I often get people asking me “does Duolingo work?” or “is Duolingo good?” These days, it seems to be the default app on any language learner’s phone. But to be completely honest, I don’t like Duolingo. It’s not something I use in my language learning pursuits at all, and it never will be. I decided to write this post to explain why.
Duolingo is an app and desktop game which has exploded in recent years. It’s easy to see why it’s so popular. It is a fun, addictive game which rewards you for practising your language and for being consistent. Its interface has an attractive and intuitive design that is pleasant to interact with. Best of all, it’s free.
Why Duolingo doesn’t work
As someone who dedicates a good part of my life to language learning and sharing that passion with others, an app that encourages more people to learn languages and makes it easy to do so should be great news. And while I do appreciate the accessibility that Duolingo has brought to the language learning community, I think it is highly, highly overrated. As someone who is qualified in linguistics and experienced in language teaching and learning, I can say that Duolingo simply doesn’t work.
This is not to say that Duolingo should not be used at all. It is a good tool for language practice. Used in conjunction with a language course or a teacher, it’s all good. The problem is when people try to use Duolingo to learn a language to fluency.
Duolingo has always annoyed me, but I have been holding off writing anything negative about it for years because I like to keep my blog a positive place. But I decided to write this post for people who might be considering or using Duolingo to learn a language, who may not understand the science of language learning.
Does Duolingo work? My vote is for “no”. And here’s why.
It doesn’t teach grammar
The first and only time I used Duolingo, I gave up pretty quickly because it didn’t give me any explanation of the grammar used to form the sentences it was teaching. For me, that is a really important part of learning and understanding a language properly.
Honestly, the amount of times I’ve seen someone posting a screenshot of Duolingo in a Facebook group or subReddit asking the most basic of grammar questions makes me sad. There is a reason why things like the difference between el and la in Spanish or why verbs change their endings are usually the first thing taught in a normal language-learning course. It’s because you need them to form sentences of your own. You need them to understand other people.
That’s not to say that Duolingo doesn’t teach any grammar. I know they do provide lesson summaries now, as well as forum explanations. But this is still not good enough in my opinion. This is because the explanations are pretty incomplete, and they’ll never be the main focus of the lesson for most students. And while forums are good, they’re not completely reliable because the people frequenting them are mostly other learners, not experts.
It gives you no context
Sure, you can tell Duo your goals for learning the language, but still, most of the sentences or words given are completely random and don’t represent anything you’d normally say in real life. Duolingo gets you to memorise sentences that (often) have no application in the real world. The sentences and words are also given at random, instead of making up a whole coherent text or story. There is a reason why it is a lot easier to remember things you’ve learned in a conversation or while reading. Most successful language learners learn in context.
If it’s not teaching grammar, and it’s not teaching common phrases, then you have to wonder – what is it actually teaching?
It doesn’t prepare you for real-life conversations
This is the logical result of the previous two points.
The goal of learning a language is usually communication, right? To communicate, you have to not only understand what others say, but produce sentences yourself, too.
The fact that there are no real grammar lessons will make it a lot harder for you to generate sensical sentences on your own. You may try to construct something with the words you know and the sentences you’ve practised, but if you don’t understand the grammar, chances are your speech will be grammatically incorrect. This will make it harder (sometimes impossible) for people to understand what you are saying.
When the sentences that you are practising on Duolingo have no context and no real meaning, you will have to work harder to think of something meaningful to say in real-life conversations. This is because you will have spent time memorising random sentences instead of useful common expressions and phrases.
It only allows one right answer
In the translation exercises (which are the bulk of what Duolingo is about), the software is programmed to only accept one right answer. This is problematic as most languages have many ways of saying the same thing. Students who input an answer that is right but not recognised on Duolingo may think they are wrong. On the flip side, I have seen instances where learners assume they are correct but Duolingo doesn’t accept it, when in fact they are wrong. As you can see, this can cause a lot of confusion for people who are self-studying. Language is a lot more than just right or wrong. You can’t replace real people who give you feedback on your writing.
Duolingo won’t make you fluent
You may have been able to reach the top of the Duolingo tree, but have you mastered the language? I doubt that anybody has become fluent using Duolingo alone. So you’ve spend all this time completing the whole programme up to their most “advanced” level, and still you’re not even close to being able to genuinely connect with a native speaker. What’s the point? Wouldn’t you rather spend your time doing something more productive for your language learning? Wouldn’t you rather use a programme that guarantees results?
It focuses on translation
The main tool used on Duolingo is translation. This means they teach you the language by getting you to translate things from one language into another. While translation is a useful language-learning method, using it alone can lead to the inability to produce your own sentences. And a crucial part of the language-learning process is producing your own sentences. This is how your brain makes the connections on how the language is used. This is how your brain moves away from translating everything in your head, and towards thinking in the language and speaking fluently.
There are ethical questions
Duolingo is a business valued at $700 million which relies on volunteers to make its business work. The company has more than 300 volunteers who work to create content and moderate the forums. In fact, the majority of language content on Duolingo was obtained by them for free. They do pay their engineers and designers, however. (source)
This just doesn’t sit right with me. I think a business this successful, that does make money off its ads and its premium service, should value the work of its contributors. An app for language learning that particularly undervalues its language professionals, is a real tragedy for the language community. So in that sense, I think using Duolingo is a bit unethical, as you are benefiting from someone’s unpaid labour, while giving the app money (through ad revenue or by going premium).
Apps like Duolingo
There are many tools out there for learning languages that are just as fun as Duolingo and much more useful, and I wish those would get more attention.
If you’re looking for something more in-depth, check out my round-up of the best online language courses.
So have a look around, do some research, and try something different! You might find something that works much better than Duolingo.
To summarise, ethical issues aside, Duolingo is fine if you recognise it for what it is – an engaging way to practise the language you are learning. But does Duolingo work to make you fluent or properly teach you a language? The answer is definitely not.
What are your thoughts on Duolingo? Share with us in the comments!
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