Alternatives to Duolingo for Latin and German
May 20, 2020 9:07 AM   Subscribe

I've been using Duolingo to brush up on my German and start learning Latin, and it is . . . not optimal. Are there better apps for this? Or something besides apps?

I'm pretty fed up with Duolingo, and I'll be specific about why it's making me crazy, in the hope that will result in better answers.

German: I took a lot of German in college and even lived in Germany for a year, but I've forgotten a lot. I've started at the beginning on Duolingo, which would be OK, except it keeps bumping me back to previous levels, even though I almost never make mistakes (and the mistakes I make are typos). I know how to say bread, water, girl, and woman. I really do. I don't need to go through that a thousand times.

Latin: I have zero background in Latin. I tried to study it on my own once, but not knowing how to pronounce anything made me crazy. I make lots and lots of mistakes on Duolingo, and today, it wouldn't let me continue because I ran out of "hearts," which from Googling, seems to indicate I make lots of mistakes, which I know. I can apparently pay for more hearts, but I'm disgruntled enough with Duolingo that I don't trust the paid version to be good.
I also am not super keen on the "immersion" method Duolingo uses. I think I would do better if rules were explicit rather than just being expected to pick them up. I honestly have no idea why "in" is sometimes used for a location and sometimes not. I don't understand word order. I find myself googling in order to understand the rules, and that does help. The Teaching Company has an intro to Latin course - I'm considering trying that.

If you have an app to recommend, please say why you're recommending it. If you don't have the time to be specific, it's fine to skip this question. Also, I have googled to look at language app alternatives, but I'm looking for personal recommendations. I don't want to spend tons of time working on languages right now - I'm just dipping my toe in - which is why I'm thinking an app would be better, but if you have non-app recommendations, I'd like to hear that too. I'm OK with paying for something if it's good.
posted by FencingGal to Education (16 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Like you, I'm also very frustrated with Duolingo's lack of explanation of language rules. I still use it but rely heavily upon the forums if I'm confused about a question. I also use Babbel, which I like a lot. It does a great job of explaining grammar and also some cultural information like holidays and traditions. It also allows for different kinds of practice (listening, writing, speaking, flashcards...). I'm studying Danish, so YMMV.
posted by mezzanayne at 9:33 AM on May 20 [1 favorite]

If you just want to brush up on your vocab, Memrise is a much better app than Duolingo. Don't bother paying for the premium version, the free version is totally fine. There are lots of German vocab courses on there.

I've just done a quick search, and it turns out Memrise have vocab from the Cambridge Latin Course! (Which is the classic Latin language course, btw. If you learnt Latin at school in the UK, you did it with Caecilius, Metella, and Quintus...)

If you're looking for something substantial, I am currently learning German using a course called "Smarter German" and I'm really enjoying it. I'm dyslexic, so language learning is normally very hard. But for whatever reason, this course is really working for me. It's not a casual app however, it's an actual course taught by someone who has been a language teacher for many years and the price reflects that. But the first lesson is free, so you can see if you like it.

For Latin, if you're interested in really going for it in a serious way, the Cambridge Latin Course is what you need. The last time I was in a Latin class the internet wasn't a thing, so I only know the books. But I imagine there are probably more up-to-date and online versions today. The bonus of CLC is that you learn a lot about ancient Rome at the same time!
posted by EllaEm at 9:34 AM on May 20 [4 favorites]

For Latin I really enjoyed Latinitium and all the associated resources. There was a lot of spoken Latin when I first started a few years ago and a lot of podcast discussions about different pronunciations and conventions.

There were also these stand alone vocab lists that you could download and just drill with the appropriate conjugations and declensions.
posted by Tchad at 9:38 AM on May 20 [1 favorite]

If you haven't already tried this, I find the Duolingo web version much better to use than the app version. There are explicit tips and notes (like this lesson which explains how to recognize noun gender and when you should use "fressen" vs. "essen" for German). I bet there's one for "in" but I haven't unlocked higher levels of German. It still uses "hearts" but in a much less annoying way than the app.
posted by mskyle at 9:49 AM on May 20 [2 favorites]

The Duolingo Latin course is pretty terrible. I can't imagine anyone would ever learn anything from it, but I am saying that as a Latin teacher, so. And I've liked some of the other Duolingo courses and found them moderately helpful.

Cambridge is a great textbook (I teach with it and adore it), but it's not the best suited for self-study in my experience. It's very inductive ('let's pick things up through reading them') and not so much deductive ('here are rules, let's apply them'), although it does have more explicit grammar now than it did when the first edition was originally written and one can absolutely learn the language from it (unlike Duolingo, which is useless). It's aimed at kids, but it is possible for adults to use because the stories are fun. Fair warning: It was written 40 years ago, and that is reflected also in the representation of people in the stories, a lot of unthinking reflections of Roman beliefs about various marginalized groups.

If CLC appeals to you, I would go with an electronic subscription to Elevate, Cambridge University Press's ebook/website version, because a student subscription to the CLC actually includes things like the web book, but also electronic activities, dictionaries, stories with click-on vocab, videos, and more. There's actually a free 90 day trial of it right now because of the Coronavirus crisis: 90 day trial. Even if it says 30 days, it's 90.

