Duolingo Italian Review: Fun, Quick and Effective (but Not Perfect)
The owl has long been seen as a symbol of wisdom and knowledge.
So it’s no surprise that Duolingo, one of the most popular language-learning programs out there, chose the owl as their mascot.
But does it live up to its reputation? Can the program actually teach you Italian?
Come, let’s find out together.
- What Is Duolingo?
- Duolingo’s Features and Functionalities
- Duolingo: The Pros and Cons
- Pro: It’s Free!
- Pro: Great Interface!
- Pro: Gamification Is Motivational
- Pro: It’s Always Improving
- Pro: Italian Is Just the Start
- Con: It’s Far from Being a Stand-alone Resource
- Con: The Grammar Gap
- Con: Impractical Sentence Examples
- Con: Things Can Get Repetitive
- Con: A Lack of Content for Advanced Students
What Is Duolingo?
Duolingo is, arguably, the most popular way to learn a language—what with the 300 million active users it claims to have.
It was founded by Luis von Ahn (yup, the same guy who invented the “CAPTCHA”) and Severin Hacker, who was included in MIT Technology Review’s “Top Innovators under 35” in 2014.
Duolingo was born out of the desire to make the internet approachable even for non-English speakers. The two founders wanted to build something that could instantly and accurately translate websites and make it feel as if bilingual speakers actually did the work on them—not some automatic translation software that spews out nonsensical and, sometimes, tragic translations.
Well, the duo might have a ways to go before they reach their ultimate goal. But meanwhile, they present you with Duolingo—included in “Google’s Best of the Best” list for the years 2013-2014. It’s one of the most downloaded Italian and other language-learning apps around, with over 100 million installs… and that’s just on Google Play! (Duolingo is also available for iOS.)
Duolingo is a learning platform that uses game elements and principles to help you remember that, for instance, gatto is “cat” in Italian. The experience is that of playing interactive mini-games and picking up a language (or 10) at the same time. All the fun and games add up: According to research, spending 34 hours in the platform is equivalent to taking a semester in a university language course.
At present, Duolingo teaches 90 different language courses, with Italian being one of the most studied programs with almost 40 million interested learners.
Duolingo, both the web and the app versions, boast of being free—forever—which is one of the major selling points for the platform. There’s Duolingo Plus, which comes to you ad-free for $6.99 a month, but you do get a sense that the company isn’t really pushing for it.
Duolingo Italian has over 60 topics—ranging from food and politics to adverbs and prepositions, spread over four checkpoints—that promise you hours of enjoyable study.
Why don’t we dig a little deeper and see how Duolingo can help with your Italian?
Duolingo’s Features and Functionalities
The Duolingo Tree: Making Italian Approachable
One of the first things that you need to know about Duolingo is that you only need five minutes a day to reap its benefits. The lessons are bite-sized and can be devoured on the go. It takes so little commitment that it demolishes all those “I-just-don’t-have-time” excuses so many language learners tell themselves.
The Italian “Duolingo Tree” maps out the different topics you’ll be going through in the course. You see an array of icons and the one that lights up in color is where you are in the course. The Italian tree starts you off with the most basic vocabulary, like donna (woman) and lei (she), with the topics getting more challenging as you progress.
With Duolingo, you never feel overwhelmed—complexity is very gradually built from one lesson to the next.
Quizzes and Exercises: Making Italian Enjoyable
One of the most important elements of the Duolingo experience is its high level of interactivity. You’ll literally be doing something every five seconds.
The learning doesn’t come as passive texts to be read or lectures to be listened to. The lessons, (if you can call them lessons at all), are in the form of little exercises or tasks.
For example, you might be asked to pair Italian words with their English counterparts. Or you might be shown an English sentence and asked to give its Italian translation by tapping on a specific sequence of Italian words. These repeating exercises are really the heart and soul of the platform.
Since Duolingo intends to develop all four linguistic competencies (reading, writing, speaking and listening), there are even times when you’re asked to speak into your phone’s mic and repeat after a prompt. Then, the voice recognition software checks if your pronunciation is spotty or not.
The idea is that Duolingo nudges you to work on your Italian. You’ll be doing translations, transcriptions, picture matching etc. By throwing little tasks task your way—a simple translation exercise here, a sentence construction exercise there—the hope is that with enough repetition, you’ll be able to retain the language.
Experience Points, Lingots and Streaks: Making Italian Motivational
Duolingo is gamified language learning. Every question you answer correctly is converted into Experience Points (XP). When you’ve finished a lesson or practiced a skill, your XP increases accordingly. (You can set a daily XP goal in the Settings section.) There’s a leaderboard so you can gauge your performance vis-à-vis other students.
Gems known as “lingots” are the platform’s currency. You earn lingots for completing tasks like maintaining a 10-day practice streak, reaching your practice goals or inviting friends to use Duolingo. Lingots can be used in the virtual shop where you can buy “power-ups” like “Streak Freeze” or “Double or Nothing.”
