Duolingo vs. Babbel: Do You Need Free Fun or Structured Instruction?

So you’ve been exploring language learning programs and you’re now faced with a decision:

Should you boost your learning with Duolingo or Babbel?

Both are high-quality language learning apps, available for mobile and desktop devices.

And both are popular choices for language learners who are e-learning enthusiasts.

But does one ultimately emerge as the better choice for a rich and fulfilling language education?

In this review, I’ll be trying out and comparing Duolingo and Babbel, exploring their respective strengths and weaknesses.

As it turns out, each will likely appeal to different kinds of language learners with different priorities. Duolingo offers a free, fun way to study while Babbel offers structured instruction. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be an either-or decision—if you pay for Babbel, you can still work in some fun, five-minute Duolingo sessions for free on the side.

Duolingo vs. Babbel: Which Best Serves Your Language Learning Needs?

An Overview of Duolingo

Most language learners are at least aware of Duolingo, the lurking giant of language learning apps represented by its wide-eyed green owl mascot. Currently boasting millions of users around the world, it’s largely considered to be the first digital-based software that was entirely free, yet able to compete with more expensive language learning resources.

Duolingo operates on the freemium model. That means anyone with a device can download Duolingo, pick from one of 37 different languages for English speakers, and use it without having to pay a single cent. This, of course, is a huge draw for learners around the world.

Duolingo’s learning revolves around quick mini-exercises. These exercises use your input to teach you vocabulary grouped by various categories.

For a fee of $6.99 per month (as of late September 2021), you have the option to upgrade to Duolingo Plus. This version offers a few neat bonuses, such as no ads, quizzes, the ability to practice mistakes and unlimited re-tries.

Duolingo certainly doesn’t shy from its reputation, lauding itself as “the world’s best way to learn a language” right in its website banner.

What It’s Like to Use Duolingo

As soon as you sign up for Duolingo, you’re asked what language you want to learn, your reasons for learning and how much daily study time you’d like to aim for. You also have the option to learn more than one language.

For the purpose of this review, I chose German and picked a preference of about 10 minutes of study per day, which is classified as “regular.”

While I learned German back in school, I decided to claim that I was a complete newcomer to the language to see how Duolingo would handle absolute beginners (which is likely to be the majority of its user base).

In Duolingo, each language has its own “tree” of individual modules, or categories. For each category, there are five different levels (from 0-5, beginner to advanced). You move on to the next level after completing the lessons within your current level. Each lesson consists of about 12 exercises.

Higher levels in a given lesson have a very slight uptick in difficulty. This generally translates to the exercises being less hand-holdy, although the vocabulary is essentially unchanged. I didn’t find myself feeling five times more challenged at the Level 5 marker, so I assume that those who are attentive to the exercises in lower levels will feel similarly.

duolingo vs babbel

For each category, Duolingo has a “Tips” section that explains a bit about how the language works. For example, one of the tips had a brief overview of German gendered articles.

The exercises primarily involve text and audio, with some supporting images. They may ask you to match pictures with words, translate vocabulary, listen to audio clips or complete phrases. If you’re able to access your microphone, Duolingo can also provide speech recognition exercises (if you can’t or don’t wish to speak, however, then you won’t get them).

Your “lifespan” in Duolingo is dictated by a “hearts” system. Every time you make a mistake, you lose one heart. Losing all hearts requires you to back-track and review the material, but your hearts will also refill every day. With Duolingo Plus, you get unlimited hearts, meaning you can make as many mistakes as you’d like.

When you do make a mistake, Duolingo will automatically provide the correct answer. You can then forge ahead and continue with your exercises, with the chance that those words will pop up again throughout your session.

You can skip units by taking a short assessment exam. If your score is high enough, you can move forward to the following unit. However, you’ll need either a “lingot” (which can be received sporadically during successful streaks) or have the Duolingo Plus version for unlimited re-tries.

After completing a lesson, you get a fun sparkly congratulations, a few rewards (experience points, potentially a lingot) and the ability to move forward to the next category. That’s right: You don’t have to complete all the levels of one category in order to move on to the next.

Of course, you can also stop to review some weak spots in a given module. Duolingo lets you review the words that gave you trouble during your studies. It’s encouraged that you review old modules even as you blaze through new ones, so that you won’t forget previously learned material.

Duolingo: The Pros

The game-like format makes for fun learning

Duolingo operates so much like a game that at times I forgot that I was actually learning a language. I quite liked seeing immediate rewards to my successes, and the colorful presentation definitely added to my motivation. The app definitely makes a case for the appeal of game-based learning.

