Duolingo, like Rosetta Stone, is a monster in the language learning industry. However, it’s not clear at first glance how effective it would be for getting you to fluency, or whether all of their claims (such as “the best new way to learn a language”) can be trusted.
To help you decide if Duolingo is worth using for you — and what kind of results people are actually getting with it — we reached out to the language learning community and Duolingo customers asking what their experience with it was like. This article is a compilation of all the best responses.
To recap? The overwhelming feedback so far is that Duolingo may be alright for beginners, and it can get you to a basic level, but it’s vastly better to practice 1-on-1 conversation with a native speaker of your target language, and moving beyond Duolingo to real conversation with real people is essential to being able to be comfortable speaking a language. See these comments for example:
While I would use Duolingo to expand my vocabulary, it really only made sense if I was practicing with someone (source)
I don’t agree that Duolingo is the best way to learn a language. The best way for me is to learn it from a native speaker yourself (source)
Duolingo’s great, but don’t see it as an “all in one” solution. If you want to really get to grips with the language, all you’ll need to do is add some immersive language practice like conversation classes, or best of all, going for some holidays in the country of the language! (source)
It can never substitute for practicing with a native speaker (source)
Platforms such as iTalki are much better to fully learn a language since you get to talk with a native speaker, which offers much more value (source) (EDITORS NOTE: See also Preply for a good alternative to iTalki)
See also here, here, here and here, for example.
One comment from a cognitive psychologist that I feel describes Duolingo quite well is this one from William Wadsworth. Duolingo is very good, it seems, at getting you to remember words (it’s built around something called spaced retrieval practice or spaced repetition), and they do a very good job and keeping you engaged and making you want to continue by making it feel like a game. It is not surprising to me, therefore, that it’s so popular, and why so many people prefer it over the nerve-racking experience of trying to actually speak to a real person. But it’s clear that that’s what you’ll have to do sooner or later to progress. I personally like and agree with much of this article which stresses the importance of getting out of your comfort zone (i.e., apps like Duolingo) and not being afraid to struggle and look foolish in front of native speakers.
In addition, don’t forget to check out our piece on the best way to learn a foreign language for advice on how to learn a language beyond tools like Duolingo 🙂 (at the time of writing, there are 17 great comments people have submitted to us).
Have a read through the comments below in their entirety for more information on Duolingo. And if you’ve used Duolingo and would like to comment about your experience with it (and especially if you disagree with anything here), you’re welcome to make a contribution here.
EDITORS NOTE & UPDATE: For a similar tool to Duolingo, check out our Mondly review for a rundown of Mondly (Duolingo’s primary competitor). In that article, we also compare Duolingo to Mondly in some depth.
Duolingo can be a great way to get a basic foundation of a language, but claiming it's the world's best way to learn a language is a bit of a stretch.
I moved to Germany around six months ago and when I found out that this move was actually happening, I threw myself into Duolingo to learn as much German as I could before arriving. The gamified way of studying the language was really appealing and I found myself keen to go through even just a few lessons each night after work when I had some free time.
When I landed in the country though, it was clear that Duolingo really cannot prepare you for the experience of having to interact with native speakers - which is, I would say, itself the best way to learn a language. Stumbling through a conversation at the supermarket will force you to learn ten times more than any app could teach you.
That said, Duolingo and apps like it definitely serve a purpose. The vocabulary I learned from it has really helped me with things like reading signs or understanding menus. So while I would recommend it to anyone looking to kickstart their skills in a particular language, just keep in mind that it's going to be quite a basic foundation and being actually on the ground will help you so much more.
--Anna Barker, LogicalDollar
I must admit, it is really good and easy to learn new words. Because each module has many small tests and exercises, you need to go through them quite a lot of times to unlock a new level. This method makes you use the new words, the articles etc a lot of times. What I really enjoy about Duolingo is the fact that they use prononciation sounds for sentences and words so you can get comfortable with how it sounds in the respective language. The exercises are really nice and fun, and you can easily learn a basis by doing this even 30 minutes per day. I really think it is a good way to learn a language fast, so I understand how it is so popular.
--Marina Anton, Lifewithm
Before moving to France, I researched different apps that could help me learn French. When I used Duolingo, I felt that I wasn’t learning enough, despite the incentives and gamification throughout the app. So I opted for another app called “Tandem” that allows you to connect with others learning a language where you can exchange practicing the language. So while I would use Duolingo to expand my vocabulary, it really only made sense if I was practicing with someone. In the end, I got way more practice and retained French when I was being corrected by a person on the Tandem app versus the Duolingo app.