The usual rec for adults self-studying is a copy of Wheelock's Latin textbook (the usual choice for colleges in the US), which, well, it's widely available and cheap. It's grammar grammar grammar, with some sentences every chapter. There's online self-study groups for it though, if that sort of thing would appeal to you. One year of college Latin is usually studying the whole book. *I* would never pick it, but it's thorough and there's a *ton* of resources because it's so popular.

To specify location in Latin, you use 'in' for most places. But the names of cities, towns, and small islands (plus the nouns domī 'at home', humī 'on the ground', and rūrī 'in the country') do not use 'in'. So Rōmae, 'in Rome, at Rome', but in viā, 'in the street'.
posted by lysimache at 10:07 AM on May 20 [6 favorites]

I do not have specific opinions regarding German and Latin, but the app Drops is very good for getting a bunch of nouns and is sorted by type.

Want verbs? Too bad.
Want grammar? Also too bad.
Want LGBT vocabulary? Definitely too bad. So far I've yet to have ANY language teaching materials offer this, including duolingo and all classes I've ever taken.

But, if you want nouns? Drops is a good way to learn nouns and noun phrases.
posted by bile and syntax at 10:56 AM on May 20

As an amateur classics-reader, I'd like to suggest the possibility that you don't necessarily need to learn to speak/write Latin. I know this is going to cause some people to throw aneurysms, but speaking or composing in a dead language is in many ways an artificial exercise. What you're most likely going to want to be doing is reading. If composition exercises or speaking help you with that, or if you think they're fun, great. But I think if you're like most amateurs with the classics, the reward for study is going to be reading texts.
posted by praemunire at 11:54 AM on May 20 [4 favorites]

I took German for a couple years in college and forgot most of it. This course at DW is much more structured than Duolingo and, frankly, better than my 4 semesters of college German.
posted by lucasks at 12:27 PM on May 20 [1 favorite]

My university Latin courses used this textbook and it was really good. I think it would be totally fine for self-study too, as it's super clear and has good examples. It also has a pronunciation section at the beginning.
posted by thebots at 3:31 PM on May 20

Another vote for the Cambridge Latin Course. Also Greek if you want.
posted by 8603 at 3:32 PM on May 20

I am also learning German and can second lucasks’s recommendation of DW. The movie and story formats they provide are super helpful for understanding the language in context.

The Easy German YouTube channel is helpful in the same ways the DW movies are.

Finally, I needed to get a grammar textbook. Just couldn’t truly make sense of the grammar through these other methods. I have this one which is pretty good.
posted by scantee at 5:29 PM on May 20 [1 favorite]

A couple things that made Duolingo work better for me: adding the appropriate language keyboard to my phone (which adds spell-checking to avoid typos) and using the voice recognition key to speak rather than type. Also, it took me a loooong time to realize there *is* some explanatory text available at the beginning of each module (there was some cryptic button to press, now it shows up as "TIPS"). Maybe those will improve the experience for you too.
posted by Ian Scuffling at 5:45 PM on May 20

Below is my low-effort program for reviving some of my German skills, after taking a German minor etc etc in college but then not really having any opportunity to speak or use it for 35 years. But then in 2015 I took a trip to Germany & Austria, which kickstarted an interest in reviving it.

I like the Leo app & web site. It is only for vocabulary, but it provides a nice way to look up and then save and review any words you encounter that you don't recognize. Besides just vocabulary words it does have various idiomatic word groupings and phrases that involve each vocabulary word you look up.

What I found after taking a lot of German in college, various trips to Germany & Austria etc, but that were 35 years ago, is that most of the grammar & constructions comes back adequately enough. Not perfect I'm quite sure but to the point where reviewing German 101-102 type basic grammar books is a yawnfest for sure.

But the 20,000-word vocabulary, or even just the 5000 most basic words or whatever, is just pretty much gone.

BUT . . . it's gone from instant recall but not really gone-gone. In fact, it all comes back really quickly with a bit of spaced practice & review.

What I do is look up any word I can't remember/recognize in Leo. Then I save a few of (what I feel are the most relevant & important of the) various definitions that come up for it and ALSO a couple of the idiomatic phrases involving that word.

I do this with every word I encounter that I either don't know or can't remember. You can do it either via the web page or the app.

After a few days or maybe a week or two of doing this I have maybe 50-60 words saved up in Leo under "My Lists" (note that these are not actually 50-60 actually different words but maybe 20-30 different words, most in with a couple of definitions and and idiomatic phrase involving them, etc. That is part of the strategy as it makes the learning a bit more contextual). Then I go & divide that list of the newest 50-60 words off into a word practice list that I name by the date, so maybe "2020-05-20".

Looking at my Leo "My Lists" right now I have maybe 20 of those old lists. So I alternate my time between reviewing the newest/current word list and then going back & periodically reviewing some of the old lists. I try to keep with a list until I can go through it to my satisfaction getting most answers right (no certain criteria, just what I feel is good enough) then I'll put that one on the back burner again and review a different one I haven't looked at in a while.

