Why Duolingo Won’t Get You Fluent (But Why You Should Use it Anyway)

Jan 20, 2020

Whether you find Duolingo to be a green-feathered friend in your pocket or an intimidating monster lurking outside your door waiting to pounce on you for not meeting your daily study goal, there’s no denying the app’s ubiquity and widespread cultural influence. Even Saturday Night Live has done a skit about it!

Given its popularity, I am frequently asked whether I use Duolingo myself and what I think about it as a path to foreign language fluency. The answer to the first part of this question is easy: yes. Almost every single day.

The answer to the second half, however, is far more nuanced and chock-full of caveats.

Read on to see why Duolingo (alone) won’t get you fluent in a language, but why I think you should use it anyway…

Why Duolingo (alone) won’t get you to fluency

Duolingo gets a lot right (I detail my favorite features and tips in the next section), but they face the same issue that nearly all language learning apps and courses do: what is easiest and most profitable to design is rarely what is most useful for learners.

Here now are the specific problems and limitations I see with Duolingo, written from the point of view of a learner, teacher, and linguist.

Duolingo does not offer much “authentic input” or “true output”

Humans acquire languages when they get tons of meaningful, comprehensible, context-rich exposure to a language, and lots of practice communicating with others in real-time, real-life contexts. This is how we all learned our first language, and it’s exactly the same template successful language learners follow as adults (with the added advantages that we already have massive vocabularies, already understand complex concepts, already know how to learn, and can seek out personalized resources and opportunities to practice).

While Duolingo does provide some input (listening and reading exercises) and an itty-bitty bit of output (typing and pronunciation exercises), this is a far cry from authentic input (e.g. reading manga or watching anime) or true output (e.g. speaking with a native Japanese speaker). These two factors―authentic input and true output―are the keys to reaching fluency in a language, not tapping away on a screen. Best of all, real input and output have the added benefit of making language learning far more fun, interesting, effective, and efficient. I call this approach to language learning Anywhere Immersion™ and it’s something anyone can do anywhere to learn any language on any budget! Leveraging the power of digital resources (e.g. podcasts, YouTube, Netflix, ebooks, blogs, etc.) and online tutors and language exchange partners, you can now create yourself an immersion environment right at home that’s almost as good as the real thing!

Duolingo relies too much on translation and indirect learning

Most exercises in Duolingo feel like language learning, but are in fact exercises in “indirect learning” and accumulation of passive knowledge instead of active skill. Two key examples? 1) translation exercises, and 2) matching / fill in the blank exercises.

  • The problem with translation: Most language learners (and many app makers) assume that we learn a language by systematically translating each word and phrase, one by one, until we have matching sets of equivalent terms in our native and target language. This seems logical enough on the surface, but there’s one major problem: this is not how our brains work. And it’s not how languages are best acquired. While occasional translations can be helpful to create context and increase comprehension, true acquisition proceeds most quickly and efficiently when we develop instant, subconscious associations between sounds and deep meanings. Translations add an additional, unneeded step that slows cognition and gums up the works. Many learners, perhaps fearful of the inevitable uncertainty and ambiguity that language learning entails, get addicted to translations early on in their journey and find it very difficult to break the habit later. Sadly, apps like Duolingo serve to normalize and reinforce this behavior. Incidentally, translation is very much within Duolingo’s DNA since the original version of the app was created to both teach learners and gather crowdsourced translations of sentences on the internet.

  • The problem with matching, filling in the blank, etc. What do matching words, answering multiple choice questions, dragging words into the correct order, and filling in the blank have in common? They are all easy, comfortable, and mostly useless for actually reaching conversational fluency in a language. Such exercises are easy to design and grade, but they have almost no direct relationship with the actual skill that most people aim to master: speaking with real people. When you are face to face with another Homo Sapien, you do not use your finger to drag words around a screen. You use your vocal cords to create sound waves. Therefore, the latter skill is what needs to be practiced.