It doesn’t feel like a chore to learn with Duolingo. But while it’s easy to blaze through the exercises with nary a thought, Duolingo does well to remind you (without being overly oppressive) that you could go further still with your review.

A simple but telling interface

Looking “pretty” isn’t necessarily the forefront priority of most educational resources, but it sure can help to make learning more interesting!

Duolingo’s interface isn’t overly fancy but it’s certainly sleek and cozy. The language tree is compact and easy to navigate. In your exercises, your successes and mistakes are color-coded so it’s clear at a glance what you could use some additional help with.

One of my favorite little UI features is the module completion meter. It circles the module icon and gives you a visual representation of your progress. As a visual learner, I find this appeals to me better than just having a number percentage to detail how much I have left to learn.

No price tag, no worries

This is all under the umbrella that’s one of Duolingo’s greatest charms: It’s all free. Certainly, you can opt for Duolingo Plus, but it’s hardly necessary if you’re using the app like most users would: casually and with a limited amount of time per day.

This also means it would be possible to gain knowledge of many languages from Duolingo without having to pay a single cent. And who can object to such freedom?

Duolingo: The Cons

Limited education on anything besides vocabulary

My biggest gripe is that Duolingo only teaches vocabulary, but little else. Even though I was doing exercises concerning full sentences or phrases, there were virtually no grammar explanations and very little context given.

Basically, I felt as if I were learning German words in a vacuum, which doesn’t bode well if I ever wish to participate in an actual German-language conversation.

Interestingly, I was also a bit thrown off guard by the fact that, despite my claim to be a complete beginner to the German language, Duolingo chose to immediately test me on full and seemingly random German words such as coffee (Kaffee), milk (Milch), and (und) and please (bitte). A few audio exercises of German letter pronunciations were also tossed in, although they seemed a little out of place.

Exercises can quickly become repetitive

With extended use of Duolingo, I found myself becoming a bit disinterested in the exercises, mainly because I was just repeating and “learning” the same words over and over.

There didn’t seem to be a rigorous spaced interval system for word encounters, which means in a given lesson, you’ll be saying the same couple of words again and again in repeating formats.

I can only take being tested on the words mein Vater (my father) and meine Mutter (my mother) for so long before everything begins to become dull and droning.

Rigid translations and strange sentences

Lastly, Duolingo’s choice of translation and sentences can be a bit… iffy. This is a well-known trait and often a point of amusement by other users. Sometimes Duolingo can be touchy on how you translate sentences, as seen in the example below.

duolingo vs babbel

At the risk of sounding nit-picky, while Guten Tag can certainly mean “Good afternoon” in the right context, it can also simply mean “Good day” and be used as a general greeting in the morning as well (or really, all day until dusk). However, Duolingo doesn’t seem to want to budge.

duolingo vs babbel

Here’s an example of a quirky sentence you likely wouldn’t say in real life. This is probably Duolingo’s attempt to get you to train what you’ve previously learned, but by itself, it’s not incredibly functional (not shaming those who do enjoy greeting their cup of morning joe).

An Overview of Babbel

Babbel actually started its run before Duolingo: The former was made available in 2008, while the latter was conceived in 2011. 

Unlike Duolingo, you have to pay for a subscription in order to use Babbel. The pricing is per month, with the cheapest being $6.95 for 12 months.

In terms of format, Babbel operates similarly to Duolingo. It teaches you a language with short exercises that are separated into lessons. Babbel offers 14 languages, which is less than half of Duolingo’s offerings.

Despite this, Babbel still ranks highly among language learning apps and has thousands of active users.

What It’s Like to Use Babbel

Like with Duolingo, I also decided to try out Babbel’s German lessons as a complete beginner.

Babbel has beginner to intermediate level courses, as well as in-progress “independent” courses that serve as supplemental learning. Each course has about 10 or more lessons that focus on a few certain vocabulary or grammar concepts, typically revolving around a certain scenario.

duolingo vs babbel

The newcomer and beginner courses focus on the basic words and phrases you’d need for rudimentary conversation. The intermediate course includes more scenarios and aims to improve your confidence with the vocabulary and grammar you learn.

The exercises aren’t too different from Duolingo’s. Babbel’s questions are largely of the “fill-in-the-blank” style, in which you must complete phrases with the right word. Some require you to manually write out words or match vocabulary with the correct translation. All the exercises include both text and audio (provided by actual human speakers).

If you make a mistake, you’re given the option to move on or try again.

duolingo vs babbel

Unlike Duolingo, Babbel’s lessons are interlaced with short grammar explanations. These brief but helpful interjections give you pointers on how to use certain vocabulary or manipulate sentence order.

While there’s an expected order to the lessons, you can skip around and take whichever ones you’d like. You can even skip ahead to the next course level.

