Duolingo Lessons - Death by a thousand cuts
Welcome, aspiring polyglot! This has been a longtime coming and I will not waste time with too long an introduction. While there is much to be said with regards to the efficacy of Duolingo, the bottom line is, I am not a fan. If you are, I can understand why, but in this breakdown I will explain exactly why I think Duolingo is a great way to start and a horrible way to finish.
That said, if it is something that works for you and something you feel is necessary in your daily routine for you to be successful in learning your target language, then stick with it. Everyone learns differently, if you find the things available on Duolingo useful then you should continue to use them unless and until you find something you feel comfortable replacing it with moving forward.
Duolingo and Speaking Skills
One of the first things to discuss is the purported ability for apps on a phone to teach people how to speak a new language. Irrespective of your thoughts on apps, the belief that they can bring you to a point where you can speak fluidly is foolish.
There are exercises that you can do to help you learn to speak more fluidly, but without someone with whom you can converse, mastering speaking skills will come far slower than you may expect. That said, part of being able to speak is having the ability to understand that which is being said to you and this is something that Duolingo does decently. If nothing else, they nail the repetition aspect of things.
If you have ever opened the app, you have undoubtedly seen something like this, it is a screen that you will need to get used to as it is probably one of the more useful exercises Duolingo has to offer. However, before you ever get here you will be prompted with a few other options. The first thing to do, of course, is pick the language which you plan to study. Fortunately Duolingo has a vast array of available languages.
Getting started with your target language
Duolingo boasts an impressive library of 40 languages to choose from when embarking on the second language acquisition journey. It additionally lists the amount of people studying each language using the app so you can see how many potential competitors you have. With that in mind, this screen should not pose too many problems provided you have an idea of which language you want to study.
For this example we will be looking at the French option. Interestingly enough, when you are going through the starting questions they ask for the reasons you are learning a language. Whichever you choose, the courses are going to be the same. That is, unless you state that you have already studied the language before. For that reason I started at lesson 1 in the French course.
After choosing a language you will be prompted with a few more screens and these are some of the things Duolingo gets right. The first of these being artificial accountability. Most people do not take the time to really think through their language learning goals and this can cause them to stagnate quickly. It is difficult to hit a target when you are not aiming at one. If you are having trouble deciding what your goals should be, check out this previous article.
With that in mind, one of the reasons that I find these goals to be "artificial" is that they are not specific. Ten minutes per day? What does that mean? Is it 10 minutes of lessons? What if you write your lessons down? That would be one lesson per day which is next to nothing.
The reason these goals are artificial is because they actually add up to nothing when you are looking over the long term. These "goals" are not conducive to the average language learner's success. We will touch more on that in the pros and cons section, though.
Beyond picking how many minutes a day you plan to spend on Duolingo, the next thing they are going to prompt you to do is create an account, if you do not already have one, so that you can jump into competition with the other users of the app. This is another thing that works seemingly well. The idea of other people learning languages simultaneously with you is motivating, to a certain extent.
There have been more than enough instances of people finding the motivation to grind out their language learning simply to beat out the person who keeps taking top spot in the league on any given week. In fact, as a group we have taken several 1st place diamond league spots home week in and week out. However, it is not something that can be leaned on perpetually.
Additionally, the streak feature is another artificial pump up that Duolingo puts upon everyone. The idea of becoming better every day is powerful, it can get people up and moving even on the days when they really do not want to work on their language learning.
All it takes to keep this streak, though, is one lesson which can take as little as two minutes. Unfortunately, two minutes is not going to make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. For more on that, let's take a look at the things that come after the introductory quiz.
The first steps of a language learning app
Once you finish the introductory quiz which has all of nothing to do with the language of choice, you will get thrown into some basic vocabulary words. Great! Input early and often is going to be hugely important in the language learning process. However, these words are going to be drilled to the point where rather than simply recognize them, you roll your eyes at seeing them. But more on that later.
Now that the course is underway, the first few things we are going to learn are important, but the way they are presented leaves one with a limited grasp of the vast utility of these words. Among the most important of these words being the word "et" which means "and" and the word "un" which means "a" or "one" something that, unfortunately, will go undiscussed until later.
This is where we run into yet another problem. While it makes sense that every app is going to, at one point or another, make a grab for cash, the way Duolingo approaches it is something that may preclude people from continuing their language learning simply because they made a spelling error 5 times in a couple of lessons. Something like this can be especially demoralizing when starting out and the fact that it takes time, or advertisements, to get the hearts back can yank someone directly out of their study session with no promise of return.
