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 lessons. There was no lesson on how the “alphabet” worked, no background knowledge on how the sentences are to be arranged–just how they are to be said and what each character looks like. The Japanese language is one that is completely unfamiliar to me, and it would have been helpful to have been provided insight on the three different kinds of scripts (hiragana, katakana, and kanji) and how each of them has different uses. Instead, I ended up googling “is there a Japanese alphabet” in order to fully understand what I was working with, especially as we began (what I can only assume was) diving into choosing characters in one alphabet to fit a phrase written in another.
Unfortunately, Duolingo also doesn’t give you an overview of what you’re going to be learning, so jumping into new lessons was extremely difficult to grasp.
For questions similar to these where I had to choose what sounds certain characters made in other characters or match pairs of characters that went together, I was honestly very lost. Most of these were answered through guesswork. What am I translating? Why am I being provided characters to translate into other characters? Considering that I also relied a lot on the sound of certain characters to recognize their English pronunciations, going past this point proved to be a bit difficult.
After further research into the Japanese language, it was only then when I came to the conclusion that I was supposed to be translating hiragana characters to katakana characters. Again, it would’ve been nice if I was notified of this beforehand. Also, what’s katakana?
The lessons also didn’t provide any way to self-correct. If you got a question wrong, the lesson would simply tell you what the actual answer was then continue forward without you needing to fix your mistakes. At the end of the lesson, the question is actually repeated in order for you to take a second shot at it. An important part of learning, in general, is to understand your mistakes, so it was frustrating to get a question wrong (or guess the answer as done below) and not understand why it was wrong.
A common concern I found while looking at others’ reviews was how there was barely any writing practice and no human interaction, which is completely true. In the Japanese course that Duolingo offers, there were barely any questions that asked you to write or have a conversation. Having the ability to practice writing the words would have been especially helpful in learning Japanese due to its complex and unfamiliar alphabets. While Duolingo has helped me gradually recognize the characters, I wouldn’t remember how to write them. The extent of the writing activities is translating the characters to English or vice versa.
Being able to communicate with others is also a very important skill when it comes to learning a new language. In the pronunciation questions, you’re repeating after your device, not a teacher. There’s no one to help you improve your accent or explain to you how characters are pronounced when tied together in words and sentences.
3. Now enough of the negative. Here are a few things that I think Duolingo does well.
The biggest thing about Duolingo is that, well, it’s free! Unlike other language learning services like Babbel or Rosetta Stone, you don’t need to have a paid subscription to continue learning on the app. There are also lots of languages available right at your fingertips, including (but not limited to) Spanish, French, Italian, Dutch, Vietnamese, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Greek, and Welsh. The great thing about Duolingo is that you can take as many courses as you want, which is perfect especially when you’re learning at home.
Duolingo also allows you to move at your own pace. While it's better to learn each day consistently, you’re not limited to or required to learn each day. Duolingo’s reminder system (which has been the center of many memes) isn’t as scary as you may think. They’re just trying to motivate you to keep learning and honing in on your skills, which is the only way that you’ll truly master a new language.
Within the app, you also have the ability to take certain lessons again as many times as you’d like to strengthen your skills and there’s even an option to go over and practice what you’ve learned so far as well as learn a few extra words.
4. Additionally, It’s got a great interface and can motivate you day by day.
The app itself is meant to have been “game-ified” in order to create a more fun and motivating space. The progression through the languages relies on experience points that you earn through completing lessons and awards you with different achievements.
After passing your first few lessons, you unlock Leagues, another game-like feature where you’re up against others to get the most experience points in your league.
Further on, I heard that you can unlock Duolingo Stories, another feature in which you can “earn XP through mini-stories that challenge your reading and listening comprehension.” Unfortunately, this feature is only available to certain languages.