Duolingo, a love/hate story

I have a long and complicated relationship with Duolingo . The hate side, in short, is that I think the way Duolingo models language and thinks/treats language is fundamentally atomistic and inimical to good principles of second language acquisition. The love side is that I actually enjoy and continue to use Duolingo daily, and gain a measurable benefit from it. In this post I want to explore and reflect on these two things in light of recent and long-term experience.

Background

According to my account, I first joined Duo in March 2012, so that’s a long time on the app. For very long periods I have been inactive. I currently have a 636 day streak, which is in large part thanks to the Scottish Gaelic course. It’s the only tree I’ve finished, and it’s where I’ve spent the bulk of my actual time.

Recently I was taken by a desire to get “all the achievements”, including probably the most difficult, “Finish #1 in the Diamond League”. Leagues, if you don’t know are randomly assigned groupings of 50 or so users, and the top 10 get promoted. So I had to reactivate leagues, work my way back up to Diamond. And Diamond can get very competitive. For the week I was committed to winning, I activated a trial of Duolingo Plus, and liberally used a few competitive tricks: (i) when you complete a level on the mobile app, you typically get a 15mins double XP boost, (ii) some lesson options give you more XP than others. So I would organise my time to complete a level, and then go flat out on maximal XP options for 15min blocks.

So, the last month and the last week in particular has seen me spend way too much time on Duolingo, and I’ll be scaling back to more normal levels from now on.

What’s bad in Duolingo?

  • Despite all the little features here and there, the fundamental building block of Duolingo courses is paired sentences. The core activity is “translate sentence X from L1 to L2 or L2 to L1”. There are tons of variations on this, on how this is accomplished : selecting the words in order, selecting missing words (cloze exercises), selecting correct endings only for targeted grammar, supplying A/B answers in L2 to an L2 prompt, reading into the microphone for a pronunciation check, etc etc.. Some of these, I admit, are not predicated on a paired sentence idea, but lying in the background is that building block. And, also to be fair, well-supported languages will accept a good variation of ‘correct’ translations in either direction for each sentence. It’s not “you must translate sentence A1 with corresponding sentence B1 only”.
  • Because this is the fundamental building block though, Duolingo is mainly training you to rapidly translate sentence to sentence. This isn’t really how language works, and it’s not how good language instruction ought to work – there’s no genuine communication here, there’s no context beyond the app, there’s no meaning exchange here. Let’s not lose sight that this is basically drills forever. The best Duolingo gets to a meaningful communication activity are the Stories feature, which presents a short L2 narrative and asks some L2 questions for comprehension as you go. That actually *is* a great feature, for the major languages supported with it.
  • The nature of the exercises, especially when they are “chose and rearrange the words”, actually narrows the options so much that it can often be too easy to figure out the meaning of a sentence without processing the L2 information at all, just because of the options you have in the L1.
  • Some courses are actually terrible. I’m often asked about the Latin course, or worse yet told by people that that’s what they’re mainly using, and I think the Latin course is dreadful. The audio is poorly executed, the course hasn’t been well-supported enough to demonstrate the syntactical variations Latin allows, and the brevity and simplicity of the course leaves a lot to be desired. For a Latin learner, I would almost certainly say don’t spend time on Duolingo , it’s drawbacks far outweigh the time you’re wasting on it.
  • The XP feature, and the league tables, are actually bad for you. As soon as you gamify and numerify something like this, the natural brain reaction is to want to earn more XP. This is even more so if you’re in the leagues. The best way to earn XP is the worst way to use Duolingo – switch off listening and recording exercises, select exercises to active double-XPs, and then do the legendary crowns, presuming you know all that content.