“Streaks” refers to the number of days you’ve consecutively met your XP goals. While XP reflects how long you’re studying in a day, “Streaks” tell you how often you’re studying. This is really the most important metric for you because it reflects just how consistent you are at studying Italian.
You might think these game elements don’t really affect you because you don’t care whether you earn childish brownie points or not, but as an accurate record of the hard work you’ve put into learning, they’re darn insightful and instructive. Low streak or XP can motivate you to put in the work.
Crowns: Making Italian Customizable
Duolingo used to employ just simple spaced repetition in which items you missed in an exercise are presented and repeated more often, and where the algorithm knows which words you have the most trouble with. Now, Duolingo has taken things to a new level and integrated the “crowns” approach to their system.
One of the challenges for platforms like Duolingo is to reconcile the different goals and objectives of many different Italian language learners. There are casual learners who simply want a fun time working through the Duolingo tree. Then there are those serious learners who want more in-depth content.
Duolingo has resolved this with “crowns,” which essentially add a new dimension to learning. Students can breeze through the different lessons if they like, but they can also retake the same level. Each time they do so, the exercises get a little bit more difficult.
You work through the same set of targeted vocabulary, but the tasks required get increasingly difficult. So, maybe the sentences involved get more complex or maybe, instead of tapping presented words to form the translated sentence, this time you need to type the Italian words yourself.
Every time you repeat and finish a level, you gain a “crown.” The max for each level is five crowns.
With the “crowns” approach, Italian learners can choose whether they want to learn a new set of words or if they want to master the old ones by working on more challenging exercises.
Discussions and Forums: Making Italian Social
There’s probably no more robust Italian language learning community than the folks at Duolingo. You can throw a query out there and have no shortage of replies from kindred spirits.
There’s always a healthy discussion going on in the forum and simply reading the threads can be a very educational experience. You’ll get tips on how to study Italian, or be pointed to some useful resources that can get you a needed leg up.
The Duolingo web version has very nicely made conversation among language learners a breeze by displaying the “Discussion” icon on top of the screen. Clicking on it will bring you to a message board where language aficionados abound.
Duolingo also has the “Discuss” icon on every question or exercise. Confused about an item? Tap or click on “Discuss” and ask your question. Or, even better, read through the relevant discussions. Your query might have already been answered!
The platform makes getting feedback so darn easy, which also allows the developers to get an accurate reading of the pulse of their users.
Next up, we put Duolingo on a balancing scale to see if it’s worth your time.
Duolingo: The Pros and Cons
Pro: It’s Free!
Duolingo’s ultimate selling proposition is, with all those fancy quizzes and exercises, the program is completely free. If Duolingo Italian came at a charge, it would create a totally different set of expectations.
Yes, there’s an ad-free version but, as mentioned earlier in this review, Duolingo isn’t very pushy about it. And besides, the ads that come with the service are minimally invasive.
But as a free service, Duolingo is definitely one of the best.
Pro: Great Interface!
The first time you use Duolingo, you immediately get a sense of its smooth graphic interface. The layout, both on the web and app version, is very intuitive. An alien who’s just landed on the planet would be able to navigate through the platform and learn any of earth’s languages.
The fonts are easy on the eyes. The colors pop but aren’t jarring to the senses. The audio is relatively crisp. The sights, sounds and movement of the elements clue you in to what’s happening.
Did you get the question wrong? What do you need to do next? Duolingo makes everything easy.
Oh, and then there’s “Duo,” the Duolingo mascot who occasionally pops up on your screen to shout some words of encouragement. He’s the easily recognizable green owl who’ll be your companion as you knock out one Italian lesson after another.
Pro: Gamification Is Motivational
Duolingo makes learning languages feel like jumping through little hoops… and liking it. Gamified content makes languages entertaining, and learning fun.
There are levels, leagues, leaderboards and lingots. There are streaks to be protected, skills to be developed and a virtual shop to be visited. Bars are filling up, displayed numbers are telling you something. The reward system can get you easily hooked.
And just so you can feel good about the lingots you’ve earned, you can use them to buy a cool costume for Duo, the mascot.
Basically, Duolingo always lets you know what’s up. You always know your progress in the course. You know if your skills need practice. You know how you measure against other students of Italian. And the way it presents this information is fun and motivational!
Pro: It’s Always Improving
Granted, Duolingo Italian has a lot of room for improvement. (More on this later.)
But as a brainchild of founders with computer backgrounds, you can be sure that the platform uses the latest in machine learning and AI research to improve and keep users motivated and going back for more.
And because Duolingo has some of the most vocal and passionate users, it can quickly get robust feedback on what needs to be changed. So expect a continuous flow of improvements on the product.
