What is Duolingo ?
Duolingo is a language learning platform launched in 2012 that includes a website version and an app version, all the language courses on Duolingo are free of charge. Nowadays, if you ask someone what’s the best app to learn a language, 9 times out of 10 most people will answer with Duolingo. Over the years Duolingo has become extremely popular, but why? Well, mainly due to the fact that Duolingo is completely free and it’s gamification style is really popular with todays users. But is Duolingo useful? Is it effective? In this review I hope to shed my opinions on these questions.
Duolingo has a great design, and a logo that we can all remember. Navigating the app and the website is a breeze, I’ve found the userface to be extremely user friendly which helps. When you select a language to learn on Duolingo, you’re essentially presented with a skill tree type of design, and the further you work down the skill tree, the more advanced concepts and words you’re given until you get to the end and are presented with your ‘golden tree’, all the skills that you’ve learned fade over time and require the user to strengthen them regularly.
Duolingo is cleverly gamified, aimed at keeping you motivated and obviously to keep using the app, this is done in a few ways. Firstly there are daily goals that the app tries to get the user to achieve, you can choose from 5 options, these vary from basic (1 XP per day) to Insane (50 XP per day). You’ll get daily notifications (if you’re using the app), reminding you to complete your daily goal. Secondly, Duolingo uses a virtual currency called lingots which ressemble red gems, you earn these completing by; levelling up, finished a skill or by completely 10 day streaks. You can also use these lingots to access bonus skills, the ability to freeze your streak, wager lingots by maintaining a streak, or dress up your owl. Thirdly, there is a leaderboard, this is integrated with facebook, so you can follow your friends and compete against each other, or just follow random users. Lastly there is a ‘fluency meter’, which gives the user the percentage of fluency they have in the language they’re learning. Take this percentage with a grain of salt, the word fluency itself is rather subjective nowadays, I’m not sure what algorithm is used, but I don’t find it extremely useful, and I think it might mislead people into thinking their level of fluency is higher than it actually is.
App vs Site
There are some fundamental differences between the website platform and the app platform of Duolingo. The website is definitely the better of two, why’s that I hear you ask? Firstly on the website you have access to the words page, this page basically just lists all the words you have learned, and gives you an indication by means of a bar, which shows you the words that you know well and ones not so well. Secondly, there is the discussions page, which is probably the thing I’ve found to be the most useful feature so far, on this page you can search various questions or one can start a new discussion if there’s something you’re not sure about. When you are in the testing mode of Duolingo and you get a question either correct or wrong, you have an option to click on ‘discuss’ down the bottom, this will take you to another page, where people are discussing that particular sentence, I found this feature really useful if there was something in a sentence I didn’t understand. Another point of why I prefer the site over the app is the explanations, something missing completely from the app version. When you start a new grammar point, you’re given tips and explanations, tables to help you understand and comprehend the new grammar points and this seems to be sadly missing from the app version.
The App benefits from the addition of Bots, these bots put you through scripted conversations, from border control, buying some clothing, searching for a room-mate and many more, you can either use the mic, or just type the answers out by hand. Although highly scripted I think it’s a good idea for Duolingo to add more of these bots to allow users to practice the skills they’ve learned rather than just keep doing the standard repetitive multi-choice, match the pairs, dictation exercises. The app also benefits of Clubs, you can make a club with your friends or join one if you have a code, it’s a great way to keep each other accountable.
Both the app and the website have positives and negatives, I think that the website is better for learning new skills mainly due to the discussions feature and explanations while the app is better suited to revising skills, just because it’s more practical to just open it up on your phone and strengthen a skill for a couple of minutes.
Duolingo uses text to speech software or speech synthesizer. I haven’t tried every single course on Duolingo, but from what I’ve read the quality of the audio varies from course to course, however I have some thoughts after finishing the French tree. I’m not a huge fan of text to speech (tts) especially when learning a language, because tts simply doesn’t sound natural. It sounds robotic, the intonation and rhythm are just off. These things are important when learning a language, you need to learn the intonation patterns, unless you want to sound like a complete foreigner. The major issue I had was that sometimes the audio was just difficult to understand, and I know it’s not just me, I’ve shown some of the audio to some native French speakers who also had a bit of trouble deciphering them. However despite the text to speech audio, I’d still prefer that they include it rather than exclude it, it gives you a general idea of the pronunciation, and I assume it’s more practical when adding new language courses, than finding people to manually record each phrase.
