In any field, some individuals rise to the top.
There are lots of great soccer players, but you might not notice them when Cristiano Ronaldo is on the field.
Plenty of singers have phenomenal voices, but do you really care about them when Beyoncé drops a new album?
We’re not saying Duolingo is the Ronaldo or Beyoncé of language learning programs, but it’s undoubtedly an icon in the field and one of the most popular language-learning apps.
And Duolingo enjoys a strong reputation for a reason!
For starters, you can access all of Duolingo’s most beloved features for free, so it’s a popular choice for language learners looking to test the waters or those seeking a free way to strengthen their skills.
Duolingo Plus, the paid subscription option, is also available and removes ads, allows for lesson downloads to mobile devices and more.
Duolingo’s main focus is gamified learning that aims to develop multiple skills, including reading, writing, speaking and listening.
But is Duolingo all it’s cracked up to be?
Below, we’ll weigh the pros and cons.
Duolingo Review: A Close Look at the Popular Language Learning App
Duolingo’s Key Features
Organized, Progressive Lessons
Duolingo is formatted into organized, progressive lessons.
This organizational scheme provides a clearer route toward improved language skills.
While some learning programs have you select what you feel like learning and when, I like that Duolingo takes some of the guesswork out of what you need to work on. New levels open up as your skills progress, turning from gray to fully colorized, ensuring you’re prepared to approach the new material.
Best of all, Duolingo is constantly drawing on old material. This means that previously-learned words and grammar are used while learning new words and grammar. Since repetition is key for language learning, this scaffolding is gold for learners like me who want to make sure their target language is firm in their long-term memory and ready to be used with native speakers!
Additionally, lessons are broken down into small chunks, making it easier to work a little learning into even the busiest schedule. All you need is a moment or two during your commute, sitting in the doctor’s office or even standing in line at the grocery store, and you can study your target language on-the-go!
However, because of the way the Duolingo program is structured, there’s no room for spontaneous use of the language. For starters, learners can’t choose their own learning path: The lessons must be done in a prescribed order, and learners can’t move forward in a tree without completing previous lessons.
With other programs like FluentU, however (more on this later!), the choice is all yours. You can browse a library of hundreds of videos and audio clips, and you can learn the language using whichever lesson appeals to you. Which program style you prefer really comes down to whether you prefer a structured learning program or one that is self-directed.
Option to Strengthen Skills
While you can continue pressing forward to learn new vocabulary and skills, Duolingo also allows you to linger on what you’ve already learned to further strengthen your skills.
Namely, the practice option shows you material that Duolingo suspects you may need a refresher on, and the program tests you on it.
There’s also the option to level up previously-studied skills. Each skill on the Duolingo course trees allows you to redo said skill five times. You can do so by completing each lesson in the skill again or by “testing out” of the skill (passing a quiz with less than four errors).
Each level demands progressively more difficult recall, starting with simple word matching and sentence re-arranging exercises at level one all the way up to complete written or spoken input in your target language by level five.
This is a helpful way to ensure thorough knowledge of learned material and to avoid forgetting basic material as you progress towards more advanced levels.
The Strengths of Duolingo
Immediate sentence building
One of the underrated features of the Duolingo method is that from the very beginning, I found that learners are introduced to sentence structure with an accompanying translation.
This might not seem the most interesting or shiny thing, but in terms of language acquisition, it’s extremely important. Being able to see, block by block the way sentences are formed, and the way grammatical units relate to each other shows learners how to express meaning early on.
I think this is especially important for languages that have a word order that’s different from English. For example, in languages like German, the verb goes at the end of the sentence, not in the second spot like it does in English. By completing exercises with this order in mind, Duolingo helps the learner build sentences correctly and seamlessly.
A Wide Array of Languages
Duolingo doesn’t skimp on the language options.
In fact, it offers over 30 language options, including popular choices, like Arabic, Chinese, English, Japanese, French, German, Italian, Korean, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.
It also offers some less widely-studied options, like Indonesian, Navajo and Welsh.
Because it offers such a large selection of languages, most language learners are likely to find that the language they’re studying is available on Duolingo. Besides, I love that Duolingo is built by learners like us! If a language is missing, chances are people are talking about it in the Duolingo Forums, and native speakers are contributing to new courses in the Incubator each day!