Pro: Italian Is Just the Start
Duolingo is really one of those rare products that seems to overthrow any excuse you can think of.
No money? It’s free!
No time? It only takes five minutes!
On the move? You can study on the go!
Bored? Play a learning game!
Another wall that Duolingo has brought down is the one that separates languages. Many language programs come as individually packaged courses. So if you’re going to learn Italian, you’d have access only to that course and have to pay or install a different app to study another language. Well, Duolingo gives you the whole shebang for free.
So, if you’re a spent on Italian, you can study Russian for a bit or maybe try your hand at Japanese. Then, suddenly, you’re sucked in and before you know it, you’re learning multiple languages at the same time. Many Duolingo users are actually serial learners and the program makes it easy to give it a shot.
Duolingo has changed the game and is a hard benchmark to beat.
But that said, it’s not the perfect product either. There’s always room for improvement. Here are a few things that the program could do better.
Con: It’s Far from Being a Stand-alone Resource
Even the mighty Duolingo can’t give you all you need.
To be fair, there’s probably no single language learning platform or product that can be everything for everyone. Duolingo works as part of a healthy mix of other learning materials that would have to include things like Italian textbooks, audiobooks, videos, songs, movies, language exchange websites and so on.
Duolingo has a part to play. If you want a slew of vocabulary building exercising that keep close tabs on your performance, then Duolingo is your best bet. But for other things, like actual conversational practice, the platform might not be the most ideal tool.
Con: The Grammar Gap
Yes, there are keys to Italian grammar at the start of every lesson, but these feel too “buried.” (Many users don’t even know that they exist.) Duolingo could do with a lot more of short-but-spunky grammar explanations that are embedded in the individual questions themselves.
When you get an item wrong, you seldom know why. You’re shown the correct answer, but many users are still left guessing why their answer is unacceptable. Duolingo can do a little more in these instances and use them as teaching moments.
Also, a little explanation for when new grammar concepts (or vocabulary) are introduced would go a long way. By doing that, Duolingo would make the new items less jarring for users, helping students chug along.
We understand that the platform wasn’t designed for explicit grammar instruction, but a little more grammar explanation, like a well-placed, single-sentence pointer, can be a huge time-saver.
Con: Impractical Sentence Examples
Duolingo doesn’t advocate simply memorizing “survival phrases,” and claims that sentence examples should be relevant and useful in the real-world.
Duolingo Italian’s record, however, is spotty in this regard. Some sentences are so remote from reality you’d be hard-pressed to think of a suitable moment to use them. They’re more useful as vocabulary teaching tools than actual commonly-used groups of words. (eg. Lei é una donna. — She is a woman.) Sometimes, the sentences sound like they’ve been machine-generated.
Example sentences do get better later in the course, but many users might have dropped off before getting to them.
This is in contrast to some other programs, which focus on getting you using real Italian from the beginning.
The immersion program FluentU, for example, uses authentic content to teach the language, like movie clips, vlogs, commercials, music videos and more. It gives you a way to hear Italian used naturally by native Italian speakers, with the support of learning tools like quizzes, transcripts and interactive subtitles.
Duolingo just doesn’t do that, often asking you to form nonsensical sentences that you wouldn’t ever use in a real conversation.
Con: Things Can Get Repetitive
Repetition is at the heart of learning. Going over the content again and again allows it to be embedded in the long term memory. But there comes a point, (and this point varies from person to person,) when repetition gets to be too much. You might find the exercises begin to rub you the wrong way.
Working with the same words, phrases and sentences over and over can be demotivating. This is alleviated by algorithms that shelf already mastered words, but I’m not just talking about vocabulary sets—I’m also referring to things like that all-too-familiar sound you hear when you get an item right or that distracting buzz you get when you answer incorrectly.
Italian Duolingo could mix things up better and add more variety not only to the content but even to the very mechanics of their exercises.
Con: A Lack of Content for Advanced Students
Duolingo Italian can’t take you to the last 100 miles of your journey. It’s a very good vocabulary builder, but don’t expect to be fluent when you finish the course. You’ll learn a lot, for sure, but the program won’t take you beyond the intermediate level.
Content development for Duolingo Italian may not have been as brisk as other major languages like Spanish, French, German and Portuguese.
For instance, these languages have “stories”—a feature that challenges your reading and listening comprehension and can seriously address the lack of variety we talked about previously. Unfortunately, Duolingo Italian doesn’t have this feature. Users have been clamoring for Italian “stories” for years but as of this writing, they haven’t been added.
All things considered, Duolingo Italian is an awesome tool that can take you places other platforms and apps can’t. Even with its cons, it’s still one of the most useful tools out there for learning Italian.
Since it only takes five minutes a day, there’s simply no excuse for not working with Duolingo. I highly encourage you to include it in your content mix.
Good luck in your Italian learning quest!