From duae linguae to Duolingo

Foreign language teaching – the medieval way, with a rod, wax tablet and domination, 12th-century manuscript, France, Paris, Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, Ms. 1041

Perhaps there is some comfort for any learner struggling with the first baby steps in a given area of study that others before them shared the same struggle and walked the same path, teetering and stumbling on the way. To know you’re not alone is of greater support that one might think.

To learn a new language is hard, even when the language is a living one, spoken and heard by contemporary men and women. It’s a lot harder when the language is dead, no longer naturally spoken, surviving only as written code.

There are countless ways of learning a new language these days, both inside and outside the classroom, supervised or self-paced. Nevertheless, the average achievement rate in Western countries is quite low. Long-term learning doesn’t translate into commensurate results. In the UK, years of study of a language at school results in bare contextual (restaurant, hotel?) competency.

One of the most popular language learning tools today is Duolingo, an American app company co-founded by the Guatemalan entrepreneur and researcher Luis von Ahn.

Duolingo’s catchy name comes from Latin, meaning two languages. But I doubt von Ahn was aware, when he developed the gamefied language-learning platform, that the ancient Romans used to teach Latin and Greek to their kids in a similar way.

In her book Learning Latin the Ancient Way, Professor Eleanor Dickey of the University of Reading has shown how the method of teaching Greek to young Latin learners was done using simple words and phrases placed alongside words already known. Learning by correspondence, one step at a time, based on affinity and context. Two languages, duae linguae, the ancient Duolingo in action, the Roman way. Pupils would repeat words on the textbook page, copying them on their wax tablets. Some of these tablets survive, showing the power of repetition and consolidation. No long phrases, no complicated grammar, just an imitative game played in context. More of a conversation guide than a grammar book.

It’s doubtful any of that was gamefied in the same way Duolingo proceeds. Instead, pupils would be rewarded by, well, the absence of a smack on their hands, heads or backs. A score system that was prevalent in the ancient and medieval West.

For most of Western medieval iconography, the learning of grammar, meaning foreign language (no vernacular mother tongue was taught formally in school), was represented as a teacher holding a virga, a rod or a birch used for threatening or inflicting pain on the learner. Instead of reward points, a few bruises, instead of levelling-up, a good beating.

3 thoughts on “From duae linguae to Duolingo

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  1. I am so glad my friend linked to your site, I really enjoy it. As a bibliophile and (pre-computer) librarian, your site is like a no-calorie weekly treat.
    May I link to your blog from mine? (Wonky lifestyle, so to speak.


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