What is Duolingo?

A mobile app for learning languages.

It is impressive in that it has over 40 languages, according to Wikipedia and nearly $1B in assets so they are doing something right. Or are they?

I originally used Duolingo to try and learn French maybe 5 years back. I stayed on the free plan and very quickly got bamboozled into quitting. It uses the fremium model of giving a certain number of lives and if you lose them, you have to wait to get more or you can upgrade to a paid plan to get unlimited lives. The Premium plan gives you a few additional things more than unlimited lives but nothing of any real value but for a not-massive amount of money, you can get Premium and move at your own pace.

Or can you?

I rejoined at the end of last year with an intention to stick at it. I had a bit more money than before so I paid for Premium and managed about 280 days in a row before calling it a day, it very quickly becomes more about the game than actually learning the language and has a number of big issues that count against it. To be fair, I am not saying that it is any better than any other app and I suspect the app format is the real issue here. It is very common for Developers to think they can solve all problems with technology but whereas I have heard of people getting quite fluent in a language in 3-6 months, I consider I have only just mastered the basics of French despite Duolingo reminding you that “you can learn more in 1 year than 3 years in college”, no doubt based on some slightly mis-interpreted stat or a best-case scenario.

What is good about it?

Let’s start on a positive note. I think there are some things that are good about it.

  1. You have a prescribed journey with some flexbility. You can choose to continue once a skill has reached level 1 but you can also stay and try and get the maximum level for that skill.
  2. You get a chance to revisit the older skills when they “break” so that one lesson can restore it for a while
  3. You get to keep repeating the questions in a lesson until you get it right so eventually, after 2 or 3 tries you can usually answer the question correctly
  4. I think it is quite good value for money

Why I eventually ditched Duolingo

TLDR; I don’t think it is effective and progress slows with time instead of speeding up

There are a number of things that I don’t think work either 1) With Duolingo specifically and 2) In an App in general

I don’t trust the marketing

They try and reinforce the need to learn every day. In fact, you get “punished” if you miss a day by losing your streak and all the reminders really make a big deal about it. Of course, consistency is good, but feeling anxious that if you lose your streak something bad will happen, is not great for wellbeing. You can use your gems to buy streak freezes but this is dumb really. With the number of gems you earn and the fact you can’t use them for anything much means you could pretty much buy a years worth of streak freezes, although, of course, you need to open the app to use them and I suspect that Duolingo makes the most of those usage stats!

Secondly, they imply that their mission is to bring language training to the world regardless of ability to pay and that buying Premium helps with that. Well, I can’t see how anyone who is not on Premium could learn anything with the ease with which you can lose lives. Having nearly $1B of assets also doesn’t sound charitable, it just sounds like they are trying to oversell their benefit to society and perhaps coerce you to buy the upgrade.

It gets exponentially harder

With languages, the normal experience is some real pain learning the basics, followed by being able to do quite a few everyday things, followed by a longer period of learning more specific words, idioms or special cases. In general, it should feel like you are starting to find things easier. However, with the way the app works, this is not the case.

Theoretically, you learn some basics to start with like “Les femmes” (the women) but then if you try “beaucoup des femmes” (a lot of women) it is wrong. Why? Because it is always “beaucoup de” and the “de” doesn’t get pluralised. That’s fine but as the lessons progress and the sentences get longer, at least in French, any one of various mistakes can trip you up. Agreement, pluralisation, position of adjective, not liasing words, gender etc. In other words, you don’t have 1 potential mistake, you might have 9. Now this should mean that they treat a mistake as less serious right (you were 95% right) but most of the time, no, one mistake makes it wrong. As I say, you couldn’t possibly make any progress if you only have 3 lives to begin with.

In languages it is easy to get something slightly wrong and in most cases, it wouldn’t matter. In French, a lot of forms of words are pronounced the same (or very similar) anyway but if you write “des” instead of “de”, the technology treats you like a failure. The only exception is that it does permit typos sometimes, but obviously only when it sees it as a typo and not a mistake.

So what this all means is that you move quickly through the first lessons (I didn’t have much previous knowledge of French) but as you get further on, I am only up to Unit 3 after a year, it can take 15 minutes to complete one lesson so completing all 4 lessons for 5 levels would take you an entire week unless you are committing hours and hours.

