HOW DOES IT WORK?
Duolingo is a hugely popular app/program, with over 25 million users. In 2013, it was chosen by Apple as its iPhone App of the Year. Duolingo can be downloaded completely free of charge on your phone or used on your computer. The question is: what are its pros and cons? And is it worth spending a lot of your time on it?
After 7 days of extensive use (and 8 levels passed in Italian, woohoo!), I can safely say I’ve familiarized myself pretty well with Duolingo and I’m happy to share with you an honest, balanced review of the app. I hope you’ll enjoy the review, and I’d love if you could also share with the rest of us your experience with Duolingo, and ways you think the app could be made better.
Duolingo is a free language-learning and crowdsourced text translation platform, currently offering 5 language courses to English speakers (Latin American Spanish, French, German, Brazilian Portuguese and Italian), as well as a variety of other courses (mostly American English, but also Spanish and French) to native speakers of other languages, such as Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Italian, and many more.
Duolingo launched for the general public in mid-2012, and as of early 2014 it has a whopping 25+ million users. The program is completely free to use, with no ads or hidden fees: as mentioned on their About Page, Duolingo can sustain itself by letting its users translate real-world documents while they’re learning languages. Third parties that need their websites translated, for example, could pay Duolingo to do that.
How Does It Work?
After you choose the language you wish to learn, you have the option of starting right from the beginning (Basics 1), which presumes you have no prior background in the language. You also have the option of “taking a shortcut” and directly jumping to later lessons in the app version, or passing a short “placement test” in the web version, to see what Level you might best fit in.
Through Duolingo, you get to learn languages in a more “traditional” way, in the sense that you learn vocabulary in stages, starting with things such as the present tense, animals, food, plurals, possessive, clothing, conjunctions, etc. Within each of these levels, you have anywhere from one to 8-9 or more lessons, which in turn comprise a number of exercises. As you progress, the phrases you practice in the lessons/exercises get progressively more complex. Additional verb tenses are introduced much later as you progress through many levels.
Each lesson is composed of 4 types of exercises (see picture below): a translation exercise where you are required to translate from your native language (L1) to your target language (L2) or vice-versa; a listening exercise where you listen to a short phrase being spoken and you write what you hear; a matching exercise where you are introduced to new vocabulary and need to match it with the right photo or vice-versa; and a speaking exercise where you have to read out loud a sentence in the target language. This process is what we could call “gamified”: each lesson is composed of about 15 such exercises, and you have three “lives” (hearts) to complete each one. If you make mistakes more than three times in a level, you have to restart from the beginning of the lesson. One lesson takes anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes to complete, on average (obviously it gets progressively harder as you progress).
Note that Duolingo does not provide any grammatical explanations whatsoever in their lessons. You do translation, listening, matching, and speaking exercises, but you are not told why words are used the way they are. However, if you’re using the web version of Duolingo, you will have access to helpful forums where you can ask questions to fellow language learners.
Overall, I must say that for a totally free app, I’ve been rather happy with Duolingo. Here are some of the main features I’ve liked about the app:
- It has an addictive element to it, and as you progress through levels and stages, you get a sense of accomplishment. Since the app tracks your progress and the number of points you acquire every day (see picture below), it also motivates you to keep going and beat your previous records (you can also challenge your friends on Facebook!). Plus, as you gain experience points and pass through different levels, you earn “lingots” with which you can purchase items and bonus lessons.
- The app can be easily used on your phone/tablet PC on the go, so it’s a nice time killer when you’re in the bus, train, plane, or waiting for something to happen.
- The interface is clean and very easy to use. There is also a nice balance between translation, listening, matching, and speaking exercises. The voice recognition program is not too bad, and if you’re in a public place you always have the option to skip the speaking exercises temporarily.
While I would, overall, recommend Duolingo to most beginning language learners, there are still some significant drawbacks that need to be mentioned.
- Given that the program teaches you vocabulary in stages, starting with things such as the present tense, animals, food, plurals, etc., you are not exposed to natural sounding conversations and sentences (at least, not until very much later as you reach more advanced lessons). In this respect, Duolingo is in dramatic opposition to other language methods such as Assimil, Teach Yourself, or Berlitz. I don’t know how often you use the words “elephant”, “lion”, “snake”, or “horse” in your daily conversations with people, but no matter how useless you think this vocabulary is, you’ll have to go through the lessons that introduce it whether you like it or not.
- As stated above, because the program progresses in set stages and introduces vocabulary in what I call “boxes” (animals, food, jobs, furniture, etc.) rather than in a more natural fashion, the sentences you are exposed to, in a large number of early lessons, are essentially useless and at times nonsensical. For example, I’ve come across such sentences as: “My snake eats your cake,” “I have our cow,” “Their elephant drinks milk,” “The knife is in the boot,” “We come from the women,” and many more similar ones. Probably not the best arsenal of sentences to impress the native speakers on your next trip overseas…
- Duolingo has no natural sounding conversations, the stuff you would normally find in most good textbooks. Rather, you’ll only be exposed to short phrases/sentences. While we all know that the first thing a native speaker is likely to ask you upon hearing you speak their language is “how long have you been learning X?”, you’ll be left speechless because this is not the type of thing you’ll learn through Duolingo (at least not before several weeks of study).
- Duolingo uses a computerized voice system for all of its listening exercises, so you’re not introduced to how the language really sounds. The voice is dry, non-rhythmical, and well, it sounds like a computer. Because of this, I found the listening exercises quite useless, and you will simply not learn to speak or listen to the language correctly. It’s one thing to hear a computer utter an Italian sentence, but it’s entirely another one to go to Rome and find yourself trying to understand the officer at the train station.
- As stated above, Duolingo does not offer any explanation of grammatical structures as part of its platform. You may be wondering why at times a particular word comes before the pronoun and at times after, why personal pronouns are dropped and sometimes not, or why the plural masculine article “the” in Italian is sometimes “gli” and sometimes “i”. Of course, the internet is available at anyone’s disposition and a quick search might yield good results, but it would still be nice to integrate some kind of explanations as part of the Duolingo program.
To wrap this review up, I would say that as with most other things in life, Duolingo has some good and bad sides to it. In retrospect, what I liked the most about the app is its ease of use on the go and the addictive elements to it that turn in into sort of a game. I’d like to see such elements expanded in future versions of the app, which I think would make Duolingo a lot better.
However, because of the downsides I’ve outlined above, I’ll be honest and say that I will probably not make extensive use of Duolingo in the future. I simply find audio methods such as Pimsleur to be more effective while on the go, with others such as Assimil or Teach Yourself better when at home or in a café. Of course, these latter are not free, but time does have a cost too. Free always has an appeal, but free also comes with a price, be it your time, efficiency, or else.
I hope you’ll have enjoyed this review, and once again, I’d love to hear your thoughts on Duolingo and on this review in the comments section right below!