--Nicole Caba, Avvinue
Last year I worked for a irrigation company. Majority of the workers came from either Mexico or Puerto Rico on a work visa. I decided to download and try Duolingo because one of the guys from Mexico had been using it. His English was broken but it was easy to understand what he was trying to say. Duolingo isn’t going to make you perfect at speaking the intended language. It will make you understandable. I believe that Duolingo from my experience is the best free way to learn a language. In a couple weeks of using Duolingo I went from not knowing any Spanish to being able to piece sentences together.
--Aziz Bey, Level Headed Gaming
I think Duolingo is a great introduction to language learning and it can help users learn the basics of their target language, but I wouldn't recommend it for intermediate or advanced users. The words and phrases you learn with Duolingo also aren't very useful a lot of the time, but Duolingo seems to be improving this aspect.
The learning activities are also very, very repetitive. You can't progress or explore other topics until you complete certain lessons, and this gets really frustrating after you learn the basics.
Overall, I think its popularity stems from the fact that it's free, easy to use, and has really catchy branding. I love that it has introduced a lot of people to the joys and benefits of language learning, but in my opinion, it's just that - an introduction. There are a lot of other great apps out there that can help serious language learners gain fluency more effectively than Duolingo.
--Chad Emery, Langoly
I used to use Duolingo to prepare myself for going on vacation. However, after using the app two or three times, it only ended up teaching me basic words and phrases which weren’t really relevant so I stopped using it.. I feel the app should cater specifically for people going abroad only for a few days by having the option to learn things like ordering at restaurants, asking for directions, navigating public transport, and other similar scenarios.
--Adam Lumb, LaptopUnboxed.com
I’ve tried Duolingo before and yes, its a very effective tool in helping you learn other languages. Thanks to the app I am able to converse at the basic level of Japanese which really helps me in my future plans since I plan to go to Japan after the Coronavirus is cured.
However, I don’t agree that Duolingo is the best way to learn a language. The best way for me is to learn it from a native speaker yourself. I was able to learn basic Russian back in college since I had a Russian roommate and she’d often speak in her mother tongue from time to time.
Conversing with real people who know the language by heart is still the best method to learn a new language. At least that’s the case for me.
--Nancy Baker, ChildMode
Duolingo is free and accessible. Many of the languages always seem to be adding cool features. There are stories, podcasts and chatbots. These all offer learners the opportunity to acquire language in meaningful contexts through interesting content and conversations.
Games are fun. This gamification of language learning is one of Duolingo's best features. Imagine all of that dopamine rushing into the brains of people learning languages and having fun at the same time.
One negative is that Duolingo has a lot of translation. There is some merit in this, as the program allows a learner to learn a lot of grammar, vocabulary and structures in this context. Many of these sentences are not necessarily useful for the types of communicative contexts a learner would realistically find themselves in. This deliberate learning should only come after acquisition.
Duolingo certainly has merit. However, I would never recommend doing one app over and over again to learn a language. You will get bored and give up. You didn't learn your first language that way. I would certainly supplement this with a tutor on italki, or partner on HelloTalk. Learners should know that Duolingo is most geared to novice/low-intermediate as well, so don't expect this one tool to take you to fluency.
--Janina Klimas, reallifelanguage.com
I’m a cognitive psychologist specialising in the science of learning and memorising. I can comment on Duolingo not only as a user, but also explaining some of the science behind what it does well, and where it falls short.
Duolingo is built around two principles: the science of getting information into memory, and the art of gamification. Duolingo’s teaching method is built around something called “spaced retrieval practice” – that’s a very powerful learning technique based on modern memory psychology. Simply put, it works by asking you to recall (or “retrieve”) what you learned from memory – that’s the “retrieval” bit. Then it makes you practice “retrieving” that new word again and again, spacing out your practice attempt over minutes, days and eventually weeks (the “spaced” bit).
Each time you practice remembering (retrieving), the word sticks more firmly in memory, and you remember it for longer, giving you a feeling of progress as you learn more and more.
But Duolingo knows that a feeling of progress isn’t the only thing that will keep most people engaged: they’ve also built in some gamification to make sure you come back for more. From the nudges to “keep up your streak” of learning days down to the little celebratory tings when you get a question right, it’s all designed to keep you engaged, by making it feel fun.
But as anyone who’s ever “learned” an entire language in Duolingo knows, there’s still a long way to go before you can converse fluently with a native. You’ll be starting to build a decent little vocabulary after finishing your Duolingo training, but you’ll still need a lot more practice at constructing language in “real world” situations.