Researchers have suggested that setting goals may increase motivation. Not only that, but studies about goal-setting have linked it to language achievement.
With Duolingo, you can have “streaks.” That means that you’ve completed at least one lesson a day every day.
This challenge may serve as a valuable motivational tool since you might not want to ruin your streak. One study about Duolingo even suggests that the program’s winning streaks may boost motivation, particularly for more advanced learners.
Additionally, thanks to this cute green owl, consistency with our learning isn’t a problem! Duolingo’s method of structuring the lessons into bite-sized chunks, allowing you to set goals and be rewarded, is extremely effective for those struggling with accountability.
You really can learn a language in five minutes a day, and if you forget, Duo will send a reminder notification right to your phone!
You can even purchase a “streak freeze” with Duolingo’s digital currency called “Lingots,” so you won’t lose your coveted streak if you miss a day.
Learning a language can be challenging, and conventional study techniques can seem stale and dry.
Gamification essentially makes learning a language more like a game. Studies conducted on mobile language learning suggest that gamification can improve the language learning app experience, provide motivation and lead to real learning.
Duolingo has several features that could be classified as gamification.
The winning streak, while also important for goal setting, can be considered a game element. Further, Duolingo now offers language-specific “leagues” that use leaderboards to determine who gained the most XP in one week. This is great for feeling accountable to an actual human for your language learning, even if you’re beating them to reach the top spot of the Diamond League!
Additionally, learners can earn virtual coins by playing and see their fluency score improve as they go, which further adds to the game-like feel.
The artwork and rapid-fire questions also make Duolingo seem more like a game than a traditional language learning program.
Because of Duolingo’s gamified approach to learning, many students find it more fun and approachable than other language learning tools.
Duolingo Targets Multiple Skills
Well-rounded language learning requires multiple skill sets.
Not only must students learn vocabulary and grammar, but they must also develop reading, writing, speaking and listening skills.
Because it can be challenging to fit all of these skills into one program, many language learning tools focus on just a couple of skills.
However, Duolingo aims to develop well-rounded skills in all areas. Grammar and vocabulary lessons provide essential foundations. The app’s activities target reading, writing, speaking and listening skills while using the necessary grammar and vocabulary.
Further, Duolingo offers a bunch of add-ons for certain languages that further develop these skills such as Duolingo Stories for practicing reading and listening comprehension, Tinycards for vocabulary flashcards and Duolingo Podcasts for listening practice.
Because Duolingo focuses on multiple skills, its approach to language learning could be considered more well-rounded than many other language learning programs.
Duolingo Features That Could Be Better
Few Options for More Advanced Speakers
While Duolingo has a huge selection of lessons, its resources may not be vast and varied enough to propel advanced students towards full fluency.
Once a learner has completed a Duolingo program, they may go back and redo lessons and/or strengthen their skills. While it’s possible to reinforce what they’ve already covered, forward progress is much more limited.
If you’ve plateaued with Duolingo or want a different approach to learning, you might try FluentU.
Since the material is authentic, it may be particularly helpful for advanced students who want to speak and understand more like a native speaker.
While FluentU has a lot to offer advanced students, it’s appropriate for any level language student.
Each video is captioned, and the captions are annotated. You can easily access any word’s definition, example sentences, associated images and more using the interactive subtitles. If you want to see a word used in a different context, FluentU can even provide you with other videos on the site that use that same word.
And if you love Duolingo’s gamification, FluentU’s adaptive quizzes may also be right up your alley. After watching a video, fun exercises will put what you learned to the test.
As you watch and play, FluentU tracks your learning to present you with level-appropriate questions that build on what you know to keep your learning progressing without throwing you in over your head.
Since you can use FluentU online or on your iOS or Android devices, this app can accompany you wherever you go.
Conversation Preparation Falls Short
Conversation skills are one of the most important language skills, but they’re also one of the most difficult skills to develop.
Duolingo offers speaking and listening practice, which are good stepping stones towards conversation skills.
However, holding a real conversation in your target language may be more stressful and time-consuming than the exercises on Duolingo can prepare you for. This is not really Duolingo’s fault, as computers can attempt to replicate real-world conversations but there’s nothing quite like the real thing.
