Duolingo’s website carries the claim that, according to an independent study, an average of 34 hours of Duolingo are equivalent to a full university semester of language education. Since a one semester university course usually takes more than 34 hours of work, this suggests that Duolingo is more effective than an average university language course.
Duolingo offers its courses as a smartphone app and as a web based desktop platform. Their products are completely free of charge with no advertising. Duolingo’s business model is based on users simultaneously translating texts as they progress through the course. These translations are then sold on by Duolingo to third party customers.
Duolingo has won many awards in 2013 and 2014. Currently, the courses are available for learning French, Spanish, Italian, German, Portuguese, Dutch, Irish, Danish, Swedish, Turkish, Hungarian, Russian, Polish and Romanian. However, only the first six languages are currently available as a smartphone app. The others are for now just on the desktop platform.
I choose the German smartphone app to review Duolingo. I already speak German but none of the languages that I am currently learning are available on the smartphone yet. So how did I find it?
With Duolingo there are different levels which you have to progress through. You can skip through the levels by successfully completing tests (“checkpoints”) but if you fail them then you are ‘locked’ into completing each level until you reach the end of the course.
Normally, you have 3 or 4 hearts per level which means that you can make 3 or 4 mistakes before you fail the level and have to start it again.
Each level comprises of learning themed vocabulary or grammar. There are short one-line grammar explanations but most of the learning occurs through making mistakes and correcting them. The levels work your reading, writing and comprehension skills through translation exercises. There is also voice recognition software which identifies if you are ‘correctly’ pronouncing a word or expression.
1. Addictive – Duolingo has the addictive element similar to playing a video game and moving up the various levels. This made me want to come back and ‘complete’ the different levels so motivation to keep going every day using the app was not a problem at all. Several friends also confirmed they also experienced this ‘addictive’ trait to the app.
2. Intuitive (up to a point) – new elements are repeated frequently once introduced in a variety of ways so the course appeared to allow for reasonably quick comprehension of the new elements.
3. Time utilization – Duolingo is a great way to spend a few minutes playing on your phone when you are bored or have to wait around for a friend. I am believer that everybody has enough time to learn a language; some just don’t utilize their free time effectively.
4. Price – The course is free without the distractions of advertisements. It doesn’t get any better than that unless they were to pay you to learn languages.
5. “Practice weak skills” button – so that you can recap on mistakes you have been making for extra practice whenever you want.
6. Autocorrection of typos – software controls for typos (as opposed to real mistakes) which helps immensely as it’s easy (and frustrating) to make a typo and then lose a heart.
1. Unnatural – There are no natural conversations in the app so you are not exposed to the rhythm of the language
2. Low amount of vocabulary – the course is ultimately not that long so the amount of vocabulary is limited but on the other hand, it is repeated so I felt that I retained most of the new information.
3. Inadequate cultural information – There is a complete absence of any culture specific to the language being studied.
4. Voice recognition – it was not very precise nor does it give any feedback. It accepted my pronunciation as correct even when it was a long way from that of a native speaker’s.
So would I recommend using Duolingo?
Considering that the app is free to download and addictive to use, I would recommend it as a secondary learning aid. It is great to use when you have 10-20 minutes to kill, like while on a commute, as you will certainly learn something in the target language. However, it is not yet comprehensive, intuitive or effective enough to be a primary learning resource in its current form.
Michael has been an avid language learner and traveler for many years. His goal with LanguageTsar is to discover the most fun and effective ways to learn a language. He is currently learning Japanese, French and Indonesian.