Can you Learn a Language with Just Duolingo? (Review of the Best Language Learning Software)

This post contains a Duolingo review, including a video (below).

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I had previously used the Duolingo game to refine my French, and at the end of the article I alluded to the fact that I wanted to try to learn a new language. With just over three months until I departed for Germany I dove in head first, using the Duolingo iPhone app as my one and only educational tool. Here’s what I found.

The Setup

93 Day StreakI turned on the “coach” in Duolingo and set it to the hardest setting. This meant I needed to complete 5 German lessons per day, which took me about 20-40 minutes with my morning coffee. I had never before tried to learn even the slightest bit of German, nor had I studied any languages in the same family, so I had essentially zero prior knowledge to draw upon.

Though it is still worth mentioning that I am what you might call a habitual language learner. I’ve pretty much been studying one language or another, to some lesser or greater extent, for about 8 years now. If you’ve studied other languages, or even the grammar rules in English alone, you have a natural advantage in that you can articulate changes in rules. Where a new language learner might say “this sounds backwards,” a seasoned student will observe that a language is SVO or SOV. I point this out merely to acknowledge I have a certain advantage.

Duolingo is of particular interest to me because I studied video games in college, specifically with the intention of using them to teach (especially foreign languages), and I’ve even shared my serious games knowledge on this blog.

All said, it took me exactly three months to complete the entire German course. Of course, I can (and  will) return to previous lessons and review, but Duolingo has made the passive claim that completing a course is essentially equivalent to a B2/B3 level in a language, and I wanted to see if that rung true.

The Good

Beating GermanDuolingo is, hands down, the best language learning software I’ve used (and I’ve used many). It kept me motivated and instilled a definite sense of progress. Sometimes I got frustrated with individual lessons, but I was always eager to keep going. Not only did the game itself make me feel like I was moving along (with each point earned and each lesson completed), but I could actually feel myself understanding the language better. It is very exciting to hear a sentence and know innately, without ever searching for a word, exactly what it means.

All this was done without ever being “lectured at.” The game fosters a natural sense of discovery. There is very little explicit instruction; you can click new words to translate them (sometimes), and only the occasional grammar hint. While this can lead to frustration, it equally leads to a sense of pride when you get it right.

The Bad

As fun as the “figure it out for yourself” approach is, it is sometimes insufficient. I still cannot explain the different pronoun endings and how they relate to the object they represent. Is it deine Schwester? Dein Vater? Or Deiner? Seriously, I have almost no idea. I explicitly stayed away from reading up on these rules to maintain the purity of the experiment.

Click to CheatIt is true that Duolingo has some grammar tips, but they are a complete joke. I think I saw the same two grammar tips, over and over and over again (no matter how many times I dismissed them), which were distressingly basic.

My vocabulary is also pretty woeful. I doubt I could count past ten, and there are a handful of pretty standard words that should come to me without the slightest hesitation (if I wanted to speak confidently), yet I can not even think of them given time (words like “hour,” “because,” etc.)

What’s surprising to me about Duolingo is that it gives essentially equal weight to all the different subjects (varied only by the number of lessons within a given subject). The game should have been circling back on these key concepts which I need to communicate. “Numbers” was a lesson I completed, no more and no less notable than “spirituality.” Of course, I could explicitly return to these lessons, but that’s not the point. If Duolingo is going to deliver on its promise, by the time a language is “completed” I should be essentially ready to communicate in just about any day-to-day situation… even if the course takes twice as long to complete. After I completed the course itself, I discovered Practice mode, which partially satisfied my needs (more on that in the suggestions, below).

Perhaps my biggest gripe is related closely to my lack of vocabulary. It was too easy to “click and forget.” Too often, I was allowed to zone out just a little bit, translating a sentence by clicking any word I did not understand and processing the English version rather than the German word. Sometimes I found myself translating a question correctly, and only afterwards realizing I didn’t even know what letter the German word started with! Of course, you can make the argument that this is my fault for not paying closer attention, but I contest that it is the job of the software to make me pay attention (more on this is the Suggestions for Duolingo section, below).

Video Review

So, Am I Fluent?

No. Absolutely not. Nor did I expect to be.

I’m taking a trip to Germany in one month, though, and I entirely expect to be able to get around. I have no doubt that I could do the basic things (order food, direct a taxi, etc.) I suspect that I will quite easily be able to make sense of signs, etc.

Every language is unique. In French, I find that connecting a spoken word to its written counterpart is very challenging… but if I can understand what words are being said, I can almost always understand. In German, the problem is the opposite. I can transcribe a word almost perfectly, but my vocabulary is severely lacking. When using Duolingo, more than once I copied down a word I heard aloud perfectly, but sat there staring at it wide-eyed and without a clue what it might mean.

