[App review] — Duolingo (Korean)
**NOTE** It was brought to my attention that this is a public beta release and the course still sin’t totally complete. I saw no indications of that on the app when I started the course, and I feel that many others will likely start the course not aware that it’s a beta. Anyway, even in light of this information I feel like my criticisms are still valid. Once the course is given a final release, I will go back and do a new review.
The Korean Duolingo is finally out. Korean learners and would-be learners have been going a bit crazy about it ever since… pretty much ever since it was announced! If you happen to hang around the Korean subreddit on Reddit, you would know that posts hyping the Korean Duo come up fairly often. I know a lot of people love Duolingo and have great expectations and high hopes for the Korean Duo. So, how does it do?
Have you ever had that feeling like you know you should feel disappointed but you just feel apathetic instead because you weren’t expecting enough to even be properly disappointed? That’s exactly how I feel about the Korean Duo. I had played around with the Japanese Duo and found a few errors and oddities and just a lack of good information about the grammar, to the point that if I hadn’t already had a little background in the language, I probably would have given up far longer before I did. I was expecting a similar outcome for the Korean Duo, but at the same time I really was hoping for the best because, while the amount of Korean learning resources available is increasing, there still just isn’t that much quality material out there. Korean Duo, unfortunately, is not quality material.
I’m just going to take you with me step-by-step through the first few levels (I’m writing this review as I go through them, though I will likely add in little notes and edits when I do my final post clean-up) so you can see what problems cropped up.
From the very starting stages, learning Hangul, it fails the learner. First of all, it uses romanization when it could very well just do a sound-symbol pairing… but I won’t waste space here complaining about why romanization is awful when I’ve already done that recently. From the beginning, there is no indication that Korean’s writing system, Hangul, is alphabetic. Instead, it gives you full syllables and you’re supposed to just intuit that there’s a certain formula to building those syllables because they sure don’t let you know. The way they present Hangul makes Korean look like it uses a syllabic writing system rather than an alphabetic one, and as I poked through the levels, I could just imagine some total Korean newbie writing every last syllable down with the romanization to try to remember them individually when they could learn Hangul a lot more efficiently in other ways. Also, some of the syllables that they gave, since they insisted on teaching Hangul with full syllables, could have been taught as vocab in their own right (꽃 flower is one example) but instead, it just had you matching “꽃” with romanization instead of connecting it to something meaningful :/
Another thing I didn’t like in the Hangul-learning levels (and just in general) was the awful robotic voice. If you want to teach people how to speak a language so they can, in theory, then go out and use it with other real humans, please use a real human voice for your recording! Especially in the Hangul-”learning” section, some of the vowels of the syllables sound really bad, and in general stringing sound files of words being read in isolation (once you get to making sentences) is not good when you want to approximate how people actually speak. Some of the sentences aren’t completely awful, but they’re still pretty awkward.
Picking up some words
Let’s move on… your first few words are “milk, child, raincoat, and doughnut” and then you get into this weird loanwords section. Maybe Duolinguo got some sponsorship or corporate backing, because after the four words previously mentioned, your next words are “Starbucks, McDonald’s, Samsung, and Hyundai” :] Never mind that the proper English translations “Samsung” and “Hyundai” don’t match the romanization that they just had you using to pair syllables with…?? So I can see a new learner getting confused about why “Samsung” isn’t 삼숭 and why “Hyundai” isn’t 현다이. The next section does give you more useful words, but I’m wondering why they didn’t just start with those in the first place.
Once you get out of all the Hangul-”learning” parts, you start with basics, which is simple “X is Y” sentences. They start with 하십시오체, which I will give them props for, but there is no mention of formality levels at all. Also, there is no explanation at all of the nature, usage, and meaning of particles… and they drop a lot of particles in Basics 1 and 2, including -이/가, -은/는, -와/과, and -에. Does something so vital to Korean grammar not deserve teaching? And there is no explanation of 이다 either—you are just given 입니다 as an attachment to nouns to remember that way. I suppose it does fall in line with Duolinguo’s method of just giving you chunks to learn, but that’s not an effective way to learn them at all, especially -이/가 vs -은/는.
On to Common Phrases… and suddenly we have both 하요체 and 해체/반말 mixed in with 하십시오체??? I had three questions in a row that went from “안녕하세요! 만나서 반갑습니다” to “환영합니다” to “고마워.” No explanation of formality levels, AGAIN. They do introduce 고맙습니다 in the same level but there’s no actual explanation of the importance of keeping your formality levels in check.
This is all the material covered up to the first checkpoint. Over the next few days I’ll work ahead more and maybe write a bit more on this, but I just wanted to test the first few levels to see if it provides a decent base for beginners to the Korean language. It falls far short of that, and I wouldn’t recommend that anyone with a serious interest in learning Korean use this as their starting point (if at all). Sorry, Duolingo!
I’ll leave you with what (I think?) was an attempt by the developers to be witty that just didn’t make it there.
Happy studying (just not with Korean Duo, please!)~