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On August 28*, 2019 Duolingo announced its Latin course for English speakers.

Out of curiosity, I subscribed, but I'm just starting to peek into it.

My question is (if anyone has tried it in depth already), what can be objectively said about it? Is it good for learning Latin? What are the ups and downs? Why?


Note: the course is—as of the time I'm writing, still in August, 2019—in beta, and maybe the answer will change with time.


*: by chance or not, feast day and anniversary of the death of St. Augustine of Hippo, a relevant author of late Latin literature

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    I read an article about it in The Times (of London) today. They mention some examples from the course, e.g. Psittacum ebrium et perfidum habeo or Forte stercus sordidum est in ponte. – Alex B. Aug 30 at 14:29
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    @AlexB.: That is rather nice. – Cerberus Aug 30 at 17:10
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I have used Duolingo for other languages, and I've now briefly tested it for Latin. There are two major issues:

  1. It goes way too fast. If the course has to be short for practical reasons, I would much rather have it stop early than go fast.

  2. The system is too inflexible at accepting translations in both directions. I am not sure if you can even reasonably enumerate all possible phrasings of a complicated sentence. As VladimirF mentions in a comment, Duolingo does not have the capacity to understand structures more flexibly. (This feels similar to the issues with Google Translate which appears to have no structural understanding.)

By the second lesson you encounter the first three conjugations, datives, vocatives, ablatives, several pronouns, and more. I don't think you're given enough time to understand the structures before new ones are thrown at you. You don't necessarily need full theoretical understanding to move forward, sure, but the pace feels counterproductive to me. First handling basic structures with care would be great; I would be happy to see only first declension feminines for the first two lessons. It appears that the rate at which new grammatical ideas are introduced is very high at first but then declines.

Errors in spelling and minor details will probably vanish in time. What can be much harder to cure is the acceptance algorithm. There can be many ways to interpret a phrase, and the program can force a narrow and possibly unnatural wording. I have seen this with other languages, but I already got the feeling that it will be worse with Latin. For example, Quid agit Marcus? had to be translated as "How is Marcus?" whereas "What does Marcus do?" was wrong. Similarly, Me male habeo is allegedly "I feel poorly" but not "I feel unwell". (This changed after my feedback. To improve the system, flag your good answers that should have been accepted.) And as cnread comments below, the system can force a word order in Latin when it is free and the forced one might not even be very natural.

I think the Duolingo can support studying Latin, but it seems to make a bad only teacher. I just completed the entire course (I wrote the first version of this answer after a couple of lessons), and I must say I am quite unhappy. In addition to the two major issues I discussed, I dislike the focus. The vocabulary is weird and often unnaturally translated, and the focus on modern United States feels very artificial. The sheer amount of poop and drunken parrots shows bad taste to me.

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    I went through the placement test and noticed that the program was also very intolerant of legitimate alternative word orders. It wouldn't accept, e.g., Minerva sapiens est as a correct answer; I would have had to enter Minerva est sapiens to get credit for the question. – cnread Aug 31 at 21:35
  • @cnread I purposely skipped the test to see how the course starts. Those word order issues are sad but not surprising. I updated the answer a bit. – Joonas Ilmavirta Aug 31 at 21:42
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    @cnread I had the same issue. I flagged the result as "my answer should be accepted" and after a few hours I received a feedback email saying my answer was now considered good – Rafael Aug 31 at 23:22
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    There is a misconception that the accepted Duolingo answers are generated by some algorithm or even artificial intelligence. That is not correct. Volunteer contributors have to add each one manually using certain templates (one entry can generate multiple sentences with variant forms). Therefore "I don't know if Duolingo has the capacity to understand structures more flexibly. (This feels similar to the issues with Google Translate.)" does not make that much sense. The immense number of possible word orders is a pain. (I am a DL contributor, but for Czech, not for Latin). – Vladimir F Sep 16 at 18:49
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    @Rafael That happens when a contributor adds certain answer and then clicks on the reports that proposed that form. A nice summary can be found in forum.duolingo.com/comment/33996642 (Trofaste does contribute to Latin, among other languages). – Vladimir F Sep 16 at 18:52
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Besides the issues found by Joonas, I'd add a few features not necessarily bad, but worth knowing in advance, for those willing to try the course:

  • Pronunciation is consistently reconstructed.
  • The examples are somewhat US-centered. Like Novum Eboracum est urbs Americana. Judging from other examples by the same collaborators, this apparently means America = United States, which IMHO is an idiom that should not necessarily be universal in Latin, just as it is not in some Romance languages like Spanish and Portuguese.
  • The choice of subjects and vocabulary is weird. For example, 1) for some reason parrots (psittaci) appear very frequently, and 2) studeo means consistently to study (which according to L&S is post-Augustan)
  • Recordings could be improved (some include unnecessary noises, for example)
  • They are not flaws. The course in in beta, so the other examples of non US city will be added later. – Quidam Oct 25 at 15:48
  • @Quidam, thank you! As I said in the question, the answer is expected to change as the course evolves. – Rafael Oct 25 at 18:29
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    Okay!That's fine (impossible to just write "ok!") – Quidam Oct 25 at 22:21
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    Parrots are a joke, this one is really enjoyed by many users, but they need to add other jokes. Could you make a comment about the "studere" being post-Augustan in the course's forum? – Quidam Nov 14 at 2:19

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