Of course, you can buy gems to buy new hearts or you can earn gems, though it will take months to build up enough to allow you to practice consequence free for hours. Then, it is also an option to buy the full paid version of the app which ends up around the same price as other language learning apps around $60 after applying the ever present 30%-60% discount. Before pulling the trigger on any of that, though, let's work through a pros and cons list.
Pros and Cons of Duolingo
Making a list of pros and cons is a great way to figure out what your way forward looks like. This is far from comprehensive, but these are the things that stuck out in particular. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments, I would be interested to hear what your thoughts are on the list.
First, the pros - The free version
The first of the pros is something that many language learning apps share, there is a free version. There are many ways to learn a language and one of the most difficult things to do is decide which resources are and are not worth paying for during the language learning process. Unfortunately, as with much of the list of pros, there will be a reflection of them in the cons. That said, the free version of the app is something that can, at the very least, get people rolling.
Ease of access
Another pro of Duolingo is that it is similar to Apple in that it is very user friendly and provides great ease of access. People love Duolingo for the same reason they love Apple. The user interface changes, but only slightly. There are few options and the aesthetics work. In fact, because of these things Duolingo has taken the same road as Apple and begun firing off updates that are never daring, game changing, or, at this point, even advancements. It seems the only thing that the developers are concerned with is repetition.
Repetition: the crux of the Duolingo app review
One of the most important pieces of learning a new language is repetition. This is indisputable. However, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. The way that Duolingo approaches repetition, again, seems good. Unfortunately, the repetition it has people doing is rarely conducive to their longterm success.
Assuming that you are starting at lesson one, the hope is going to be that you do not mind seeing these words and phrases every day for the foreseeable future. Yes, it is important to get basic understanding of as many vocabulary words as possible, but this is probably the slowest way to go about it.
When you are forced to stare at the same words every time you open the app to get your ten minutes or your one lesson to continue your streak, no one could blame you for believing that learning a language is not a worthwhile endeavor. Fortunately, there is another pro that can help mitigate some of the damage this type of repetition does.
A saving grace that is placed at the beginning of almost every Duolingo lesson is a guidebook that will provide some additional context for the content within the lessons. It is, again, one of the seeming saving graces. For as much information as is in the guidebooks, there is much more that needs to be done in order to understand the full context of everything within each lesson. As much as it pretends to be comprehensive, Duolingo app is anything but.
The thing this app succeeds in doing is being artificially challenging. That said, if you are willing to read ahead and not only work through the lessons, the guidebooks can offer plenty of insight that is actually actionable information for your language learning. Even at lesson 1 I could access the unit 134 guidebook and this is a conversation worth reading and understanding. So, at the very least, the guidebooks for the lessons are extremely valuable respective to everything else.
This is where the artificial challenge comes in, though. Yes, the guidebooks are there and certainly some people will actually take the time to read them, but they are not pointed to during the lessons. Maybe once per unit will they even mention the guidebook, instead the focus is on repeating vocabulary words.
While a vocabulary centric approach is an incredible way to learn a language, repeating the same 10 words ad infinitum is not a vocabulary centric approach. From Unit 1 to unit 2 there are 31 lessons. In these lessons, you learn a grand total of less than 50 words.
In order to keep your streak going you need to do one lesson per day. That means, theoretically, you could learn 50 words in one month just getting to unit 2. The advantage? You will have seen the words 420 times so you certainly will not be forgetting it anytime soon.
That said, the challenge is there if you want it and it should be said that there is an option to skip to the next unit if you are feeling like things are getting too repetitive. Being able to skip units is an absolute pro of the Duolingo app and it is available to everyone, even for the free version. While the approach may not be ideal, there are rewards for consistency.
Rewards for Consistency
The main reward you will be seeing comes in the form of gems. These gems can be used to buy various things from streak freezes to streak repairs (almost begs the question, is the consistency artificial, too?) and even more hearts for when you run out. At first, they may seem like they are not adding up, but you will find quickly that you have more than enough to never have to worry about losing your streak again.
The other reward is a little flame. With it, after certain milestones there is also a recolor of the app icon, but that is the extent of your rewards for consistency. Notice that I have accumulated 500 gems after 2 days, that should give you a general idea of how many you can look forward to gathering over time. The final reward is less about the consistency and more about the accountability. That is, you can follow friends and keep up to date with their progress.
