A Review of the Duolingo Language Learning App

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I pride myself in both travel and life on never paying for the “package deal”. I’m a DIY-er through and through. That’s why I surprised myself when I found myself agreeing to pay for not one, but two subscriptions of the Duolingo app for language learning.

The way Duolingo works is by gamifying the experience of language acquisition. Look, I’m a well-read software developer and I’m aware of the manipulative tactics apps use to suck you into their attention vortex. You’re not going to fool me.

The gamification mind-tricks Duolingo employs – like earning gems, crowns and gimmicky achievements – strike me as cheesy. Even still, it makes the tedious repetitiveness of speaking and translating phrases until you can recall them on autopilot somehow easier to swallow.

I admit with no small amount of shame that, despite myself, I find myself worried about losing my “streak” (72 days and counting) and can be goaded to endure one or two more repetitions of the same lesson in order to receive my “crown” so I can “level up”.

Why We Got into Duolingo

I downloaded the Duolingo App in an attempt to, for the umpteenth time, revive my flagging effort to learn Chinese. My wife, Liuan, is Chinese American, and I promised her when we were still dating and I was just twenty-six that I would become fluent in Mandarin by forty. I had no doubt at the time that I could deliver. Now I’m thirty-eight.

While I can understand common household phrases and about ten Chinese characters, it takes about the same amount of time for me to form a compound sentence as it does to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Hardly conversational.

After about a week of Duolingo I can rattle off the simple phrases I used to stumble through and, to everyone’s surprise, I can quickly recognize the Chinese characters I need to read and form those simple sentences.

Within a couple days, my seven-year-old son, who previously showed little interest in learning Mandarin, tried it and got hooked. Now we both study together every day in the gap of time between when I get home and when we sit down for dinner. I bet Liuan never thought she’d see the day!

I’m also interested in traveling for an extended period in Brazil, and thus added the Portuguese course as well! Not to be outdone, my wife also started the Portuguese course through my son’s subscription. We study together nightly after the kids go to bed.

Duolingo is not Enough to Attain Fluency

There are many ways to learn a language, and language is best learned via multiple paths, preferably with other humans. I doubt that Duolingo, by itself, could ever be enough to gain any level of proficiency.

If you find the app insufficient by itself, try searching YouTube for (free) lessons, find books at the library in the target language, starting with kids books for beginners, or sign up for an evening class at your local community college.

Let’s be clear, you will not become fluent with an app alone. Immersion and human interaction are a must. But if you are anywhere within reach of fluency you were probably not considering an app anyway. Were you?

Where Duolingo Fits in the Learning Process

I see two situations where an app like Duolingo can be helpful.

The first is, you book your plane tickets to a country—say Indonesia—and realize you don’t know a word in Indonesian. Knowing some basic Indonesian might be a way to show respect as a tourist, if not get you out of a pinch. In that case, you just want to nail down a dozen basic phrases. The first few lessons of a Duolingo course will accomplish this perfectly.

The second is where you stagnate in your DIY language learning. You still require as much strenuous effort to form a sentence as it takes to fish your cellphone out from under the seat while driving.

What does this look like? My wife’s extended family in China talking at me while I stare back blankly; even when I know roughly what they’re talking about. And even when I sort of know how to respond… But. just. can’t. get. it. out.

Or gathering up the courage to ask for something from my wife’s aunty in what sounded to me like brilliant Chinese, only to have her yell for my wife to come translate.

To earn someone’s patience, it helps to have a base of words and phrases you can recall instantly. Duolingo may be the tool that helps you unlock the door to richer immersive experiences.

Disclosures: I did not receive anything of value from Duolingo to write this post. These are my own unfiltered opinions of the app.

  • Matt

    Matt is a software consultant by day and a wide ranging hobbyist at night. He enjoys baking, art, music and lives for travel experiences. But what gets him out of bed in the morning is fresh roasted coffee.

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Matt is a software consultant by day and a wide ranging hobbyist at night. He enjoys baking, art, music and lives for travel experiences. But what gets him out of bed in the morning is fresh roasted coffee.

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