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Not for someone who needs to learn a language quickly
Requires external practice to master a language
My teenage brother isn't allowed to play online games. So he plays Duolingo.
The popular language-learning app gamifies learning with bright colors, shiny medals, and sound effects (ping, whoosh, ta-da). It's free, and it gives constant positive reinforcement. There's an audible back and forth. Some prompts require you to speak in order to make it to the next question. You read, you actively recall what you've learned through in-app quizzes, and you learn.
Still, Duolingo's gamification is not for everyone. Serious learners may find the program to be overly quizzical, vexed by the idea of levels and a progress system. In this review, I'll approach it as a complete beginner on different platforms and walk you through my impressions, including whether or not I think Duolingo alone can help you become proficient in a new language.
Do not need to create an account right away to start learning
How language learning works
Duolingo on desktop
A great aspect of Duolingo is that you don't have to sign up right away to start learning. I decided to start with Spanish on my desktop and I had two options: Complete the intro lesson or take the placement test. My high school Spanish skills were many years out of use, but I tried to dust them off to take the placement test. It's about five minutes in length and it gets progressively harder. After a couple of minutes, I opted instead for the intro lesson. Completing the placement test can unlock many levels that you may have already mastered, giving you a leg up in the learning process.
The first question of the intro lesson made me appreciate the diversity of the characters. The background wasn't distracting and the question was clearly legible. The visuals helped me figure out the question. Duolingo doesn't strike me as an intimidating platform to start learning a language.
After the multiple-choice question, I had to answer a writing question, with blocks like "the" "man" and "woman" in place to prevent written typos on my part. I found the blocks to be a clever design tool. I also liked that you could hear the Spanish words spoken aloud. It made the experience feel multidimensional, and it encouraged me to try pronouncing the word myself -- as many times as I needed to to get it right.
Then came encouragement: A cute little green bird praising me for getting five questions right in a row! Thank you, little bird, that is amazing.
Another type of question I saw was a listening question. I had to tap the screen to hear the audio and then I wrote down what I heard.
I appreciate the simplicity of the online interface. There's just enough information to encourage you to pay attention and the positive feedback keeps you going.
Would the positives of Duolingo's web version hold true on its iPhone app? Yes, and I actually had a better experience on my phone than on my desktop. At the welcome screen, I started right away instead of logging in. The option to get started without disclosing my personal information immediately establishes trust. It gives me the power to test the technology and decide if I want to sign up.
There are a lot of languages available, but I wanted to try a language that I had no familiarity with at all to model how a beginner would approach the app. So I chose Chinese -- I've always wanted to learn but thought it might be too difficult for me. Let's see how Duolingo presents the language.
Before starting the lesson, I had to answer a few questions about proficiency level (beginner) and motivation. I then chose how long I wanted to train per day and I was given the option to set daily reminders to meet my goal. I opted out of the daily reminder because I personally dislike having my phone cluttered with notifications, but you might find it useful.
I started learning from scratch. The first question I had to answer was an audio question: What sound does 好 make? The question was communicated through audio, and a voice said something that sounded like "how" when it came to the character 好. Of the three answer choices, nǐ, hǎo, and zài, hǎo sounded closest to what I had heard.
The second question was a translation question that asked me to write "你好" in English. It was easy to figure out because I could hover over the question and see the translation as "hello."
The third question asked me to recall the character I saw in the first question. When I clicked on an answer choice, I heard the corresponding sound. This was the third question:
Thankfully I remembered the character I had just seen. I liked the way that the questions built on each other.
The process of learning new characters and sounds was enjoyable. I was able to complete the first lesson and I found myself trying to write the characters on my own. It was a bite-sized lesson for sure, something you'd learn in the first three minutes of a Chinese class, but it was a step closer to understanding.
By downloading the app and completing a lesson, I understood how Duolingo keeps students interested in the language: There are streaks, there are awards -- it's fun. It's language learning that keeps the big picture in mind without getting bogged down by the details, especially at first.
Is Duolingo actually effective?
Not on its own. If you supplement Duolingo lessons with Duolingo stories or even a Duolingo event, you'll maximize the free resources offered by the company and maybe even still not have a complete grasp of the language. Self-study is key here, meaning you should acquire workbooks and practice on your own time in addition to using Duolingo. I also think it's important to speak as you go through questions on Duolingo; for example, I tried saying 好 or hǎo out loud when a question popped up that mentioned it.
Can you become fluent with Duolingo?
The main disadvantage of Duolingo, and the reason why I question if you can become fully fluent with the platform, is the lack of practice. I've taken Italian classes for five years, Spanish for three years, and Intensive Catalan for a semester, all in school. I've pursued the self-study of many languages. In each of those endeavors, the amount of practice and work I put into reading, memorizing, and trying to speak the language correlated directly with my grasp of it. Nothing beats practice and hard work, especially because language acquisition depends on memorization in its early stages.
Duolingo's message of learning a language in 10 or 20 minutes per day seems unrealistic even with the attention-drawing quizzes and games, especially considering that college language classes meet for at least three hours a week and assign homework that takes at least twice that time to complete. Even if you take four college classes spread out over four semesters or about two years, you're still only at an intermediate level. Duolingo's allocation of time for language learning seems paltry by comparison.
If you want to achieve fluency within a couple of years, Duolingo should not be your only platform of learning, but it is a good supplement. As I used the app, I felt more like I was having fun and less like I was cramming conjugations in my brain. The slow pace might not be for everyone, though, and I've seen it used best as a practice tool to keep up in regular classes. I was impressed with Duolingo overall. It's a solid tool to start learning a language, but not one for total mastery.
Two years of Duolingo
All things said and done, with enough commitment, Duolingo can be very beneficial to your language learning. My little brother is a Duolingo inspiration -- he started using it two years ago, when he was in sixth grade, and he still uses it. He rarely misses a day, and he's currently on a 143-day streak.
"It was easy to get started and understand all the concepts," he told me. "It's good for learning vocabulary and brushing up on old topics. It's not the best learning platform for learning a language from scratch. If you have some knowledge of a language, it'll help you a lot."
He started with French and expanded to Spanish, Hindi, and Italian.
"It helps a lot with understanding what's going on in class," he said. "I'm able to understand what my French teacher says more easily."
He's currently in the silver league and he's received 275 crowns or skill completions.
He's also listened to 64 sets of stories in French, some of which require him to play a role in the story. I've heard the sounds of him on his iPad practicing Duolingo so often that I don't even register it anymore.
By bringing languages from all over the world onto one platform, Duolingo creates more than just a way to broaden your linguistic capabilities -- it's also about broadening your horizons. The upbeat way that the company does this, with bright colors and interesting graphics, draws the eye. The encouragement makes Duolingo users feel as though they're making progress.
In the United States, nearly 231 million Americans only speak English: That's about 80% of the population. Becoming fluent in another language doesn't just make you more worldly. It can be a huge advantage in the workplace.