Type of Exercises
Many of you might be aware of the various websites dedicated to the rather bizarre sentences (check out here and here) that Duolingo comes up with. I myself came across a fair few of these how shall we call them? Rather interesting sentences… I don’t have a huge problem with these, but I would prefer to be learning things that are more practical in regards to everyday life rather than; My horse doesn’t eat rice, Are the animals Spanish? And horses eat bread. I can’t remember the last time I asked for the nationality of an animal, but hey never know right?
Is it Useful and Efficient ?
You’re still here? Nice, well then two questions remain, firstly, is Duolingo useful? and secondly is it efficient? Answering the first question, I definitely think Duolingo can be useful when initially starting out in a language, and should be used in conjunction with other language learning resources. You shouldn’t exclusively use Duolingo to learn a language, if you do then I think you’re wasting the majority of your time. You’re not going to get fluent simply by doing 10 minutes of Duolingo everyday. I don’t think using Duolingo by itself is a recipe for success, even if you finish the Duolingo tree, you’re probably looking at have an A2 level at most.
Is Duolingo an efficient language learning tool? Yes, well during those first stages when you’re dipping your toes in the language, but that’s only good right at the beginning, after a while you’re going to need to take the plunge into authentic materials e.g. news, books, radio, tv shows and conversations. Basically the higher level you are in the language, the more of a waste of time and inefficient Duolingo will be, your time would be better spent elsewhere.
Free – The fact that it’s completely free is great, especially in the age where most apps come with in-app purchases. I think it will also encourage a lot more people to give learning a foreign language a go, as they have nothing to lose.
Available Languages – Duolingo boasts a large selection of languages to choose from, at the time I’m writing this 24 are available for English speakers, and 6 in the process of being made. I would prefer that they focus more on delivering courses for real languages than man made ones like Klingon and High Valyrian, but I guess it makes Duolingo unique in a way.
Community – There is a large and helpful community behind Duolingo thanks to its large user base. I like the fact that each sentence on Duolingo has it’s own discussion board, so everyone can discuss certain problems they encounter, I’ve found it to be a great supportive environment for learning a language.
Motivating – I think that the combination of gamified features to be motivating, whether that be the leaderboard to compete against your friends or other users, The Daily XP goals, streaks and earning lingots to spend on bonus skills or to dress up your owl. For those that struggle keeping up their motivation Duolingo could potentially be useful.
Text to Speech – Text to Speech software still isn’t great, don’t get me wrong, the technology has came a long way, but I think audio is a very important aspect for a language learning tool. Sometimes it’s just too hard to make out sentences due to the robotic nature of the voice andthe unnatural intonation isn’t the best if you’re trying to improve your pronunciation.
No App offline mode – This doesn’t really affect those of you using the website, but the time I found myself mainly using Duolingo was during my dead-time away from home, such as time spent commuting, and it would be awesome to be able to download courses or skills offline instead of having it suck my precious monthly data allowance.
‘Fluency’ level meter – The included Fluency level indicator is putting it nicely just rubbish. I have no idea how they work out your so called fluency level, but as I mentioned earlier take it with a grain of salt.
Translation Heavy – Duolingo is translation heavy, the majority of testing is just translating various phrases from or into your target language. This is great for writing and reading, but not so much for speaking. It’s great that they’ve introduced conversation bots to the app, but it’s a feature still missing on the desktop version.
Weird Sentences – A lot of the sentences are just so random and completely useless for everyday use, I really would prefer to be learning things that might be of some beneficial use.
Duolingo is a great way to dabble in language that you want to learn. However it shouldn't be used as a primary learning tool, and is only really useful in that initial phase, after that you're better off delving into authentic material.