Perhaps the best feature of the Duolingo app, and one that many other language learning apps could benefit from including, is the follow your friends feature. Seeing people work everyday towards their language learning goals is motivating. There is a reason that classes attract so many people. It is nice to know you are not the only one putting in work, even if you do not know exactly what work everyone else is putting in day to day.
Tracking someone who has over a 1000 day streak can make you feel like it is worth those 5 minutes on the day when you want to open the app the least. On the other hand, seeing someone progressing through 10 levels every day can motivate you to put in more time and energy than you did the previous day. Either way seeing people develop their language skills is powerful and Duolingo gets this right. In fact, even our own community is well over 80 language learners. You can find them by searching "BowTiedOdin" in the search for friends bar if you still want to use the Duolingo app after reading this.
The Cons - Repetition to the Extreme
Now the cons list. This is where things will really begin to break down. First, we are going to discuss the repetition involved in Duolingo. While repetition is inevitable and necessary when learning languages, Duolingo takes this to the extreme which becomes counterproductive. It is similar to drinking water. Your body needs water. You need repetition with vocabulary.
However, if you drink too much water your cells become overhydrated and operate less effectively (this is a gross simplification for illustrative purposes) and the same thing happens when you fill your brain with the same 25-50 words every day for a month. You will be able to recall those words, yes, but since there are so few of them rather than being limited in what you can say by which words you can or cannot recall, you will be limited in what you can say by which words Duolingo saw fit to place in any given lesson.
This amount of repetition is great at the beginning, but once you have been going for over a month you will be getting repetition, in theory, from every other source of input you seek out. If you even think about using other media to supplement your language learning, and you should, you will find that your language skills quickly surpass your purported level within Duolingo. But since the app follows a standardized path forward it is possible that by leaving and learning several new things and coming back you will end up paradoxically ahead and behind. You may understand full paragraphs when reading novels, but going back to Duolingo might reveal why certain grammar rules act as they do when they do.
Any app that wants to be successful in teaching a language is going to need to find a way to synthesize outside input because no app can teach a language in and of itself. Beyond that, one of the most important pieces of a language is the alphabet. While the Latin alphabet is shared across many languages, the sounds are not and the lack of a French alphabet lesson is quite the let down. What can and should be said is the Cyrillic alphabet course is quite phenomenal.
Of all the things I can say to tear down Duolingo, their alphabet course for Cyrillic was phenomenal. Within three days I was able to read, however slowly, Cyrillic and write words in Cyrillic script. That is why there was such disappointment upon finding that there is no French alphabet course. From what I was able to find in searching after, the only way to get the Latin alphabet into your curriculum with Duolingo is to download a separate app called DuolingoABC which is aimed at teaching children age 3-6 to read. Disappointing, especially considering how important mastery of the alphabet is when it comes to the development of language skills. Beyond the alphabet, the worst part of Duolingo, at least the free version, is the ads.
Stagnation by advertisement
One of the worst things that can happen when you are in the middle of studying a language is being yanked out of it by some form of outside stimulus. Unfortunately, Duolingo's free version is excellent at breaking concentration as you will be faced down with an advertisement at the end of every lesson. That is 30-60 seconds of advertisements for every 2-5 minutes of lesson work. While I understand the goal is to get people to pay, doing it by wasting their time indefinitely rubs me the wrong way. Rather than offer more value for a paid version, they are essentially selling you back your own time.
This also ties into the heart system, which we will discuss next, in that you can buy more hearts with your time. With everything there are ways to get more gems, more hearts, more everything by spending your time, which is not a currency that should be used to buy things in an educational app.
Learn a language takes enough time as it is without 20-30% of that time being wasted staring at an ad for some obscure game you will never even think about downloading. Aside from breaking the flow of your study, advertisements, wasting your time, acting as a sales point, is just another way Duolingo places artificial constraints on people.
The dark side of artificial challenges
As mentioned above, the challenges encountered when using this downloaded education app are by and large artificial. All of the things that are "challenging" are related to completing a certain amount of "quests" each day. These quests are usually completable with 3 or fewer lessons; and as mentioned above, 3 lessons will provide you with maybe 5-10 new words in your target language. That is assuming you are at the beginning of the new unit, too. Therein lies the problem.