In my remaining four weeks before I arrive in Germany, I’m going to branch out into other media (podcasts, books, etc.) and seek to build up my vocabulary and familiarity.

Suggestions for Students

  • Don’t fall into the “click and forget” trap. If you don’t know a word, first examine it. Come up with a guess about what it might mean. Break it down into syllables. Say it aloud. Only then, after you’ve dissected it, click on it to learn what it means.
  • When presented with a list of possible answers in the foreign language, force yourself to understand all of them. Don’t just pick the right answer: explain to yourself why the other answers are not right. If it’s a list of words, make sure you can define all the words, not just the word that is correct.
  • Do your research outside of Duolingo. Spend some time Googling the titles of the grammar-oriented lessons (i.e., “German Imperative”). The reading might be dry, but you’ll thank yourself later.
  • Use the new “Practice” features (“Play a Human,” “Play a Bot,” etc.) rather than just powering straight through all the lessons. These practice features change things up: you have to answer quickly, and they adjust to your weakest skills. The courses may teach you the material, but the practice is where you’ll solidify it.
  • Supplement with other tools. Anki is a personal favorite. Save words that you think are especially useful into Anki flashcards, for example, and spend 10 minutes before bed flipping through your flashcards.

Suggestions for Duolingo

I don’t know if anybody from Duolingo will ever read this, but I think there are some easy wins that they could implement to really improve the quality of the software:

  • If a player clicks a word to see the definition, make him type the foreign language word into a box before he can see it. This prevents the mindlessness of clicking to see English. Not only does it tie muscle memory to the word and breed familiarity with spelling, it slows the player down enough that it is not worth it to arbitrarily click words.
  • Double-down on supplemental material. The app has done a great job proving that it is possible to learn through discovery, but sometimes the player craves more, or needs a little formalization of the rules to really solidify the learning.
  • Integrate the new practice features into the actual language learning course. They are too easy to ignore, yet incredibly valuable. I actually wrote this article once and  was complaining about the lack of DDA before I went back and tried “Play a Bot” to find that it was exactly what I was looking for.
  • Create a track by which I can be confident that I will be able to converse smoothly. I saw very little acknowledgement that some words and phrases are simply more useful than others. Once I’ve completed a language, I’d really like to be able to enter into a mode whereby I’ll be confident that I can understand any number, any direction, any basic command, etc… and right now, I feel like my only road to conversational fluency is to self-identify weaknesses.

Next Steps

Just getting started? Check out the essential study tools for students. Finished with Duolingo? Check out the next steps after you beat the language learning game.

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19 Comments

  1. Adam Egger -  May 27, 2014 - 8:19 pm

    when a new word appears you can point on this word to get the explanation instead of guessing.

    • Zane Claes -  May 27, 2014 - 8:29 pm

      Yes, you can. I mentioned this feature several times in the article. Was there some part that made it seem as though I did not understand this?

      • Adam Egger -  May 27, 2014 - 8:34 pm

        “When you encounter a new word or sentence structure, your only option is to guess and guess again until you figure it out. “

        • Zane Claes -  May 27, 2014 - 8:35 pm

          Ah! I see why that was confusing; I’ll edit to clarify. If you read on, though, you’ll see I talk about “click to translate” quite a bit 😉

        • Zane Claes -  May 27, 2014 - 8:37 pm

          Though, it is worth mentioning: you can’t ALWAYS use this feature. It only applies when you’re translating a sentence or a word from the foreign language. If you happen to encounter a new word in the spoken context, for example, the feature is completely absent…

          • Adam Egger -  May 27, 2014 - 8:43 pm

            Yes, this makes it even harder.
            Well, a great review. Exactly my thoughts. I keep using anki+duo+podcasts to learn french. This combination works great. Additionally I have to open the grammar pages linked in the duo comments to understand the story behind some answers.
            But I perfectly can help my daughter with her school french, what really is a hard job since she learns french ~5h/week.
            Other than that, what’s your destination in Germany? Can be of some help if you want to.

          • Zane Claes -  May 27, 2014 - 10:52 pm

            Glad you enjoyed it!

            I’ve been working my way through the “Native French Speech” podcast (~125 episodes in the archives). Definitely agree that those 3 are a great mix 🙂
            Well, I’ll be staying with co-workers while I’m there. I’ve been to Germany before, but I’m always happy to hear suggestions… I’ll be in Berlin and Hamburg.

  2. sakasiru -  May 28, 2014 - 8:00 am

    It seems that you really plowed through the course without “keeping your skills golden”. This means to review the skills as often as they return to their color, which will provide you with spaced repetition (I’m sure you know what that is). That way, you should not forget skills easily. If you need to look up a word again and again, it will show up more often in practice mode (and the skill will “decay” faster) than a word you get always right. If you finish your tree with all icons golden, you should have most of it internalized.
    That said, I don’t like the current way the practice is apart from the tree either. It’s really easy to overlook. Duolingo is in a constant state of development, and there were even times where practicing a skill that was already golden (but you felt not comfortable in) was not possible. If you have suggestions to improve duolingo, please visit the website. A good idea will get a lot of upvotes fast from the community, and the staff is known to listen to the community.

