Learning Languages with Duolingo

Duolingo Home Screen

Duolingo's lessons are laid out in a convenient skill tree

We recently were invited to give Duolingo – a new online language learning system – a try during their trial period before they’re open to everyone (their official launch will be on June 19th, 2012). After using it for a while, here’s what we think.

Duolingo first caught our attention because of its unique concept. The site’s goal isn’t just to teach people languages, but to crowdsource the translation of the Internet into as many languages as possible. By having language learners learn and practice by translating actual sentences from the web the content gets translated and people learn – everybody wins.

The best part of this method is the language learners aren’t the customers, they’re the workers. The real customers are companies and sites who want their content translated. That guarantees that as a language learner the site will always be free, since you’re paying with your time instead of your money.

So how well does it work?

The Pros of Duolingo

  • It’s Free – I know I mentioned this one already, but it’s a big selling point for me. Duolingo is totally free. It’s not free in a frustrating ad supported way either, as of right now there are no ads and no paid premium version they try to push you into. Since their real customers aren’t the users, you get to learn for free.
  • They Make Language Learning a Game – The lessons are presented in a skill tree. As you master each skill it unlocks the skills below it. Each lesson earns you points which go toward leveling you up in that language. You also earn puzzle pieces for translating sentences, though it’s unclear what these do at this point. In each lesson you have so many hearts, for every mistake one heart is lost and if you lose them all you have to try the lesson over again.
  • Duolingo Lesson Complete

    Each lesson is a game, and you can share your success on Facebook and Twitter

  • It Keeps You Accountable – While there isn’t as robust of a social aspect as Fitocracy or some other gameified personal development programs, you can follow friends to keep on top of their progress and act as extra motivation. It also integrates with Facebook and Twitter allowing you to be very public about your language learning. If that’s not enough, Duolingo can even e-mail you everyday if you hit a certain time without logging in to study.
  • Duolingo Grammar Correction

    Duolingo gently corrects your grammar mistakes

  • Integrated Grammar – Most of the lessons offer a little bit of explicit grammar explanation at the beginning, but it’s entirely optional. I didn’t bother with any of them. Instead, the lessons work the grammar into the practice. For instance I chose to do German and I’ve learned ‘Ich trinke‘, ‘Du trinkst‘ and ‘Er trinkt‘ all without slamming my head into a desk covered in conjugation tables. By learning through sentences you pick up the grammar intuitively rather than through memorization.
  • You Learn Through Use – Duolingo’s system gives you practice translating sentences both from and into the target language, copying down spoken sentences for listening comprehension, speaking through the microphone and identifying pictures in the target language. The questions are varied enough that you get experience reading, writing, listening and speaking.
  • Duolingo Translation

    Duolingo's interface allows you to peek at the translation of any word

  • It’s User Friendly – The interface is fun and easy to use. You can quickly flip between languages if you’re feeling like learning several at once and navigating around is a breeze. If you make a minor mistake like a typo it generally recognizes it and tells you, but doesn’t take a heart away. Additionally you can mouse over any word to see its definition – though it will chide you for peeking if it’s a word you’ve already been introduced to.
  • Immediate Access to Native Content – Duolingo lets you jump right in and translate actual native content from the web with the first lesson. Each translation section is picked to have vocab or use grammar points from the lesson you just completed, though they often have plenty of new vocab as well. This is a great resource since it’s important to have exposure to genuine native material as early and often as possible.
Duolingo Skip Lesson

If you're already an advanced learner you have the option of skipping ahead

The Cons of Duolingo

  • No Real Conversation – If you want to be able to speak a language fluently, the most important thing in your language learning is actually speaking with native speakers of your target language. There really is no substitute for it and currently Duolingo has no way of allowing you to converse with any native speakers.
  • Heavy Focus on Translation – I realize that translation of things is the primary goal of the site, but there’s a little bit too heavy of a focus on translation and not enough on producing novel content. The user isn’t tasked enough to try and put together sentences that they’ve never heard before, which is a key skill in achieving fluency in a language.
  • Limited Language Availability – This is a minor point, and one they’re working on, but currently only Spanish, French, German and English (for Spanish speakers) are available. They’ve said they plan to add Italian, Portuguese and Chinese (presumably Mandarin) soon, but for now if you’re learning a language other than these, you’re out of luck.

Overall, Duolingo is a pretty good system for a getting a little extra practice learning a new language. It’s not perfect, and it definitely isn’t enough on it’s own to bring you to fluency, but it’s a good start and a good way to keep up practicing while having some fun.

The main value in Duolingo comes from the fact that it’s completely free. In my opinion were they ever to charge for access to Duolingo I wouldn’t use it. It’s fun and helpful, but I couldn’t justify paying for it.

