A screen shot of the free Duolingo language teaching app
By Marc Saltzman, Special for USA TODAY
If you're reading this, chances are you've dreamed of speaking another language -- but perhaps were turned off by those pricey packages or felt it would be too difficult to pull off.
Now you've got nothing to lose with an ambitious and free new app called Duolingo for iOS and Android devices.
After spending a few days sharpening my French, I can confirm Duolingo's bite-sized lessons work very well - and are quite fun, as well.
The first step to Duolingo is to create a free account (or sign in with your Facebook ID) and then select which language you'd like to learn or strengthen: Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Italian or English. All your information is stored in the "cloud," therefore you can sign in on multiple devices - like an iPhone, Android tablet or web browser on a Windows PC - and you'll pick up where you last left off.
Next up are some basic lessons to get you going, such as some nouns like "boy" and "girl," as well as a couple of pronouns (she, he, we), feminine and masculine nouns (if applicable) and some verbs (like "to eat"). You'll begin by tapping the word that matches a photo (such as a picture of a small boy for "garçon" in French) and you'll hear a human-like voice say the word out loud. Each set of drills starts with four hearts, but every mistake you make takes one away; the app will tell you the correct answer, though.
Other lessons have you translating a sentence you read and hear, by tapping from available words at the bottom of the screen, followed by selecting the missing word from the sentence, typing out the words using the keyboard and even saying the phrase into your device's microphone. If you aren't in a place where you can speak into the microphone, you can do these lessons later. There's plenty of handholding throughout, and the pace is perfect.
Once you complete a group of lessons, you'll hear a trumpet celebrate your victory, and see the number of XP (experience) points you've earned, a heart bonus (the more you have, the more XP you'll get) and your progress in chart form. You can also earn achievements as extra incentive and reward for partaking in these lessons and tests. As part of its "gamification" approach, Duolingo also shows your best words or phrases, how many days you've been advancing through the app ("4 day streak!") and an optional leaderboard to compete with friends.
As you'd expect, the lessons get a bit tougher, but you can go back to repeat previous ones. With French as an example, after the 4-part Basics lessons, you'll graduate to phrases, food and animals, followed by adjectives and plurals, and then actions, questions, conjunctions and prepositions. Next, you'll find lessons on time, places, people, feelings, and much more. You can view all the future lesson categories, but it'll be greyed out (inaccessible) until you complete the preceding lesson. It's optional, but your iOS or Android device can remind you to practice if you haven't done so in a while.
Without comparing it to other platforms, such as Rosetta Stone - also available in app form now -- Duolingo makes learning another language fun, and yes, completely free (even ad-free). Truly, this is one of the best apps of the fall thus far. Or if may say, it's "fantastique"!