So You’re Not Fluent Yet: Should You Blame Duolingo?

can you learn a language from duolingo

When the recent article in The Cut came out proclaiming Duolingo useless, the glee was palpable. I get it. You’ve spent countless hours at the beck and call of that owl, and you still can’t speak Spanish, or Ukrainian, or High Valyrian. You feel ineffective, incapable. You wondered if it was just you.

I’m writing this post on a long plane ride, from San Francisco to Seoul. I’m five hours into a fourteen-hour flight and without internet, there’s only so much work I can do, so I’ve done a few rounds of Duolingo already (I’m doing the free trial of Duolingo Plus this week so that I can make the most of all my upcoming flights!)

With roughly two hours of Duolingo's Czech and Ukrainian courses under my belt now, total (this, over several weeks of using Duolingo), I can’t really give Duolingo credit for teaching me to say much more than “Hello,” “thank you,” and “here is Ukraine and here is Russia.” Everything else I’ve learned, I’ve learned from my italki tutors and the textbooks they’ve given to me.

But I have still found Duolingo to be an incredibly useful tool for language learning (and no, this isn’t a sponsored post).

Because, guess what—you can’t really learn a language using just one method alone. To actually be successful in language learning, you really need to target specific skill sets with specific techniques.

Think of language learning like training to play basketball: a good basketball player definitely practices shooting hoops, but hoops alone will not make you a good player. You need to work on endurance, visual perspective, strength, coordination, teamwork and probably much more (I am not a basketball player, alas).

To speak a new language, you need good memory skills, yes. But you also need to teach your tongue or your hands brand new fine-motor skills, you need to train your ear to perceive phonemic differences that your native language doesn’t care about, and so much more. You also need to build discipline, because to get good at a language, you’ll have to make it through some very frustrating study sessions and through at least one or two communication mishaps.

Duolingo excels at that last requirement. By gamifying language learning and letting us take pride in our discipline, it keeps us on track with our language learning and builds a lot of confidence.

Duolingo is also great for learning vocabulary, because it takes the pain out of flashcards – it takes care of spaced interval presentation (showing you a word you haven’t seen for awhile, just before you forget it) and it forces you to recall and demonstrate your knowledge using a variety of methods, not just by recognizing it or  saying it out loud, but also by spelling it or selecting it from a list.

However, Duolingo does not excel at teaching grammar. Their motivations are honorable; they seem to want to teach you grammar by showing, not telling—the way children learn. Unfortunately, this is simply not an efficient language-learning strategy for adult second-language learners, or for when the examples are presented through an app instead of in a natural environment.

As an English speaker, would it ever occur to you that Korean might conjugate verbs according to whether the speaker is surprised or not?

No? You might have a hard time learning that one on Duolingo, then.

Unfortunately, Duolingo as a company does little to dispel the myth that its app alone can catapult you towards fluency. I’m talking about their promotion of a study claiming that 34 hours of Duolingo use is equal to a semester of university language instruction. While this study did yield some very interesting results, this particular claim was a bit of a stretch, considering the incentives offered to participants in the study and the lack of any real control group.

But that doesn’t mean that Duolingo isn’t an incredibly useful tool!

 

How I Use Duolingo:

I use Duolingo mostly for languages I am just starting, or trying to revive – this month I’m going to Ukraine and Czechia, so I’m using Duolingo 1) to remind me to study every day and 2) to familiarize myself with basic vocabulary so that I can reinforce my italki learning (more about how I use italki here). I’m also using Pimsleur audiobooks to learn the sounds of the languages, and Lonely Planet phrasebooks so that I know important set phrases that I’ll actually use on my trip.

While Duolingo is a comparatively small part of this study plan, it is a big part of keeping me on task, and it reminds me every day to spend at least a bit of time on my languages.

So hey, why don't we cut Duolingo a break? Think of that little owl like an annoying but effective personal trainer…who can only be as effective as the work that YOU put in.

Are you a fan of Duolingo? Do you find it effective, or not so much? Let us know in the comments!

 

3 comments

  1. Hi Miss linguistic. Great article. I am a Spanish and Ukrainian speaker. I use duolingo to learn Welsh. I found duolingo very helpful with my studies. But to be honest, one of the reasons I am satisfied with this app is because I am not looking to be fluent, but to know this language better and research. But to learn properly Ukrainian or Spanish, very complex languages, you need more than that. You have to continuously talk with speakers. More exposition to the language is needed. Saludos.

  2. I’ve been using Duolingo learning Spanish and French for one year. Generally speaking, it is a useful starter at hand for most learners entering a new language and it spurs us to carry on learning. However, I don’t expect it, like most other free services, to provide courses as quality as its paid counterparts. The sentences it offers are littered up with too much repetitive gibberish that seems to be a waste of time. What’s more, the quality of translation (into English) is really awful. Undesirable syntax, whimsical wording or simply expressions way too Americanized to be inclusive at times puzzles and pisses off learners, especially native English speakers from the rest of the world. I believe in the future they really need help from NLP robots with the sentences, translation and grading.

  3. I’ve enjoyed Duolingo over the years. I’ve finished French, Spanish, Welsh and Esperanto (that is, until they added more content to all of them, and now I’m no longer marked as Finished), and have explored Russian, Korean, Japanese, German, as well as the three Scandinavian languages (Norwegian, Swedish, Danish) concurrently, to see their similarities and differences. Truthfully, I’ve finished the first lesson in every language Duolingo offers, just to take a peek.

    I’ll be the first to say I’m not bilingual, nowhere near it. I find the lack of instruction with Duolingo both limiting and fun; while at times I wish it would actually explain some of the constructs we’re learning (conjugation, pluralization, gender rules), I also enjoy applying my linguistics background to what I’m seeing and figuring it out for myself.

    I recently tried returning to Duolingo this week after a bit of a hiatus (I accidentally broke my two-year+ streak, which made me sad), but they’ve changed it enough that I can’t gorge on exploration, with mistakes, before I run out of hearts… and that’s the way I preferred to use it. And, I haven’t convinced myself that paying for it has enough value, especially since it hasn’t been part of my routine for some time.

    But has it been helpful? Absolutely. I enjoy watching foreign-language TV and movies, with English subtitles and original audio (The Rain (Danish), Money Heist (Spanish), Ministry of Time (Spanish), all on Netflix), and have certainly noticed the number of words I can pick up, many attributable to time spent with Duolingo. I’ve developed a reasonable level of basic reading in the languages I’ve looked at, a slight ear for certain constructs — but no speaking ability whatsoever.

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