My advice for language learners would still be to focus the majority of their efforts on practicing with a native speaker and immersing themselves in native content as often as possible. If you want to add in an hour or so each day of having fun earning some points on Duolingo, then go for it. It won’t be enough on its own but it’ll help add to your other efforts. The site will be open to the public in ten days, so if you’re learning one of the languages they offer go sign up!

Do you have any thoughts on Duolingo? Any other language learning sites you particularly like? Share them in the comments.

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com

  • Harleigh Kyson Jr.

    Duolingo is a website that purports to teach people languages while they translate web sites.

    Now crowd sourcing to translate the web may be a good idea, and it is possible that a site like Duolingo may be developed in time to accomplish the goal of teaching languages to people while they translate the web.

    Unfortunately, I found Duolingo deficient in its language-teaching capabilities.

    I myself signed up to learn German through Duolingo. I did not find the site personally useful.

    Now here is some information about my own language background: In the mid 1950s I studied German at college for a couple of years, but I haven’t used it since. That means I have gotten extremely rusty in the language.

    I thought that Duolingo would help me revive my German and increase my reading abilities in the language.

    I was disappointed. I found myself transcribing and translating about the same dozen sentences over and over again until I got absolutely sick of them. Duolingo did not add enough variation to them–such as increasing their vocabulary and gradually teaching more about the grammar–in slow and easy steps.

    About two or three times, the program directed me to some sentences in German from the real world. Most of the vocabulary I did not recognize, and my attempts to translate these sentences were pathetic. I am sure they were not helpful in arriving at a useful final translation.

    Between these attempts to translate these sentences, Duolingo returned me to the same mind-numbing translation exercises with the same sentences.

    I sent the people at Duolingo some messages describing this problem, and they cut me off from the site.

    While I was a bit disappointed that they did this, I think they did me a favor. I found that working with the site as it is currently programmed to be a very boring waste of time.

    I don’t want to be too harsh in my criticism, however. I think that the ideas expressed by Luis von Ahn may be sound in principle as I said before, and I would like to see further work done on either Duolingo itself or other sites that use the principles of crowd sourcing for translating Internet texts combined with foreign-language instruction without cost for its student contributors.

    I think, however, that the programmed instruction currently used to teach these languages on Duolingo is inadequately planned, mind-numbingly boring, and in need a lot more work before it is ready for prime time.

    I wish Luis van Ann well in his efforts to develop Duolingo, but in its current form I could not use it to continue to further develop my knowledge of German.

    Perhaps others will find it more useful than I did–especially in the study of other languages besides German. If they join the site, I wish them well.

    (I wrote this material on June 6, 2012. I intend to spread it around on the web. If you should read what I have said, let’s say, two years from now, perhaps Duolingo will be much better than it is now. I certainly hope so and, as have already said, I wish its developers well.)

    • Our experiences (as detailed in the post above) have been positive. Starting out the sentences they have you work with are pretty repetitive, but once we started getting into the later lessons they began getting progressively more complex for us.

      I found the translations of web content difficult too, particularly because of the new vocab presented. That being said, mousing over the word provides the English translation – so I was usually able to at least get the general sense of the sentence for my translations.

      I agree with you completely that Duolingo alone won’t ever teach you a language, but I do think it’s worth investing a little time in now and again if you’re interested in one of the languages they offer. Since it’s a free resource unless you’re eschewing speaking time with natives in favor of Duolingo sessions it can’t hurt.

      Thanks for throwing your two cents in. I’ll be interested to see if lots of other people have a similarly negative experience.

      • Sandi Childs

        I don’t know that Duolingo by itself would teach a language but it has sure helped me. I was actually thinking about buying one of those DVD sets that are supposed to teach you a language but a friend of mine had already bought one and from what I could see it was pretty much the same. I actually thought Duolingo was better because not only were you repeating the words but also typing them. I am personally thrilled and am doing a short presentation on Duolingo in my computer class today.

        • Nice! I definitely agree that Duolingo is at least on par with – if not better than – a majority of the courses you can get that you actually have to pay for. I just find that for myself anyway there’s just no substitute for practicing talking with another person.

  • Hello,
    I tested this service.
    It’s seems to be good,
    but as you say, for the moment languages are limited
    (i would like to learn chinese)
    and we can’t speak with natives.
    Maybe there will be some evolutions in a few weeks
    See you
    Fabrice

    • Thanks for commenting! I’m looking forward to them adding new languages as well, particularly Mandarin. Hopefully in time they’ll add ways to interact with natives although I’m not sure how it would fit into their translation based business model.