Duolingo is, far and away, the most popular way to learn a language online, with over 200 million users around the world. Launched in 2011, the program offers in-depth online courses in over 30 languages and ranks as one of the most downloaded apps on both iOS and Android. In countries like Brazil and Ukraine, 5% of all smartphone owners use Duolingo.
How and why? Three reasons:
- Duolingo’s courses are free. A freemium plan is available without ads, but all users have access to the same features and course material. While the growing market for language learning programs demonstrates a clear demand, it’s also evident that most people can’t spend several hours a day studying, so it’s hard to justify paying for a platform. Also, people just like free things.
- Duolingo’s design is simple and engaging. Of all the available language learning apps, it’s hard to find a cleaner, more intuitive user interface than Duolingo.
- Duolingo is the most comprehensive online language learning platform. For the size, variety, and accessibility of its course content, Duolingo simply beats the competition.
Nonetheless, every language learner is different, and online courses aren’t one-size-fits-all. Below, we break down Duolingo basics as well as pros and cons to help you determine if it’s the right language learning app for you!
What Languages Can You Learn on Duolingo?
Duolingo offers over 30 online courses for English speakers, the most of any language learning app. The most popular include (in order):
- Latin American Spanish
- Brazilian Portuguese
Other languages offered include Russian, Japanese, Dutch, Turkish, Korean, Greek, Mandarin Chinese, and even a few fantasy languages.
Duolingo also offers dozens of courses for non-English speaking students, and users can suggest new language courses they want Duolingo to develop.
How Does Duolingo Work?
Duolingo combines machine learning, psychology (or psycholinguistics), and innovative education tools to help users learn a new language.
Once you create an account, Duolingo asks which language you’d like to learn and your skill level. For our purposes, let’s say that you want to learn French and have zero previous experience. Next, you’ll see the landing page and the skill tree, which lays out the course curriculum.
Each icon represents a language unit and consists of a series of lessons. In short, your goal is to complete each lesson in the skill tree until you reach the end. Of course, there’s more to it, because Duolingo allows learners to dive as deep into their target language as they want. Each unit has multiple levels, and users must complete unit blocks, or checkpoints, in order to unlock advanced lessons.
Lessons have three types of questions, each of which are designed to develop a specific language skill:
- Fill-in-the-blank multiple choice
- Translation (in either direction)
- Write what you hear
Generally speaking, Duolingo is designed as a learn-as-you-go app. Vocab lessons prompt you to match words with images, and built-in tools like hover text and optional word banks serve as helpful reminders (Duolingo’s algorithms determine which words you need to practice, and when). Incorrect answers in any lesson prompt an explanation as well as a crowdsourced discussion thread for every question on the app.
If you prefer an organized “textbook” approach, each unit also includes a cheat sheet that features grammar tips, conjugation tables, example sentences, common mistakes, and other helpful notes.
But lessons aren’t the only way to learn on Duolingo. The app’s extensive resource library allows students to put their knowledge to work in a variety of settings:
- Practice: Same format as lessons, but designed to integrate multiple concepts
- Stories: Short dialogues to help learners improve reading and listening comprehension skills
- Podcasts: Short audio stories from real-life speakers (currently only available in Spanish)
- Events: Attend local meet-ups with fellow Duolingo students to develop conversational skills
These are continuously updated, taking user suggestions into account, and provide a nice sandbox environment to test your skills and monitor progress and areas with room to improve.
How Effective is Duolingo?
Research shows that Duolingo can be a highly effective language learning app, and advanced technology should allow it to continue to improve. For instance, a much-cited 2012 study found that:
- 34 hours on Duolingo is the equivalent of a semester-long college course
- For each hour of study, students’ standardized tests scores improved 8 points
- 80% of students “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that they were “satisfied with Duolingo”
Additional studies have argued that Duolingo:
- Increases student engagement via gamification
- Can help students learn two languages at the same time
- Should be used in the language learning classroom
Still, for now, the data isn’t conclusive, and plenty of experts question whether Duolingo actually trumps university-level language learning.
What Are the Drawbacks to Duolingo?
Even as the most popular language learning app, Duolingo has some drawbacks.