Let's say you do Duolingo enough to keep your streak for 1000 days. That means the app has been telling you for over 3 years that you are doing everything right and you are successfully completing challenges only to turn around and be unable to speak the language.
That is why artificial challenges are so ineffective. Without actually challenging your ability and pushing you to pursue more challenging things you can be stuck in A2 limbo forever. Able to come up with sentences, but unable to effectively express yourself. But how can you challenge yourself when you are limited to 5 mistakes, no matter how limited, every hour?
The heart system
Anyone who has ever learned a new language is well aware of the fact that mistakes are part of the game. When you are limited to making 5 mistakes, even if one of those is a basic spelling error, you may find yourself yanked out of your lesson sooner than you wanted to be.
If this happens several times over the course of a few days, you may soon begin to wonder if Duolingo is really worth your time. It is important to correct your mistakes, but the way it is set up in the app many of the mistakes you make are ones that even native speakers would not notice if you were speaking with them.
You can, of course, buy more hearts with your time if you do not feel like waiting for them to regenerate on their own. Either way, Duolingo implicitly punishes people for their mistakes by taking their time. Again, this is not an equal exchange of currency.
It is always possible to upgrade to the paid version of the app to escape all of this, but that is solving a problem that should not be there in the first place. Just another example of how artificial challenges are advantageous to the developers and not the users. That said, they recently added a new feature where you can "practice" to earn hearts.
While this could, generally, be a useful it is more than likely just another way to get people repeating the same 5 words and memorizing articles. Almost like they are back in public schools. Perhaps it is inevitable when attempting to standardize things to tests that it comes back to bite in this sort of way.
Both public education institutions and Duolingo operate with the intention of providing students a way to pass standardized tests to prove their abilities. Both public education institutions and Duolingo also are accused of not teaching useful words and phrases. Perhaps this is a feature, not a bug, of teaching to a test.
The Voices Problem
One of the major pitfalls of most people when they are learning a new language is that they fall into the trap of always listening to the same orator. In this case, Duolingo offers 5 or 6 different AI voices. Due to the ways these voices operate, if they are the only things you are hearing in your target language, you will find that when speaking to native speakers your language skills leave something to be desired.
After a certain amount of time listening to the same voices over and over again, especially computer generated voices, you may begin to build up some false confidence. This is good, if you understand that talking to native speakers is going to be drastically different. Most people, however, do not realize this until it is too late.
Needless to say, the speaking exercises are also less than ideal. Unfortunately, there will likely never be a software that can teach someone to speak like a native speaker because software and computers generally struggle immensely with understanding context. That is why most people who spend years on Duolingo inevitably take the next logical step and begin working with a live instructor who speaks the language natively. Ultimately, with all the negative things that can be said about Duolingo, the reality is that beginners are likely to get quite a great deal of value from it. Unfortunately, that is where the benefits end.
Does Duolingo Work for Intermediate and Advanced Learners?
For anyone who has surpassed the entry level of language learning, Duolingo is going to be more of hindrance than an aid. It will demoralize you because you used the wrong article, it will bore you because it is not challenging, and it will waste your time with endless advertisements. The simple sentences and broken speaking exercises will not be conducive to your success with your target language. Duolingo is a great language learning app for entry level language learners, but its value plummets with experience rather than raising as you delve deeper into your target language.
While you will learn some new words in your Duolingo lessons, your listening comprehension would be better trained by watching your favorite television show or movie in your target language. Not to mention there will be less commercials during a movie than there are when using this free app. It is great to be able to go at your own pace, but hat is not something Duolingo offers.
You can certainly knock out a few lessons, you will not be learning vocabulary at the pace you could be learning it at because even getting the correct answers will begin to feel like a slog after just ten minutes. After jumping 70 units we are only just touching on the gerund, something that should be at least introduced in the first month of language learning.
By the time you are at the intermediate level, your progress should be much quicker and the content you are consuming should be far more engaging. Simple sentences are great starting out, but Duolingo refuses to add in complexity. Artificially challenging people and making them feel good is more important than actually challenging them, risking their bruised egos, and successfully teaching everyday language.
Advanced learners may find that their learning style simply does not work with what Duolingo offers. If you have been spending months learning a language you will probably want to strengthen skills you already have rather than repeat vocabulary you already know. Of course, any language learning app is going to have its drawbacks, Duolingo's seem to particularly affect the intermediate level and advanced language learners.
