Saturday, 27 September 2014

Review of Duolingo/ why Dutch is great

As you may be aware, Belgium is a country with 2 main languages - Flemish (Dutch) in the north and French in the south. What I hadn't realised before I arrived was just how much the two language communities are separated.

Francophones where I live are quite happy to tell me that they don't speak a word of Dutch, and that (according to them), Dutch speakers don't speak French, either. I haven't quite grasped yet why people are so pleased about linguistic isolation! But it remains the case that you are not significantly more likely to come across Dutch here than English, which is a shame for me, as I had hope to learn some Dutch while I was in a majority-Dutch speaking country. I am still determined to learn the basics, but it seems I will have to rely on other means.

Luckily for me, there is Duolingo. I've written briefly about it in an earlier post, but I shall expand upon those points here. It is a totally free online game aimed at improving translation skills (available on computer and on other devices). For people who want to learn through English, there is the opportunity to learn a long list of languages (Spanish, French, German, Italian, Danish, Irish, Portuguese and Dutch), with more in development. When I first heard about Duolingo a few years ago, there were only French and Spanish which were available, so the range of languages really has expanded and has the potential to expand further.

The layout of the game is pretty straightfoward - you learn new terms, translate them and maintain your knowledge of them, earning coins and progressing through the levels as you go. It manages to maintain the game-like fun, while expanding your knowledge of the target language. As you might expect, for an enthusiastic linguist such as me, this game approaches new levels of cool, as you can relax while still continuing to absorb new information.

In terms of the actual language, for anyone who has a working knowledge of English and German, Dutch is the cutest language to learn, because a lot of the Dutch words are common to one or both of those languages. For example, compare the following examples in German, Dutch and English.

Sie trinkt die Milch
Zij drinkt de melk
She drinks the milk

There are many examples of linguistic similarity, and to me it seems as if Dutch is written by an English person trying to spell German words, and hence comprehension is not too bad at this basic level. It is a problem to remember different spellings for extremely similar words between the two, a bit like learning Swedish and Danish at the same time, as you have to remember which variant of the same word belongs where, but hopefully this will improve as my knowledge increase.

I imagine that it will get more difficult, but for the moment Dutch is a nice complement to my existing German knowledge and is more of an exercise in dialect comprehension than a totally new language!

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