Babbel also has a “Practice” section that focuses on review. You can do so via flashcard, listening, speaking or writing formats. There’s also the option to practice words with little games that, while very basic, are still pretty cute!

Babbel: The Pros

Offers more language tips

I immediately noticed that Babbel’s method of instruction is more involved than Duolingo’s. It offers more explanations and tips regarding how the German language actually works.

duolingo vs babbel

These are interlaced within the actual exercises and are accompanied with questions that let you practice the concepts in question. Thereafter, Babbel makes sure you encounter them again.

While these little explanations are brief, they’re still very helpful and appreciated in boosting your knowledge by even a smidgen more.

Sensible lesson plan

Learning with Babbel reminds me a lot of working with an actual German workbook. While Babbel certainly isn’t as game-ified as Duolingo and doesn’t splurge you with rewards for successes, there’s a comfort in the consistency and structure of the lessons.

Duolingo feels a bit scattered to me in terms of its unit organization, likely because its curriculum is largely categorized by isolated topics. However, Babbel’s lessons are organized to build up your skills from the most basic to more involved phrases and sentences.

Helps to build conversation skills

One of the features I appreciate most about Babbel is the inclusion of dialogue snippets in its exercises. These are narrated by actual speakers and give you a taste of the language in action, including the content you’ve just learned plus a few extra phrases to keep you on your toes.

Moreover, the conversation examples are realistic and genuinely applicable. You can easily imagine yourself partaking in the same back-and-forth with another speaker.

Babbel: The Cons

Great for beginners, but lacking for advanced learners

For complete newcomers, Babbel can serve as a relatively thorough introduction to basic phrases. There’s enough material to keep beginners busy but, unfortunately, Babbel’s courses stop at the intermediate level.

This is a bit disappointing as the intermediate level is still relatively easy but appears to be teetering at the point of becoming more challenging. Advanced learners can probably use Babbel for the purpose of review, but they won’t find much to add to their existing knowledge.

Somewhat weak in promoting independent language use

While the avid learner can indeed glean some German conversation skills from Babbel, the software should more strongly encourage active language production.

This is a problem shared by many language learning apps whose exercises primarily rely on you choosing answers from provided options. Babbel does better than most by having decent exercises that require actually writing out words, though I think it can provide more to challenge users.

Exercises can get a little boring

While Duolingo’s exercises suffer from being overly repetitive in the content they test, Babbel’s exercises can end up feeling a bit too repetitive in format.

The most involved I personally felt was during the conversation exercises, mostly because I got to see the language being used more extensively both in audio and text. I wished there were more interactive exercises of that nature, rather than just clicking and writing the same few answers to the same kinds of questions.

This could also be amplified by the more simplistic nature of Babbel’s interface. While neat, it can feel a bit barebones, which can lessen the sense of engagement.

Final Thoughts: Is Duolingo or Babbel Better for You?

Duolingo works best for the hobbyist, the language-dabbler who is interested in a new language but not gung-ho about their studies. Because of its highly casual and somewhat minimalist approach to language teaching, Duolingo can make a new language approachable and introduce foundational vocabulary.

Babbel works best for more avid language learners who’d like to get a more applicable education. While there isn’t as much “game-ification” in its format, Babbel’s lessons have more structure and instruction, organized so that you can speak and understand a number of basic phrases.

Beyond Babbel and Duolingo

Each software has its pros and cons but ultimately, neither will do as a stand-alone learning resource. They both lack language instruction in context, which can put a big dent in the comprehensiveness and engagement of your studies.

Both Duolingo and Babbel would do well paired with a program that puts the vocabulary and basic language knowledge you’re learning into a more authentic context.

On FluentU, for example, you could see all the words you’ve learned in context and spoken naturally by native speakers.

duolingo vs babbel

Since FluentU has no formal structure, you can choose to learn with any video and any vocabulary that you want. So one excellent way to use the program along with Duolingo or Babbel would be to add new words you’re learning to a FluentU flashcard deck.

Taking a cue from FluentU, the key to learning with Babbel or Duolingo is to put your learning into context. Watch YouTube videos, TV shows and movies in your target language and listen out for words and sentence structures that you recognize.

You can also add more context to your learning with programs that pair language learning with stories, like Beelinguapp or ones that give you more flexibility with the authentic content that you’re learning with, like LingQ.

At the end of the day, whether you choose to study with Duolingo or Babbel, the key will be to accompany your learning with plenty of context!

 

Ultimately, there’s no better determiner than feeling everything out first-hand. But I hope that my look at Babbel and Duolingo will give you an easier time of choosing which language learning app is better for your learning style!

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.

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