Good for Practice, Not Always for Learning
All of the above said, one of the things Duolingo may just be perfect for is maintenance of languages. Provided you already speak the language and do not need to suffer through a broken speaking exercise, Duolingo can be highly effective for maintaining the languages you already know.
Once you know a language, the most important thing you can do is give your brain enough reason to keep it at the forefront. Give your brain enough stimulus to ensure you do not forget that which you have already learned.
Duolingo is great at providing input and the ability to jump levels is enough to keep your attention to detail sharp. After all, even missing the article will cause you to lose one of those precious hearts; and when you are working to jump levels you only get 3, not 5.
A language app is never going to teach you a language. It can, however, ensure you do not lose the language skills you spent your time developing. As previously mentioned, too, using Duolingo may end with you understanding different components to the language that you knew from reading and speaking, but did not really understand.
You can only learn some vocabulary and phrases
The learning path provided on Duolingo suffers from one perhaps less foreseen issue, too. It has become far too gamified. Yes, some people prefer to play a game than study, but eventually it can feel like you are only playing a game and not learning anything. This structured unstructured teaching method is yet another thing that tends to hinder learning progress more than it helps. Most students understand that when they are working on language learning there is going to be some sort of test at the end. With Duolingo, though, you will learn phrases like this you will never use, in all likelihood.
Whether that is a placement test, a standardized proficiency test, or a work fluency test for a career based raise, the lack of structure can be overwhelming. Most people want to have some form of structure, even if they do not admit it and the Duolingo courses seemingly have no structure to them whatsoever, though they claim to follow the CEFR European proficiency standards. Simple sentences aside, the game aspect of Duolingo is how they get away with the sheer amount of artificial challenge they pack into such a small amount of progress.
It is only for beginners and not meant for Advanced learners
If you are just starting out, trying to grasp basic conversation, Duolingo might be helpful. That said, most language apps will probably be helpful for the average beginner. You will be able to learn vocabulary while using the most downloaded education app, but beyond the basic words and phrases there is not much to be found.
There are listening exercises to help with listening comprehension, but using audiobooks and television shows or YouTube videos and podcasts would be more beneficial. Listening to native speakers will always be better than listening to computer generated language courses.
The average language learner is going to find these things interesting, at first, but soon they will grow tiresome and the artificial challenges will not be enough. Not only that, but the time investment already required for learning a language is immense, adding more time to that through advertisements as a punishment for mistakes, or worse as a punishment for not buying the premium version of the app, makes little to no sense. Especially when you will be barely reaching B1 level by unit 77.
If you are going to use Duolingo, the best way in our opinion is by using an adblocker desktop. In the app itself you will not have a way out of watching every advertisement they throw at you, but with the adblocker browser you can get away with it for quite some time.
Most language learners would be better served by something different that actually addresses the things they need to improve in order to reach the next rung of the proficiency ladder. Duolingo has become a household name, but mostly because it was one of the first to enter the phone application space. Now, ten years later we are faced with the same broken speaking exercise that the first Duolingo Spanish course had to offer.
There was a time when Duolingo was making positive changes and they were certainly headed in the right direction until they pivoted to address standardization. However, with how many language learning programs are now available, Duolingo is beginning to feel like a relic of the past the simply refuses to evolve into something worthwhile.
Whether it is the money grabs, the time sink, or the attempts at standardization that are dragging it down, the one thing that remains certain is that there are better options out there. One of those options is Babbel, the next app we will be looking at in this review series.
While much of my time has been spent on Duolingo and suggesting Duolingo to people who are looking for a good jumping off point, it is not something that can produce long term results. For further proof of this, pay attention to the people boasting 400+ day streaks (over a year!!) without being able to speak, read, or write at a B2 level.
There is certainly no duration that is more or less appropriate for learning a language, if you study the same language every day for 400 days, you should have an expectation of yourself to be able to pass the B2 proficiency exam. That said, everyone's goals are different and everyone has a learning style that is unique to them.
If Duolingo works for you, then use it. Do not discount anything simply because it does not work for other people. Moral of the story is, do what works for you. However, do not spend hours and days of your life doing things that are not conducive to your success.
Becoming bilingual is difficult, but you can do difficult things and become great, so go do difficult things and become great. Language acquisition requires time, effort, and consistency. That said, it is something that anyone of any age is more than capable of accomplishing. I’ll be here rooting for you and watching your progress.