How much do you remember from whatever foreign language you took in high school? If you’re like most people, you probably don't remember much. Even if you devote a couple of years to one, a couple of years of disuse will cause whatever proficiency you acquired to vanish. But there are plenty of good reasons to either pick up your old language again, or start a new one—not least of which is that it gives you the chance to add another useful skill to your resume, and maybe get jobs in cities (or countries) you hadn’t considered before.
The problem with the process, however, is that it’s time consuming and expensive. You may need weeks to get good with just the basics, and services like Rosetta Stone, probably the best-known software solution, can run you multiple hundreds of dollars—money you either may not have, or might not think will deliver a worthwhile return on your investment. With Duolingo, which is free—yes free—you have no such excuse.
Duolingo is kept no-fee by using your exercises to translate actual pages on the Web, making it more useful and readable for everyone. But if you’re concerned that this crowd-sourcing approach won’t do as much for you as the for-pay packages will, don’t be. I’ve studied Spanish with both Rosetta Stone and Duolingo, and got at least as good an education with the latter—in fact, because I learn more readily with in-depth grammar explanations than I do by only immersion, I’d argue that Duolingo actually taught me better. It’s not as polished or slick, true, but it does its job and does it well.
This isn’t to say there aren’t any limitations on Duolingo. As of this writing, there are only four languages (French, German, Portuguese, and Spanish). You can “test out” of a lesson that’s too easy for you, but there’s no other effortless way to skip ahead if you’re covering familiar territory; many of the “big boys” are better able to tailor your lessons to your specific needs and experience. And whether you use the Web version or the excellent iPhone app, you have to have an active data connection of some sort—there’s no way to do anything offline.
But these are (very) small prices to pay for the high-quality instruction Duolingo gives you at otherwise no cost. You’ll still need to invest serious time and study, just as you do when you’re learning a role, but once you’ve progressed further you’ll have a new ability—and a new understanding of the world and the people in it—that will last, and benefit you, for a lifetime.