The truth (and nothing else!) on Duolingo

Duolingo’s nothing… if not a powerful tool.

I’ve used Duolingo for three languages now. I don’t think I would’ve used it for even one if I hadn’t found it an effective and strong support to the rest of my learning routine. I’d like to put special emphasis on support because Duolingo never was and will never be the axis of my routine, but it is and will remain an important feature of it.

This is partially why it surprises me to realize that Duolingo is a polarizing subject. I would never call Duolingo the meat and potatoes of a language learning regime; it’s something more like the delicious wine that brings out the flavor in everything else. However, within the language learner community, this seemingly innocuous app either literally softens people to the core or irks them irremediably when mentioned. I’ve even had a slight run-in with a person so defensive about why Duolingo was absolutely useless that I actually walked out of the room (not in anger, mind you–he just was so passionate about it that he never got to the point, and I had better things to do).

Let’s go over what Duolingo is capable of doing for you:

  • It helps you remember vocabulary through a well timed spaced repetition engine, and keeps track of when you need to practice.
  • It introduces new vocabulary in a (mostly) logical progression.
  • It introduces useful grammar within context.
  • It makes use of appropiate doses of humor to hammer the point in (see this twitter account).
  • It helps you get the gist of spelling (if you have your mic enabled) and listening.
  • Outside the regular sentences, you can try flexing your muscles by participating in crowd-edited translations.
  • Lastly, it uses a gamified approach and competition to keep people active in the site.

Now, let’s see what it simply cannot achieve for you:

  • It cannot give you more than a smattering of cultural significance, if it’s not related to grammar.
  • It sometimes introduces irrelevant vocabulary in an effort to protect (or maybe pad?) the lesson’s progression. While it’s an awesome sounding word, I’m still not sure of when the hell am I going to be able to use “kunikloj“.
  • It cannot give you conversational practice, as repeating Duolingo sentences on your own is parroting, not talking.
  • It doesn’t take you to a very high level. Because of the lenght and integrality of many of its language programs, some people mistake finishing a language tree with becoming fluent. Most Duolingo trees leave you at some stage equivalent to CEFR’s B1; while not a bad place to be, at this point there is definitely some more work to be done before becoming truly conversational.
  • It is, in the end, human made, and as so you may be on the receiving end of mistakes or bugs.

In a nutshell…

Believe me when I say that even with all its flaws (and its strange need to use pop culture references and sentences about bears), Duolingo remains one of the best free learning I know. Hell, it’s better than some paid resources I’ve tried. However, if you try using it as your ONLY resource, you’ll be sorely disappointed in the results.

So… maybe this isn’t the truth. But it’s the truth for me. Duolingo is excellent when used along with other means of practice and learning–not on its own. So there.