If you’re planning to hold conversations in your target language, you might want to supplement your Duolingo learning with conversation practice.
You can find language exchange partners through websites like MyLanguageExchange.com, an online exchange community.
Or, try using a program like italki, which connects you with professional teachers based on your language goals and interests.
This app allows you to pay per lesson, and you can attend these lessons anytime, anywhere. Getting individual instruction in these one-on-one classes allows you to focus on the skills you specifically need help with.
Visit their website to check out current plans and pricing and connect with a great teacher for personalized language lessons.
Having real interactions in your target language can help reinforce what you learned through Duolingo and put your skills to the test. You may even notice weaknesses in your grammar or vocabulary that you’d like to go back and work on again using Duolingo.
Inconsistency Between Language Offerings
Let’s say you wanted to learn a language like Spanish with Duolingo, for example.
Well, that’s awesome! Duolingo offers a well-rounded approach to learning the language from scratch!
In addition to its base tree, Duolingo Spanish includes multiple features that can be used to maximize progress: Learners can find various decks of corresponding flashcards in Duolingo’s Tinycards, they can read along to the interactive Duolingo Stories with native audio and built-in translations and they can listen to the Duolingo Spanish podcast for real language usage and tips.
Not all languages are created equally, however.
Take a language like Finnish, for example. The base tree for Finnish is noticeably shorter than other trees, and its “Tips” sections in lessons gradually taper off as the learner advances through the tree, making the grammar of the language guesswork. Further, there are no corresponding Duolingo Stories nor a podcast for Finnish.
The difference between the two languages can also be noticed in the inconsistent audio quality. For Spanish, the audio is crystal clear and performed by native speakers. For Finnish, there’s no native audio: there’s only computer-generated audio, and some words are missing audio altogether.
That means that the quality of instruction on Duolingo really boils down to a language’s clout. Languages like Spanish, French and German are quite popular languages for people to learn, so Duolingo teaches them effectively. Other languages like Finnish, Swahili and even Japanese don’t have the same breadth or quality of learning material.
If you want to learn lesser-studied languages on Duolingo, you can simply supplement Duolingo with other language learning resources.
Want to find something that mimics Duolingo Stories? Try LingQ!
LingQ’s library of readings with corresponding audio is ever-growing as users upload, transcribe and even record native audio for 20 languages (in addition to 16 in beta) including Korean, Italian, Russian and even Belarusian. Further, LingQ uses an interactive interface with a built-in dictionary where learners can create flashcards out of unknown words for later review.
Looking for a resource that’s similar to Duolingo’s podcasts? There are loads of podcasts available online (some even for free!) for learning languages like German, Russian and Japanese.
Good for Practice, Not Always for Learning
Even with a full-service course like Spanish, Duolingo may not be enough to completely teach a language to a native-like level.
As mentioned earlier, Duolingo is great for getting a base in a language—it is even great for practicing new words and grammar constructions—but don’t expect to get to advanced fluency on Duolingo alone. In fact, there’s even debate whether Duolingo brings learners past a B1 (intermediate) level.
This is mainly because Duolingo shouldn’t and doesn’t replace a thorough grammar guide. Due to Duolingo’s bite-sized, app-friendly “Tips,” grammar instruction is largely insufficient with Duolingo. In fact, a lesson’s “Tips” gives a wide-angle look at a grammatical topic, often skimping out on technical reasoning for certain rules, irregularities and nuances.
Further, Duolingo teaches non-Latin scripts notoriously badly. This means that learning Hangul for Korean, Chinese characters, Japanese’s complex writing system and even the Cyrillic alphabet for Russian may be tough or near impossible with Duolingo.
To remedy Duolingo’s shortcomings with teaching grammar and non-Latin scripts, I’d highly recommend investing in a textbook or grammar guide for your target languages. So whether you need one for learning French, Mandarin Chinese or Russian, the perfect textbook is out there to supplement your needs!
Duolingo has a lot to offer language learners. Perhaps best of all, you can enjoy it without spending a dime.
While Duolingo may not be a one-stop route to full fluency, few (if any) programs are. What Duolingo does, it does very well, so we recommend giving it a try!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.