Three weeks of Duolingo: what have I learned?
Updated: Nov 2, 2021
Duolingo. Known for its iconic bright green owl and pushy notifications, Duolingo is the world’s #1 most downloaded education app, specializing in language learning. Since its release to the general public in 2012, the app has amassed over 300 million users worldwide as of March 2021 and provides courses for 38 different languages. While the internet has poked fun at Duo’s threatening notifications begging you to practice your Spanish lesson, some learners and educators praise the app for its effective teaching style. However, the media paints it otherwise, saying and creating experiments to prove it differently. With all these mixed opinions and confusing research studies, it can be hard to determine whether or not Duolingo is really a useful app. So I decided to take it upon myself to answer the question: Does Duolingo actually work?
This actually isn’t my first experience with Duolingo. In fifth or sixth grade, a few friends and I had downloaded the app, with an initial intention to learn Spanish. We set up a club (when that feature was still available) to share our progress. Slowly we ended up dropping off the app, but I’d still use it occasionally when my interest in a language peaked. I’ve attempted learning Spanish, French, and Vietnamese, though I didn’t stick to each course for long and eventually discontinued my usage of the app in general.
However, with free time on my hands and an interest in Japanese culture, I decided that I would attempt to learn the language through the course Duolingo offers. “Why Japanese over Spanish or Italian?” you may ask. Well, Japanese doesn’t use the same letters as we do in English. Several languages use the same alphabet we do, like French and Spanish, but Japanese doesn’t. The language consists of characters from alphabets called hiragana and katakana, which make up how words are formed and written. I wanted to see how well Duolingo could teach me to recognize new characters from another language.
And so, after a week of using the Japanese Duolingo course (and previous experiences in other languages), here are a few things that you should note before downloading the app.
1. You will NOT become fluent through using Duolingo.
This, I’d say, is one of the more obvious facts about Duolingo that I feel is confused a lot. There’s a very fine line between the fluency of a language and knowledge of how to use it (known as proficiency).
Proficiency is the ability to understand the language - the mastery of grammar, sentence structure, and recognition of words and what they mean. It refers to your skill level and how much you know and can apply to the real world.
Fluency, on the other hand, is being able to speak a language both comfortably and confidently. It’s the ability to effortlessly and eloquently communicate with other native speakers, even if you’re not quite proficient.
English, the very language you probably speak right now and have grown up with, is most likely a language that you are fluent in. Took Spanish in high school? You most likely have some level of proficiency in it.
TheLingoWorld.com does a great job of further clarifying the difference between them, stating that “when it comes to fluency, there are numerous things to consider such as prosody of the speech, pronunciation, timing of the dialogue and so on. Whereas proficiency is more about the language rather than the speech. You wouldn’t be fluent in the dialect but you can still be a skillful speaker.”
Duolingo can guide you through levels of proficiency, but will not help you reach absolute fluency. And maybe that’s okay for some learners, but it's important to understand that Duolingo will not be able to direct you into being fluent in the language. Why? Well, let’s take a look at my second point here, for a deeper dive into Duolingo’s teaching style.
2. Duolingo’s teaching method isn’t exactly perfect.
The app follows the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), an international standard for language proficiency. An article from CambridgeEnglish.org describes the method by explaining that “it describes language ability on a six-point scale, from A1 for beginners, up to C2 for those who have mastered a language. This makes it easy for anyone involved in language teaching and testing, such as teachers or learners, to see the level of different qualifications.”
Going through the course, we began by learning certain characters and how they sound when pronounced. In theory, this is great! You’re building up your learning by associating different characters to audial understanding… except on a more personal level, I can’t memorize things that I spent only 5 minutes learning a day. For some of the questions that asked you to match a certain pronunciation to how it's written, you had the ability to tap through the multiple-choice answers and listen to the audio associated with it. I found myself relying on these hints that were provided rather than processing and associating pronunciations with the character.
Another thing to note is that we immediately jumped into the lesson