dictionary.

  1. Knowing a word’s cognates and etymology are helpful for contextualizing its meaning in an intellectually satisfying way. Etymology especially is a goldmine of trivial but satisfying knowledge waiting to be put to use in one’s language learning.

  1. This may seem obvious, but if an unknown word is repeated many times while you’re reading, it’s a good idea to look it up because it’s probably fairly useful.

  1. Learn the International Phonetic Alphabet, especially as it pertains to the language you’re learning. I cannot stress this enough.

  1. Variety is the spice of language learning, so don’t spend too much time on any one platform, media outlet, or language skill. For that matter, take frequent breaks from the language learning process altogether, but always be sure to keep coming back. A break can do wonders to cement knowledge you have recently practiced.

When can we expect for the Norwegian course to be in full effect?

We’ve made tremendous progress on the course in the first few weeks of the beta phase, reducing our reports per hundred users metric from roughly 25 to 4. We need to hold this figure under 3 for a period of time in order to graduate from the beta phase, which will likely last a couple more months. At that point, we can begin to think about expanding the course and making a few changes to it. The course currently teaches about 2,700 words, which is very much on the higher end of all Duolingo courses. That number may well double in the span of a couple of years, but I have a feeling it will never be as “complete” as we would like it to be, and that’s a positive thing, because we can always keep improving and expanding.

How can people help contribute to the course?

First and foremost, students can contribute through thoughtful error reporting when they take our course. We are especially thankful to those fluent in both English and Norwegian who write us “free-write” reports detailing what they find wrong with a given sentence or translation. Because they technically aren’t learning a new language, they are doing this work as volunteers and deserve special recognition. Those learning Norwegian can contribute translation suggestions as well, of course. I should note, however, that a good number of the translation suggestions that we receive sound unnatural either in English or Norwegian. The “incorrect” reports are used to create error messages explaining what went wrong in translation, but the reporters are never notified if their suggestions are not accepted. We have to have some standards as to what sounds natural in English, which is mostly my job, or what sounds natural in Norwegian, which is mostly the job of the other contributors.

Tusen takk, Andrew!

Thank you for this opportunity to speak about the course! It’s been a pleasure.

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Tom is Co-Founder, Editorial & Brand Director at Hja! Originally from the Lake District, England, he moved to Oslo in 2010. Tom works as a freelance graphic designer at Brenneriveien and is co-creator of Fresh off the Hill. He loves to snowboard and speaks really terrible Norwegian. Follow him on Twitter @thrilly and his Instagram.