If this gets boring in the sense that you know almost all the words in a list and it's just painful to keep going through them over and over again, then there is your clue to stop doing that.

You can review/practice the vocabulary lists on the phone app OR on the web page. It is pretty easy and fun, as such things go.

I started out by listening to the DW Langsam Gesprochene Nachrichten podcast every day and as part of that entering maybe 4 or 5 words I didn't understand or couldn't quite remember, in Leo. Then review that ever-growing list daily, as outlined above. I tried to chose the words I kept hearing over & over again but couldn't quite figure out what they meant, or the ones that seemed important for whatever reason, such as popping up repeatedly.

When I started I could understand maybe 20% of Langsam Gesprochene Nachrichten; within a month or so it was more like 90%.

So, that's one thing that is fun and easy and also useful (anything that involves getting a bit of news from some non-USA-oriented news site qualifies as useful in my book).

Learning a brand-new language I'm not sure that just concentrating on vocabulary learning is such a great idea. But for a language you already know and are just trying to bring back--it really works wonders. You can work through in a couple of days or maybe a week what would take literally YEARS to plow through the Duolingo way.

Another nice "slow speaking" podcast is Slow German.

Also, you can just go through any lists of podcast and look for German Language podcasts and pick topics you might be interested in. Remember that you can adjust the playback speed a notch or two lower if that helps. But generally if you spend 5-10-15 minutes listening to some podcast by a native speaker, understand even 5 or 10% of it, and get a list of 5 or 6 words from it that you add to your Leo list, that is a good productive learning session and a lot more fun and engaging than Duolingo and other such things, honestly.

Some of the DW podcasts are really great, particularly interview and profile type shows. A few others I listen to sometimes: WDR Hoerspiel Speicher, Global 3000, Euronews Radio, Lebenshilfe from Radio Maria Oesterreich (feed - various guests talk about everyday topics, followed by call-in which is often hilarious. But it's one of the few places you can hear more or less normal people, from various places & various levels of education, just talking in a fairly normal way about everyday topics).

The other thing I do is watch German language programs on Netflix. If you change your default language to German you'll find all sorts of German-language programs available.

You have to go in & turn the audio stream to German. Usually the choices are English, German, and maybe French, Spanish, etc. With your Netflix default language changed to German, a lot of these language options for audio and subtitles start showing up--often they don't show up for the VERY SAME SHOWS if you are just browsing with English as default language.

Not all shows have these language options, but many do. Netflix Originals are typically awesome for this, as they make a point in producing them in about 10 different languages, which nearly always include German and English.

Usually you can turn on subtitles in either German or English, whichever is most helpful. Also Leo comes out & I enter 4 or 5 or 6 new words every 10 or 15 minutes I spend watching.

That's what I did a couple of years ago when I first started doing this, anyway. Nowadays I can just watch most everyday programs, like sitcoms or whatever, and if a few words aren't quite fresh on my mind I can pick up 90% of the meaning via context, just as when watching something in English. Ofttimes those occasional words still do go into Leo, though. Something like a technical program would be a different story, though, and Leo would undoubtedly get a good workout there.
posted by flug at 11:40 PM on May 20 [1 favorite]

Duolingo is much better on the web for several reasons. The info about grammar rules is easier to access. But also, at least a year ago when I was last using it, the app didn’t have a way to test out of levels, but the web interface did.

Especially when I use it for reviewing a language I already know, but also when learning a language not so far from one I know, the ability to test out of levels is crucial for me.

It looks like with the app you can pay for this ability, but on the web interface I think you can just do it (hit the little key shape after you click on a subject). The web interface worked well enough on my phone that I worked through the first 30 or so Spanish skills each up to level five, mostly by testing out of levels and only using the regular way when I actually needed the practice.
posted by nat at 1:26 AM on May 21

German teacher with 15 years experience chiming in here: EasyGerman and the DW offerings are fantastic. If you want decent music with lyrics, check out the Goethe Institute’s Step Into German (yes it is geared toward HS kids but the video + lyrics presentation is good).

For news, check out Nachrichtenleicht and die Tagesschau in 100 Sekunden.

Viel Spaß!
posted by vkxmai at 8:11 AM on May 21 [1 favorite]

If you liked Duolingo, and could afford it, paying for using it makes it a much less frustrating experience. I persevered for ages before paying and it was better after that. But I think you’d need to feel it was something you wanted to carry on with to be worth it, and it doesn’t sound like it is for you.

As someone said, adding the German keyboard (on iOS) helped with inputting words.

After four years of using it, almost as a kind of game, a little every day, I cannot speak German. I have never been good at languages but I can’t see how anyone could learn all they need from a Duolingo alone.

I’ve used Memrise to learn some vocab too - OK but a bit buggy at the time.

I’m giving Lingvist a go at the moment, which I like, but its more for vocab rather than overall learning.
posted by fabius at 11:45 AM on May 21

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