Three factors combine to make me write a review of Duolingo. First, I’m a video games journalist. Second, I’m a language teacher and Director of Studies who has taught English as a foreign language around the world as well as running high-end programs in Oxford, Cambridge, and Eton. Third, I’m absolutely addicted to Duolingo, with hundreds of hours clocked up across two languages, and the ultimate challenge of a 365-day learning streak complete.
Now that’s the boasting out of the way, let’s take a quick look at what Duolingo is and what it offers to would-be language learners.
Duolingo is the most popular language learning app in the world. Their lessons take learners from zero-knowledge to what language instructors call “B2” or “Upper Intermediate”. As well as colorful comprehension questions, word matching exercises, and listening activities, the app offers interactive stories that help users understand how the language could be deployed in semi-realistic encounters.
The main body of lessons take the form of comprehension exercises. Each of these features a short lesson coupled with a series of activities designed to test and reinforce those lessons over gradually increasing difficulty levels. These exercises have been laid out so that to progress to the next topic, target vocabulary selection, and grammar lesson, users must first acquire a decent grasp of the prerequisite lessons.
Each set of exercises consists of a selection of listening activities, pronunciation activities, image-matching activities, missing word activities, and comprehension questions. Once users complete a set, they can progress further. Duolingo builds learners’ language skills logically, and users will be pleasantly surprised to discover just how quickly they’re learning.
The Advantages of Duolingo
Looking to learn French or Spanish? Why not branch out to Japanese, Ukrainian, Welsh, or Swahili while you’re at it? Including its impressive and unexpected beta languages, like Navajo, Haitian Creole, and Klingon (yes, you read that right), Duolingo features 38 languages to learn from.
The app has over 500 million users, making it the world’s largest language learning community. And that community is friendly and supportive; user comments often clarify weaknesses in the app’s official lessons. Though its mini-lessons and exercises are remarkably well put together. Colorful, user-friendly, encouraging, and accessible, the activities and exercises on the app are a varied and engaging way to learn a new language.
By gamifying the app with leaderboards, badges, challenges, streaks, and more, the developers have created an engaging platform that keeps its users coming back for more. There are lives, crowns to collect, and an in-game currency that can be spent on practical and aesthetic bonuses in the app’s in-game store.
If you’re like me and need positive reinforcement to help you stick with a habit, then Duolingo may be your solution. With every hit of dopamine received from being told I’ve kept my streak going or have reached the top of my league, I persist in my learning for that bit longer. It’s not for nothing that I reached the app’s maximum learning streak and unlocked all the badges. Sorry, I really will stop boasting now.
There are even colorful and amusing characters that have been expertly animated to add some light-hearted whimsy into the learning experience.
Constant updates to the app keep it fresh. New content is brought to the app regularly to ensure there is always something new to do or something new to look at. Indeed, it can even be hard to actually finish a course due to the sheer volume of new content added.
Is Duolingo Pay-to-Learn?
Duolingo expresses its goal as providing top quality education to the world for free. As such, their business model is largely ad-based. Players will have to watch or listen to an ad after every few sets of exercises. Sometimes these ads are skippable, sometimes they’re not. Furthermore, players can choose to watch additional ads in order to unlock in-game currency, new hearts, and other bonuses.
They do, however, also offer a premium paid membership entitled Super Duolingo (previously, Duolingo Plus). Super Duolingo users see no ads and therefore streamline their learning experience. They also have unlimited lives so do not run the risk of having their education cut short prematurely.
A common problem with freemium models like this is that free users are constantly pushed towards the premium model. App game developers make life difficult for free users by making gameplay frustrating and then bombarding them with ads to upgrade.
Duolingo does regularly advertise its premium offering to its free users. These ads are often non-skippable. It’s annoying, but not so annoying as to undermine the integrity of the free offering. Most people who want to learn a language on an app like Duolingo, benefit from 15-25 minutes of daily play. As long as players are careful, their 5 daily lives are plenty to achieve that level of learning.
Downsides of Duolingo
Aside from those small complaints, what are the other disadvantages of learning a language with an app like Duolingo? Firstly, an app cannot compare pedagogically with a teacher. Duolingo is a great tool for learning vocabulary, reading skills, and low-to-mid level grammar skills. But there’s a lot more than that required to become fluent in a language.
Duolingo does feature speaking exercises that help a little with pronunciation, but that’s a far sight from the confidence and fluency brought by having regular conversations with a native speaker. The same is true of its listening exercises, though for several languages, Duolingo comes with genuinely fascinating free partner podcasts which are of excellent quality.
One additional flaw of Duolingo is that lessons have to be completed in order. That means if you’re not a total beginner, you must still work your way through a good deal of beginner exercises (and all the ads that come with them) in order to get to lessons that are at an appropriate challenge level.
Closing Thoughts on Our 2022 Review of Duolingo
Duolingo is a fantastic language learning tool. It’s well built, well thought through, has excellent UI and UX, and is genuinely a user-friendly learning app. It’s hard to imagine another gamified language learning app taking its crown. It is, however, a tool that is best used in conjunction with other language learning techniques – be they in-person lessons, YouTube tutorials, or podcasts which will fill the gaps that a language learning app leaves behind.
Alex Sinclair-Lack is a writer and educational specialist with a decade of professional experience. You can keep track of his work by following his Twitter @a_sinclairlack.
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