Being Hispanic (we can debate the term later), does not automatically guarantee certain characteristics that are associated with the group. You can be culturally Hispanic, but you can be pretty pale. You can be raised in a city that is at least sixty percent Hispanic with parents who speak Spanish fluently, but still not be able to speak Spanish yourself.
This was my problem. I am both Panamanian and Mexican, with some other cultural groups thrown in for fun, and my entire adult family all speak Spanish. Growing up, I could walk into a store and hear at least two different groups conversing in Spanish. I took Spanish classes in middle school and high school for my foreign language credit. But I remain a non-speaker. I have a small vocabulary, my understanding of Spanish sentence structure is poor, and I can only conjugate verbs in the present tense. It’s annoying, and unfortunately, colors people’s opinion of just exactly “how much” of a Hispanic I am, despite growing up culturally and ethnically Hispanic. I don’t think learning the Spanish language will suddenly earn me the title of being Hispanic. I know I’m Hispanic, I know the culture I grew up in. But I do still want to learn Spanish.
I’ve tried books, I’ve tried computer programs, and I’ve tried classes specifically designed to help me learn that language, but have always lacked discipline and personal practicing ability. But this time, I may have a solution.
Duolingo is an app I downloaded when I got a new smartphone. I still don’t even know how I came across it because I know I wasn’t looking for it. However, once I realized what it was, I tried it and was hooked.
Duolingo treats learning a new language like a game. You type in your name, make an account, and whether you’re an English speaker wanting to learn a specific language or approaching English from say, French. Duolingo currently offers (as of August 2013) Spanish, German, French, Portuguese, and Italian for English speakers and the same services for those language speaker’s wanting to learn English. Duolingo separates the language into sections, and each section includes a lesson. The lessons have various activities meant to teach you new words and concepts as you progress. Early on, you start off with four hearts that are like lives. Every time you get a question wrong, you lose a heart. Lose all the hearts before you complete a lesson and you have to start over. This eventually shrinks to three as you progress.
I started out with the basics, even though I probably could have accepted the option to test out of the first few sections. I need review, and I know it. Plus, it was a solid confidence builder to pass the levels quickly, which was good for when I got to the harder levels. Everything about it is like a vocabulary game, with some additional stuff like sentence structure, and learning the accents thrown in. You have to listen to sentences being said and write them correctly.
Duolingo is based through a website, so if you want to sit at your computer and play, that works as well. The website version enables you to read articles that you supposedly can translate at your language level, updated at the end of each section. But whether you have time to sit, or play on the go, Duolingo is great. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to speak the best Spanish ever, but it’s giving me a start, and that’s exciting.