- Mobile is subpar: Duolingo’s mobile app is far inferior to the web version. Many features simply aren’t available: grammar tips and notes, Duolingo Stories, and discussion threads are the biggest absences. At the same time, gamification is increased to the point that it’s ineffective. A “health” component (the equivalent a video game “life”) penalizes users for each incorrect answer; five incorrect answers and the lesson stops. There’s nothing like this on the web version, and for good reason: it discourages users to quit the app. You can regain health credits through practice sessions, but it’s still not clear why the feature exists in the first place.
- Computer-generated voices are inconsistent: It’s great that Duolingo emphasizes listening comprehension, but the app’s computer-generated voices leave a lot to be desired. (This is primarily a criticism of voice audio on lessons; Duolingo Stories seem to use real recordings.) To be clear, every language learning app with a voice component uses computer voices to some degree. The problem is that Duolingo’s voices often sound unnatural. For instance, pronunciation is critical in a language like French, which is full of liaisons, irregular verb conjugations, and words that sound one way but are different on paper. If voicing are garbled or unclear, the lesson is unhelpful at best and misleading at worst.
- Some sentences are unnatural: A common criticism of Duolingo is that many lessons feature strange or impractical sentences.
Vocabulary limits are part of the problem, but repeat offenses make you wonder if you’re wasting your time. For consistently practical skill development, you’ll need to rely on Duolingo Stories.
- Explanations need improvement: No language learning app has the kind of comprehensive explanations you’d get in a physical classroom or from a textbook. Still, given its reach and resources, Duolingo should have a much better system. The notes and tips sheet is a useful guide, but lesson explanations need improvement. In most cases, students have to visit the discussion thread to find in-depth explanations, which may or may not help. Crowdsourcing answers can yield a consensus, but there’s no way to verify if the explanation is actually correct unless a volunteer moderator steps in (even then, you’ll often be referred to an outside source). To become a truly self-sufficient language learning app, Duolingo needs to create a better knowledge base or provide a verification system on lesson discussion threads.
As with all online education, success on Duolingo comes down to individual commitment — how much are you willing to put into learning a language — and best practices — are you using Duolingo’s technology the right way.
So with that in mind….
What’s the Best Way to Use Duolingo?
The fact is, language learning apps aren’t a quicksilver solution to fluency. If you’re serious about learning a new language, you need a multi-pronged approach: read newspapers and blogs in your target language, watch foreign TV series and YouTube videos, listen to podcasts and popular music, and use other online courses and language learning apps. Most important, speak your target language as much as possible. (Duolingo’s mobile app includes one speech tool, but take advantage of their event page if you can.) Duolingo helps you reach a certain level of competence — according to their scoring system, Duolingo can take you to 50-60% fluency — but even that (presumably) optimistic claim acknowledges a limit.
So how do you get the most out of Duolingo?
- Don’t try to cheat the system: Let the app’s algorithms do their job, and don’t allow the instant gratification of badges and achievement bonuses be a distraction. For the most part, Duolingo has enough variables to prevent rote memorization, and the app is designed to recognize areas you need to improve. But if you’re not actively engaging in the course content, if you’re missing questions and not attempting to learn why, you’re not using Duolingo the right way.
- Take your time: You can practice language skills at a natural pace — timed practice sessions are a good tool — but don’t rush. Language learning takes time.
- Set goals and keep a schedule: Duolingo makes it easy to track your daily learning routine. Choose from five daily learning goals (a points system to measure engagement), and a widget on the home screen shows your progress. ****IMAGE 6****
You can also set daily email reminders, and earn rewards for streaks. While other gamification elements carry a distraction risk, this is a useful, motivating feature. Routine practice is one of the best ways to learn a language and get the most out of your Duolingo course.
- Take advantage of Duolingo’s learning resources:
Go beyond the lessons. It’s been mentioned several times, but Duolingo Stories is one of the app’s best resources, combining engaging content with practical skill development in reading, listening, and conversation comprehension. The design is similar to lessons:
Learners complete sets of dialogue to unlock advanced sets, and questions types remain the same:
These kinds of built-in exercises are what make Duolingo such a popular language learning app: lessons are important, but practice makes (50-60%) perfect.