Instead of relying on translation and contrived exercises, it’s far more effective to learn a language directly (i.e. by actually speaking it with other humans). Instead of wasting time learning about the language, actually learn in the language! Choose real work instead of busywork. As James Clear puts it in the forward to Scott Young’s excellent book Ultralearning: Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career:

“Directness is the practice of learning by directly doing the thing you want to learn. Basically, it’s improvement through active practice rather than through passive learning. The phrases learning something new and practicing something new may seem similar, but these two methods can produce profoundly different results. Passive learning creates knowledge. Active practice creates skill.”

Why You Should Use Duolingo Anyway

Masterful Gamification

I’ve tried out hundreds of language apps and programs over the years, and Duolingo has the best gamification features I’ve seen to date. The company’s curriculum designers and programmers obviously know a thing or two about human psychology, behavior change, and the formation of robust “habit loops.” From the leaderboards, to learner leagues, to achievement badges, to daily study targets, to skill trees, to use of sound and color, every detail of the game…I mean app…is designed to keep you coming back for more. Though part of me is less than excited about the prospect of an app (e.g. Facebook, Instagram, Netflix, etc.) being intentionally designed to override my willpower, hijack my day, and maximize my time in their ecosystem, another part of me knows that these seemingly evil means can be used for good if applied to positive habits like learning a language.

I actually quit Duolingo for a month as part of a “Digital Detox” advised in Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport. I worried that Duolingo had become dangerously addictive for me and that I would be better served spending my precious language acquisition time elsewhere. Though I thought the gamification features were “cute,” I assured myself I didn’t need them to continue putting in consistent time every day. I was wrong. About a week into the detox, I realized that I had done zero language study that week. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

I started using the app again, and am now on a 37-day streak as of writing! More importantly, I’ve felt motivated to do many other language acquisition activities each day such as meeting regularly with my Japanese tutor on iTalki, listening to Japanese podcasts, watching Japanese shows on Netflix, and reading articles on Japanese Wikipedia.

So if you need a little extra dopamine to get you to spend time learning a language (or if are a competitive person like me!), I highly recommend leveraging the motivational fuel afforded by Duolingo’s masterful gamification features.

Duolingo lets you leverage the power of “reverse learning”

If you are a beginning Japanese learner, the standard “Japanese for English Speakers” course is a good place to start. But once you have a decent amount of 日本語 under your belt, I highly recommend checking out Duolingo’s English for Japanese Speakers course. For a number of reasons, I find this approach far more interesting and useful. Perhaps it’s my background in English teaching, but I especially enjoy reading the grammar explanations for each lesson written in Japanese but about English.

Duolingo now lets you learn through stories!

As my friend Olly Richards argues over at StoryLearning®, learning through stories “puts the fun back into learning.”

I couldn’t agree more! And that is in fact one reason I historically struggled with the standard Duolingo skill trees: each lesson was comprised of piecemeal sentences devoid of an overarching narrative or meaningful sequencing. But with their release of the Duolingo Podcast and Duolingo Stories, they’ve deftly overcome this limitation and kept at least this language learner quite happy!

  • The Duolingo Podcast (available for Spanish and French learners as of writing) includes a series of real-life stories presented half in English (to create context and increase comprehension), and half in the target language to provide interesting listening practice. The production quality and narrative depth is extremely impressive (on par with popular shows like This American Life), there are new episodes released almost every week, and you can read complete transcripts online.

  • As of writing, English speakers you can enjoy Duolingo Stories in Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, and NOW Japanese (!!!). If stories are available for the language, you will see an additional book icon in the app tray. I have been going through their Spanish stories with earnest and have really enjoyed the narratives and fun, unexpected twists.

Duolingo has a great team and a large, active community

Though I am a proud “solopreneur” and know that I work best alone or in small, agile teams of high performers, I also know that there is power in numbers. If you want to create something of scale, you need the team, community, funding, and vision to do so. Duolingo has all four in spades.