The Help is not very Helpful

You get tips for each group of lessons but these are usually very brief. For example, in the unit about “to know”, French has 2 words, “Savoir” and “Connaitre”. The tip says something like “Connaitre” is when you are familiar with something whereas “Savoir” is knowing a fact. Very terse and not untrue but then you get an example like (in French) “I the movie". There is not really a direct correlation between I know the movie factually and I am familiar with it.

You also get tips. These can be helpful early on but they are not very numerous and they can become annoying. Imagine you write, “Il y a beaucoup des voitures” (There are many cars). You get it wrong and the button says “Show tip”, which says, “When using beaucoup, you always use de and not des”. Great and helpful. However, if you much later in the course and you accidentally mistype this, you get the same patronising tip with the same example where it asks you to choose the right answer. It doesn’t distinguish between, “you don’t know this so you need a tip” and “you already know this, so you probably just mistyped” in which case, I don’t want a mandatory tip, just let me carry on.

In fact, the most helpful place is the discussion, a feature that has been disabled, for some reason. The discussion is not available on all questions (presumably questions that were added after the feature was disabled) and the discussions are locked, although in amongst the discussions, I have usually found help for something that I didn’t understand, like “why do I need to use Qu’est at the beginning instead of Quoi”. Obviously the fact that the answer could be in several acceptable forms makes it harder but I honestly can’t see why the people who write the questions, can’t look for certain patterns and show you specific tips, “When using quoi at the beginning on a sentence with est-ce, you must use the shortened form Qu’est”.

I’m not sure why they haven’t harvested the information from these groups and created a much better tip system.

Reading, writing and speaking

Most people only want to speak a language, the writing is very much secondary. However, Duolingo, like a formal course, treats them all as equal siblings. You might be able to speak fluent French but you won’t get through Duolingo if you can’t spell “beaucoup” or you don’t know the correct conjugation for “Savoir” in the third person feminine. The joke, for French, is that many of these words sound the same, they are just written differently, so you are multiplying the difficulty level.

In the same way, if you wrote “que elle” instead of “qu’elle” in a human lesson, your teacher would probably point it out but you wouldn’t stop progressing, you would be able to continue with a lesson and only have to revisit the things that perhaps you keep getting wrong. Again, the technology doesn’t seem to be this subtle and simply treats things as right or wrong.

The speaking part is interesting. Duolingo have a speech engine to listen to you saying phrases, however I have had completely mixed results. There are some times when I have said something pretty much identically to the voice and it doesn’t register it and other times where I have completely butchered the pronunciation, changing it mid sentence and got the question right. There was one, I think it was “dix euros” which was impossible. It did work when I shouted it but that is a real shame because some people end up constantly pressing “I can’t speak now” to avoid the lottery of spoken questions.

The listening questions can also be really hard. It sometimes feels that they are becoming much harder than the words I am learning. Sure, listening is important but having someone speak really fast with words liasing into each other and then being asked, “What is the problem” out of 3 options can be really hard. They are not even simple speeches like, “What is your name” but could be 4 or 5 sentences about someone going to work and missing the bus so they are coming home late.

It is trying to be something it is not

You get these random info panels and one tells you that it is aligned with the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (which probably tells you all you need to know!). Why? Presumably so it can be taken seriously and maybe used officially in schools but what it means is that despite having an opportunity to invent a new good way, it is simply repeating the ineffectiveness of language lessons.

How many people studied a language for 3-5 years at High School then visited the country and realised that they didn’t need to find out “where is the discotheque” or “where is the ferry to Calais”? Many, many, people. Why? Because language lessons are designed by language experts instead of people who just want to communicate.

Language lessons require reading and writing proficiency, they might require a strong memorisation of verb conjugations and a list of fairly arbitrary learning subjects like “school” or “animals”. If Duolingo want to meet this standard, of course they have to follow the same basic idea, a lot or work on things that are not relevant and a lot of emphasis on skills you might not need.

What would work better would be for the app to include the sort of content they put on their blog like real conversations where perhaps you get to ask a question in real time or work through some mock scenarios like buying something in a shop. They could use their engine to work out what you were saying and could even introduce the text but without requiring you to master the spelling.

Anyway Duolingo, good luck!