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Not for the Serious Language Learner
My intention was to fully complete a language course on Duolingo before completely writing it off, but the more I tried to get back on track the more I felt like I was wasting my time. Why? Because Duolingo fails to provide earnest language learners with a solid foundation to be able to progress with confidence.
Before any Duolingo fan cries fowl, let me mention that I used to be one too. After all, who doesn’t like gamified learning? Salesforce has created a whole Trailblazer culture around gamified learning of its CRM system in which users get points and badges for completing modules. However, since taking more than a cursory look at new languages I want to learn, such as Portuguese and Mandarin, I’ve found that Duolingo falls short not only in the content department but also in making its app fun to use on a consistent basis.
Duolingo is riddled with mistakes, often does not follow a logical order in building a foundation, and the app is built more to reflect game design than user learning.
When Duolingo came out with its Mandarin Chinese course last November, I was excited to try it out in the hopes of a more intuitive method for learning characters. I was quickly disappointed.
My Experience with Duolingo Mandarin
Starting at the very beginning, the order in which I was exposed to vocabulary such as numbers and basic greetings was illogical and only confused me more. Duolingo exposed me to an odd mix of basic words and a sampling of a few out-of-order numbers instead of how I had learned the numbers 1-10 in order in Russian, English, and Spanish as a child.
The Mandarin course starts with the Mandarin word for “hello” which is very common in language practice. But the user isn’t told that that is what “nĭ hăo” means. Instead, you are creating sound associations with characters and trying to pick out the characters every time you hear a certain sound. After being exposed to “nĭ hăo”, in some question you are given four character options to choose from, three of which are single characters and only one is paired. Obviously, the answer is the paired character choice, an easy question in which I feel a learning opportunity has been lost. In this early example, sure there are questions and answers, and points to be gained, but in the same amount of time, couldn’t the user have learned significantly more, like what each character actually means?
After going through 4 or 5 questions on just sound associations of nĭ, hăo, and nĭ hăo, you finally learn that hăo can mean “good” by guessing the answer. The next section of the first module covers zàijiàn (“goodbye”), in the same manner, and with that, the first little module is complete.
Individual definitions of each character are lost for the sake of learning the sound of the basic greeting, through guessing without situational context, leading to a superficial surface-level grasp of the language without learning the basic building blocks.
My Experience with Duolingo Portuguese
Another example of this can be seen with Duolingo’s Portuguese course. After having gone through about six-eight lessons in Portuguese through the app, I’ll admit that I now have memorized the words for man, woman, pineapple, apple, beer, thank you, and a handful of other terms. However, I attribute the memory of most of the vocab to my previous exposure to Spanish, since many of the words are similar and I could create an association through their likeness. What I didn’t pick up through all of those lessons on Duolingo was the basic pronunciation of letters in Portuguese.
So far I have spent about three hours learning Portuguese on PortuguesePod101.com, offered by Innovative Language, and I’ve gained a better foundation in the first fifteen minutes of that course than I could’ve ever hoped to gain on Duolingo. Within the first lessons I was shocked to learn that d’s are sometimes pronounced like g’s, the vowels often have nasal pronunciations, some words with t’s toward the end can sometimes sound like “ch”, and other letter pairs have additional counterintuitive sounds.
Right from the beginning I was armed with a toolbelt for being able to properly read and pronounce certain words whereas I was always forced to guess and question my hearing on Duolingo. Instead of fostering confidence, Duolingo fostered doubt.
Flawed Content and App Design Means More Time Wasted + Less Learning
Such learning by trial and error, especially when mistakes are penalized (you lose hearts and have to gain hearts by answering even more questions before being able to even attempt the module again) can cause frustration and lead to abandonment of the app and language altogether. When you build the willpower to try studying through Duolingo again, you need to complete certain modules again and again before moving on to new material, which is discouraging on top of the little knowledge gained through the app.
If that wasn’t enough, Duolingo is also riddled with mistakes and does not convey the “feel” of a language. In fact, there is no shortage of Twitter and Instagram accounts devoted to “shit DuoLingo” says. While I understand that nonsensical sentences can help you learn grammar and sentence structure as much as normal ones, why waste time on nonsense when you can be learning actual phrases you can implement? There is absolutely an opportunity cost associated with using Duolingo instead of an online course, textbooks, or other more comprehensive learning approaches.
Which brings me to the point of low barrier to entry. Using Duolingo is both free and in my opinion, low effort and low reward. There’s no wonder it’s been able to generate such a massive group of followers and fans. By forcing users to consistently maintain points and completed modules, they are given the false satisfaction of working for knowledge with little applicable, tangible reward. The effort in-app may not appear low, but, in my opinion, it takes much greater effort to consistently put in time daily towards studying through a comprehensive textbook or online course than it is to put in 15 mins. to an hour to maintain progress in basic modules on an app. The reward is far greater in devoted study through a comprehensive course as well.
Avoid Cheap (Time+Money) Shortcuts and Invest in A Comprehensive Online or Offline Course Instead
There are many other language learning apps that could serve as a useful supplement in a holistic approach. Many of them focus on vocabulary in particular. There are also plenty of free ways to learn a language that are better than relying on Duolingo (course books and materials at the library, free online content, YouTube channels and videos). Personally, I pay for Innovative Language’s Portuguese course, but in my opinion, I get more than what I pay for. On a daily basis, I get a “Word of the Day” delivered to my inbox, with six to eight example sentences in how that word or phrase can be used, as well as different conjugations if the “word of the day” is a verb. While the sentences can be challenging, they expose me to new vocabulary and imply a “rise to the occasion” learning style in which I can be confident that I’ll learn or grow into them.
The lesson library itself spans a wide range of proficiency levels and covers conversation, reading & writing, vocabulary, grammar, and culture. From 8 lessons in “Essential Portuguese for Emergencies” to 46 video lessons in the “Absolute Beginner” pathway, the robust amount of content available from actual Portuguese instructors wipes the floor with the sparse volunteer-created content available on Duolingo. I must mention that Innovative Language won’t let you forget that there are subscriptions you can upgrade to, however, and that is one of the main drawbacks of their subscription (though there is the option to remove certain ad banners and opt out of emails.) If you can focus on the rich content provided and filter out all the offers, it’s a pretty great resource.
Whether the free app can be compared to a paid online course is arguable, but that is one of my main points here.
Yes, Duolingo may be free, but the opportunity cost of using the app is incredibly expensive. Sincere language learners are much better off skipping the owl altogether and opting for comprehensive course or self-study reigmen that not only gives them the proper foundation to start learning a language but also the confidence to continue for long-term progress and growth.