Re: Courses

My most completed trees, if you’re wondering, are Gaelic, and French (oddly enough, I have no particular reason to learn much French but I find it easy and appealing). That should help place the following in perspective

  • Majority European Languages are among the best supported and developed in Duolingo , not surprisingly as they are incredibly popular and Duolingo has a vested interest in making them better and better. French is a good example, it has (I believe) 210 separate skills making up 10 levels, as well as the stories feature, and more and varied exercise types.
  • Scottish Gaelic is, of all the minority languages that I’ve tried, an excellent example of what’s possible. Firstly, the initial core course was put together by a small band of volunteers in an extremely short time, and it was then expanded to a relatively robust course. It has 5 levels, just over 3500 words, and it’s got (a) good idiomatic Gaelic, (b) a thoughtful grammatical sequencing, (c) interesting, culturally appropriate content, (d) an excellent sense of humour, (e) quality native-speaker recordings that are clear.
  • Others? I’ve dabbled in the Irish course (has a few problems, from all accounts, and these have never been addressed. A bit of a worry that despite being significantly older that the Scottish Gaelic course, it has not been expanded), German, Italian, Chinese (generally good but has some odd things in it here and there in terms of sequencing), Hebrew, Greek, Japanese, Russian, Navajo, High Valyrian, and Klingon. The off-beat conlangs are undersupported courses, really. So, often the quality of the course just depends on who is putting time into improving them.

So what does Duolingo do well?

In my opinion and experience, Gaelic Duolingo did not teach me much ‘new’ in the way of grammar. Nor, probably, has it done much to improve my speaking ability. What it has done, though, is (a) introduce me to some new vocabulary that I hadn’t encountered before, (b) given me some explicit grammar practice on structures that I don’t normally use actively, (c) helped my spelling when I force myself to write in Gaelic words, (d) provided more than a few laughs.

That’s personally, and it’s because my Gaelic is beyond the Duolingo level, really. How about French? It’s harder to say, I have dabbled a little in reading French before, I have very strong Latin, and I don’t use French in my life at all. Is my knowledge of French growing? Yes, slowly. Will Duolingo “get me there”? If “there” is conversational fluency, I severely doubt it. But if “there” is “having a reservoir of useful knowledge about French that could be tapped if I wanted to actually learn French”, then I think the answer is yes.

Another good thing about Duolingo , I would put, is that because it’s a low-threshhold entry activity, which has attempted to gamify language learning and build in reward structures (for better or worse), it does “get people in”. Gaelic Duolingo has done that quite well – a large number of people signed up for the course, and while the number who continue is obviously much smaller, and the number still who go on to other learning options smaller yet, that’s all still language awareness and learner growth. Given that Duolingo Gaelic was an unfunded volunteer effort, that is a huge positive for the language.

 

Should you use Duolingo?

If you think Duolingo is going to get you to some kind of conversational proficiency, then you’re wrong. If you think Duolingo is going to be a bit of fun that you can sandwich into the odd spare moment here and there and get a quick 1-1.5 minute language fix, then yes. Provided you understand the caveats, and granted that some courses are far superior to others. I wouldn’t waste any time on Duolingo Latin, for instance. I would happily pass some time on quite a few languages though. And then I would take that knowledge and go leverage it into something more communicative and ultimately more useful.

How should you use it then?

Having said a qualified, “go for it if you want to”, here’s how I think Duolingo could be best used. Preferably, use it on the desktop. Switch on keyboard-input only so that you’re typing out words and learning to type and spell in the L2. Split your session over just a couple of skills : something old, something new, something in between. Don’t chase XP, and don’t think Duo is the end game, it’s a tool that will get your foot in the door of language learning.

One response

  1. I gave this app to my son to practice his Chinese, the non paid version, just to see how it goes. Initially he did quite enjoy the way it worked, but because of the way it encouraged payment (penalties for incorrect answers ends the study session) he quickly began to hate getting that wrong answer prompt to the point where he was scared to get the incorrect answer and within a few days he hated it.

    I am sure the experience is good a lot better if you are paying for the product, but I didn’t realise the psychological effect the free version would have on him. After I realized the impact it was having on his desire to study I stopped encouraging it.

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