May 27, 2019

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

general language learning Resources Uncategorized
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 originally wrote this post on a long plane ride, from San Francisco to Seoul. I was five hours into a fourteen-hour flight and without internet, there was only so much work I can do. I did a few rounds of Duolingo, making the most of the offline option in Duolingo Plus.

With roughly two hours of Duolingo's Czech and Ukrainian courses under my belt now (this, over several weeks of using Duolingo), I couldn'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, the Duolingo app does not yet 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. Navigating the Duolingo Korean course, even with several years of Korean under my belt, was far from intuitive.

But that doesn’t mean that Duolingo isn’t an incredibly useful tool! Furthermore, I know their product team is constantly working on updates to their pedagogy and methods, and these improvements have been starkly visible over the many years I have used the app.

It is definitely an app worth checking in on if you haven't used it in awhile.

[UPDATE:] Speaking of updates, a reader has recently pointed out that the web version of Duolingo now offers grammar lessons for many languages. I haven't extensively tried these out yet, have you? Let us know in the comments!


How I Use Duolingo:

I use Duolingo mostly for languages I am just starting, or trying to revive. Duolingo helps to 1) remind me to study every day and 2) familiarize me with basic vocabulary so that I can reinforce my italki learning (more about how I use italki here).

To round out my study, I 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!


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  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.

  4. 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.

    Actually, there are grammar lessons on Duolingo (at least on the computer version)! I use them seriously; the amount depends on the course (not all of them are as expanded as the other), but there is a lot of information. Even more so if you go on the forum, since there is a thread associated to each question.
    As an example, I am using the German (to French) and Japanese (to English) courses, and I must say I have learnt a lot thanks to both the “Tips and Notes” and several wise and knowledgeable users.

    I am not certain whether you can access all those lessons and comments on the phone version; anyway, my take is that many people use the software in a somewhat “superficial” manner, hence getting this impression of a lack of understanding.
    I am not saying Duolingo is enough by itself either, but I feel it is still more far-reaching than what your post may make it to be.