    Viel Spaß in Deutschland!

    • Zane Claes -  May 28, 2014 - 3:34 pm

      True! I did not “keep my skills golden.” I didn’t realize that practice mode used SRS though, that’s great! It speaks to my comment in the article about DDA. I agree completely about the separation of practice; in fact my 3rd “suggestion” in the article was “integrate practice features into the actual language learning course” 🙂

      Danke! Ich bin sehr aufgeregt.

  3. Patrick_Hadley -  May 28, 2014 - 11:27 am

    The aim of Duolingo is “to translate the internet” so it teaches people to translate. That is quite different from teaching people to converse in the language. I imagine that Duolingo would be a great supplement to anyone learning a language at school, or any other course, but for someone going on a trip I would not recommend it as their main course.

    It has, as you say the best software, but does not use it nearly as well as it could. Great review, by the way.

    • Zane Claes -  May 28, 2014 - 3:26 pm

      That’s an interesting point; the background of Duolingo is certainly a bit different than other tools. On the other hand, I should dig up the quote, but the founder has stated for the media before that he felt someone should be able to use just Duolingo to achieve a conversant B2/B3 level.

      Thanks!

  4. Eng We -  June 9, 2014 - 1:59 pm

    Would you recommend training a skill individually, or competing against another person? I find competing to be much more stressful, but also more fun, and hence I’d be more likely to do that. One thing I’ve noticed is that competing does not seem to boost any of the previously trained skills’ bars.

    • Zane Claes -  June 9, 2014 - 2:20 pm

      Very good question, and one I think comes down to personal preference. I tend to prefer the “compete against a bot” feature because it adjusts the skill level as I play, whereas I’m not sure if it manages to find humans that are at my level. That said… I wonder if competing against a human could help with confidence? i.e., if you’re generally afraid to talk to others, maybe competing against others will help you realize that you’re not as bad as you may think you are 😉

      • Eng We -  June 9, 2014 - 7:28 pm

        Is it just me, or does ‘competing’ not boost any of the skill icons to ‘gold’?

  5. nancy -  December 11, 2014 - 3:04 pm

    did you ever use duolingo on a computer? There are fuller explanations that you can’t get when using a mobile device. I often wish they were available when I am learning on my phone. There are also more written and no sorting activities. (for the French, anyway)

    • Zane Claes -  December 11, 2014 - 3:27 pm

      Hey Nancy,

      I did use it once or twice, for brief sessions. I agree that it’s probably a better overall experience, it’s just that the mobile device fits much better with when/how I am able to study. Usually, if I’m in front of a computer, it means I’m doing work 🙁 Thanks for the tips though! I have a trip to Brazil coming up in a couple weeks and should probably cram in some basic Portuguese for getting around 🙂

  6. Dave Jeffery -  July 6, 2016 - 2:31 am

    I know this article has been dormant for a couple of years but I’m just starting to use Duolingo to learn German and the points you raise are still valid (although I haven’t finished the course yet). I became aware of the “click and forget” problem whilst going through the first few lessons. To counter this issue, if I found I didn’t know the correct word or got the whole answer wrong I started to make the conscious decision to click the “Discussion” button to see if others were stumbling in the same area. I wonder how the course compares now to when you used it? Was the Discussion button available when you went through the course? Perhaps there have been significant changes or improvements – or perhaps retrogression…

  7. chhaya mehta -  October 20, 2016 - 2:03 am

    Duolingo is really very very good tools.But I am stuck in level 1. So I can not learn next level.

  8. Lev Raphael -  November 1, 2016 - 8:53 am

    I kept my skills golden but found the Dutch course much harder and less satisfying than the Swedish, and that’s not because I didn’t work at it every day for months. I started with five years of German as a foundation, but the Dutch course is badly laid out with hard grammar coming before easy grammar and ditto for vocabulary. Worst of all, the moderators or whoever they are don’t seem to have a uniformly good grasp of idiomatic English and insist way too often on literal, sometimes silly translations into English. If you point this out in the comments sections, you will be treated rudely, even if you’ve taught English for years, as I have. To their credit, they do offer links to explain grammar, but the atmosphere overall created by disputatious moderating is uninviting. At the end of the Dutch course, the accumulation of snark and weak pedagogy has left me with a much weaker grasp of Dutch than the command I had of Swedish when I finished that course. I’ve only tried a little Italian when I thought I was returning to Italy, but that seemed better the the Dutch, too. II recommend avoiding Duolingo for Dutch but highly recommend the Swedish.

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