By Daniel Rubino
December 30, 2014

For our eleventh day of 12 Days of Hidden Gems, the free language learning service Duolingo is our pick. Duolingo arrived on Windows Phone on recently, and it received a significant update in the last week.

So why are so many people excited over Duolingo? We are going to find out.

The problems of language learning

In my former life, I studied language acquisition and the neural basis of thought and speech. In fact, I was even working towards a Ph.D. before life took some unexpected turns. The point being that language learning is close to my heart in terms of interests, even though it may surprise people that I am technically monolingual.

The reason for my monolingual status is as much cultural as it is biological. In the US, second languages are optional until high school for many. This ties into neuroplasticity, as it is well known that late language learners (after puberty) have a harder time learning a second language. In fact, children are rarely 'taught' language, rather they acquire it through innate mechanisms known formerly under the theory of universal grammar.

However, I digress.

Language learning as an adult is challenging, tedious, and is often treated more like a skill compared to how children acquire language. As a result, there is an industry out there to help adults learn languages while they get on with their busy lives.

Immersion aka living in a country with a foreign language is the best way to take on another language, but for most of us, this is not an option. Step in Duolingo to lend a hand.

Duolingo: Language learning gamified

Duolingo (Duolingo.com) is yet another approach to trying to learn a language, but it does in a currency that many of you are familiar with: smartphones. Duolingo uses a gamified skill tree and experience points (XP) to get people interested in learning. If those terms sound familiar, they are directly borrowed from modern gaming, and they serve as motivation/goals for users to push forward. Yes, there is even a Duolingo currency called 'Lingots' that you can acquire to 'buy' things.

Just how popular is Duolingo? For one, it has already reached 50 million users as of late 2014. Apple also gave Duolingo its iPhone App of the Year award in 2013, the first time for an educational app. It is also the most downloaded education app on the Google Play store in 2013 and 2014. Now, it is available for Windows Phone.

The service and app are completely free, which may raise eyebrows – How do they make money? There are no tricks or frauds here. Duolingo runs a crowdsourced translation side business to interpret documents and websites. They make deals with big companies, including CNN, to do translations and in turn, the Duolingo language learning service is free. Carnegie Mellon University professor Luis von Ahn and his graduate student Severin Hacker, not some venture capital group, created the service.

Duolingo app for Windows Phone 8.1

The Duolingo app for Windows Phone arrived in late November 2014, already racking up over 5,000 reviews averaging a massive 4.7 (out of 5) rating.

At just 2 MB, the app is fast, fluid, and natural to use. New users can log in through Facebook or create an account through the app. Once completed, you can choose which language you would like to learn, including Danish, German, Dutch, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, and Irish.

How much effort do you want to put into your daily lesson? You choose from five different levels ranging from 'Basic' to 'Insane'. The higher the commitment, the more experience points ('XP') you can earn. Goals can be changed at any time through Settings.

With each lesson (or test), you start with three hearts; make a mistake, and you lose a heart. Lose all three, and you have to start the lesson over.

Duolingo for Windows PhoneDuolingo for Windows PhoneDuolingo for Windows Phone
Duolingo for Windows PhoneDuolingo for Windows Phone

Duolingo operates by giving you various lessons, including picture picking, filling sentences, and audio translations. Sometimes the 'complete the blanks' have pre-chosen words that you tap to choose, other times you have to type it in, which increases the difficulty. Progress is measured by a bar at the top and feedback (correct, incorrect) with explanations is nearly instant.

Acquiring Lingots or the Duolingo currency, is achieved by completing various tasks including leveling up, finishing a skill, inviting friends and more. Lingots are used to unlock extra features in the Duolingo Store like "Learn words and phrases to talk about Christmas traditions in Spanish speaking countries", flirting, or picking up new idioms. In short, they are fun 'bonus' features to help complete your language learning skill set.

I have only been using Duolingo for a short time. File me under 'did not know this existed'. Like others, I am profoundly impressed. The Windows Phone app is well designed, lets you pin your languages for quick access (you can choose more than one language to learn).Duolingo does make picking up a new language fun without feeling like you are doing work because it approaches the task as a game.

Duolingo is free, has a low barrier for signing up, no ads, and can help make you a worldlier person. Go grab the Windows Phone 8.1 app to try it! If you are on your PC, you can also continue your lessons on the web at www.duolingo.com.

Win a Razer Kraken gaming headset in the 11th day of Hidden Gems!

There are just a couple days left in our 12 Days of Hidden Gems series. We've covered a broad range of subjects including fitness accessories that work well with Windows Phone and Windows 8.1, the connected home, some great travel apps, cameras for capturing all of life's adventures, super fun games, an app to keep you in touch with people that matter, and an app for taking your music everywhere you go. You can catch up on all of the articles to date on our Hidden Gems page.

Today is the 11th day and we're taking Duolingo for a spin. It's always a good time to learn a new language, and Duolingo is both convenient to use and totally free!

Enter to 1 of 10 Razer Kraken gaming headsets

There are two ways to enter the sweepstakes, and both need to be completed using the widget to the right/above. Full terms and conditions can be found here.

First chance to win: Log in to Windows Central and leave a quality comment on this very article. How would learning another language make your life better?

Second chance to win: Use the widget to share the article on Twitter including the hashtags #HiddenGemsApp and #sweeps, and feel free to add your own words too. Remember to use the widget to send the tweet, otherwise you haven't entered.

Once you've entered by leaving a comment or tweeting (or both!), you can refer your friends and earn up to ten additional entries when they enter. That's a total of 12 entries into the sweepstakes! The sweepstakes runs through the end of the year, and the winners will be announced in January. Good luck everyone!

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