Duolingo was founded by Luis von Ahn, a Carnegie Mellon professor, MacArthur Fellow, serial entrepreneur, TED speaker, and the inventor of CAPTCHAs, those annoying “challenge-response tests” many sites and apps use to prove we’re human and not a computer bot. He jokes that Duolingo is in part a way to make up for his karmic debt of wasting people’s time answering CAPTCHA riddles!). Having been born and raised in Guatemala, he himself is also a language learner (reaching fluency in English after moving to the United States to study in 1996). Incidentally, he has never wanted to move back to the country of his birth partly because of a tragic even that happened in childhood: the kidnapping of his aunt (you can hear the whole story in episode 8 of the Duolingo Spanish Podcast: “El secuestro”).

The company itself is growing rapidly (200+ employees as of writing) and is consistently bringing in healthy revenues ($36 million USD in 2018). This is a really good sign for users. It means that the company, the community, and the app aren’t going away anytime soon. And it also means that the company has the bandwidth to take user feedback to heart, the money to invest in new resources and features, and the infrastructure to support a nearly infinite number of users and volunteers (most of whom can take advantage of their wise “freemium” model in which a small number of paying members subsidize the larger majority of free users).

In addition to smart management, a fun culture, healthy funding, and the addictive gamification features mentioned above, another key to Duolingo’s success has been leveraging and supporting its rapidly growing community of learners (300 million+ users as of writing) and thousands of volunteers who have helped develop and expand their courses (in a crowdsourced way much like Wikipedia). Duolingo has a extremely large, active user forum where learners can ask questions, get answers from more seasoned learners, swap tips, and share resources. In fact, there are even specific discussions around each and every exercise in the app! Simply tap the little speech bubble icon in the bottom right corner after submitting your answer for a given question.

Tips for Getting the Most Out of Duolingo

Lastly, here are a few quick tips to help you get more out of Duolingo:

  • Try listening to sentences first before reading them (I will often close my eyes or look away so that I’m not tempted to peak). This helps prioritize development of your listening skills and shows you what you understand in real time with your ears versus what you can parse out word by word with your eyes.

  • Before tapping “Check” for a given exercise, tap the speaker icon to hear the sentence once more (which provides a little useful repetition and an extra dose of listening practice), say the sentence aloud at least once, and then double check your answer for mistakes. It’s easy to forget something obvious when trying to go too fast.

  • If you happen to get a given exercise or answer wrong, tap the little speech bubble icon in the bottom right corner see that question’s forum discussion. Chances are that others made the same mistake for the same reason, and someone else has explained why the answer is wrong and how to get it right next time.

  • Access the leaderboard tab by clicking the shield icon second from the right in the app. Here you will see your current “League” and where you stand in the rankings. The top ten are promoted to the next league at the end of each week, while the bottom ten are demoted.

  • Compete with your friends! While competing with strangers using the League feature mentioned above is just fine, I find it far more motivating to compete with friends, family, or colleagues instead. Once they’ve joined Duolingo, you can see your relative rankings by tapping the face icon (second from left) and then the “Friends” tab in the upper right.

  • Although I love the Duolingo mobile app, I’ve found that you can work through lessons much more quickly using the desktop website version since you can type out answers on a full keyboard and leverage keyboard shortcuts instead of tapping (e.g. typing the number of an answer instead of clicking it, using the enter button to proceed, etc.). Moreover, you can then turn on keyboard typing for translation exercises instead of using the default drag and drop option. The former is more difficult but far more effective for building fluency and an example of more direct learning. By having to produce language from memory, you get a better feel for what words and structures you actually know instead of just reinforcing passive recognition. Another major advantage of the web version of Duolingo? In the mobile app, you have use 200 gems each time you take a level test to skip to the next level. Online, they are free.

  • If learning Japanese or Chinese, make sure to adjust the text settings to turn the rōmaji or pinyin reading guides on or off. In a lesson, tap the gear icon in the upper left and then toggle your desired settings.