Duolingo’s great, but don’t see it as an “all in one” solution. If you want to really get to grips with the language, all you’ll need to do is add some immersive language practice like conversation classes, or best of all, going for some holidays in the country of the language!
--William Wadsworth, Exam Study Expert
I've used Duolingo, and I think it's great when it's used as a supplement to other, more robust language learning tools. It gamifies language learning, which makes it fun to progress. Also, the short activities make it easy to do any time of day.
However, it shouldn't be the only language learning tool in your arsenal. It can never substitute for practicing with a native speaker, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or reading comprehensible (just slightly above your current language level) texts.
--Rachel Kamath, Small World Spanish
I think Duolingo can be a supplemental language learning tool when you are a beginner learner. I've found from personal experience that the gains really start to plateau if you're an intermediate or more advanced language learner. The best way to really make strides in language acquisition based on personal and professional experience and conversations with Spanish professors at the university level, is through language immersion (for example: study abroad or living/working in a country where the target language is primarily spoken).
From working and teaching English in a foreign country, I don't think Duolingo was primarily helpful for students (nor was Rosetta Stone, which we used with our high school students). In fact, the more useful forms of students making gains in English learning came when they took an interest in watching English-speaking TV shows and movies and listened to English language music in their freetime. I haven't looked into the data on this area of language learning but from anecdotal evidence, it was clear these were successful modes of language acquisition for many of my students.
--Nicole Jacobson, Spanish Studies Abroad
I tried using DuoLingo to improve my Spanish. I had taken one semester in college and live in Miami, where Spanish is very useful.
I feel that DuoLingo is great for increasing your vocabulary, but I found that if I hadn't already had a base knowledge of grammar, it would have been confusing on how to conjugate and create real sentences. It never clearly explained how to construct a thought or the nuances of word order. There's a function akin to a forum where users can try to answer popular questions, but it's far from making you have confidence in the answer.
I've found that Babbel is way more effective and inexpensive. I would have been unable to learn about conjugation irregularities and other tenses. Babbel also allows you to revisit the same lessons and doesn't use the pressure of competition and collecting points to compare to your friends.
The takeaway: good for increasing vocabulary and mildly entertaining but that's about it. You get what you pay for.
--Belinda Stohner, musicalfairytales.com
I think Duolingo is definitely a great way to get started on learning any language, from basic vocabulary to more advanced lessons. It's practical and most importantly fun, as it gamifies the language learning experience as you unlock more advanced content as you pass each objective. With that being said, I still think there is no replacement for real one on one language lessons in person or with an online tutor.
Platforms such as iTalki are much better to fully learn a language since you get to talk with a native speaker, which offers much more value. With an online tutor, you can ask questions, choose specifically what you want to learn, and overall it's more enjoyable to speak to a human as opposed to an app on my tablet. Language is about talking and listening, so learning through a tutor is the best way to understand all the cultural nuances and really master the language at its core.
--Ron Stefanski, OneHourProfessor.com
I am a personal Spanish tutor, and I find that, while Duolingo can/should have a small place in a person's language learning, it can't be the way you learn how to have real, honest-to-goodness conversations. It's great to supplement a real course, but it shouldn't be the only way you learn. There are three issues with most apps these days: 1) they serve as mainly digital flash cards. 2) They may give you useful phrases to memorize, but you don't know what you are actually saying with each word. 3) None of them offer 1-on-1 support.
That last one is huge. A person will make the most progress when they have access to someone they can bounce things off of. If you are looking for a practice session, there are actually online forums you can visit to have conversations,like Italki or Linguaholic, but a personal tutor can help with so much more. You really get completely personalized attention: get help with pronunciation, address your individual struggles, even request vocabulary you might need in your profession.
--Jennifer Raper, ABC Spanish Now
What is so great about Duolingo is that it genuinely scaffolds the learning process from one stage to the next as you dive into whichever language you please. It is an app that builds upon language learning skills by analyzing the learner's pace and progress. At the same time, Duolingo is by no means the sole form of language learning that I rely upon. I think the best and quickest way to learn a language is total emersion, whether in a country or by merely reading a book in Spanish and buying a copy in English.
--Sarah Cantero, wildestmoon.com
I have been using Duolingo for the past two years and love it. However, as a foreign language teacher, I see it's benefits and it's shortcomings.
Duolingo certainly does a great job of keeping you engaged in learning with the rewards systems. I personally am very motivated by keeping my streak alive, so even on days that I am busy I make time to do at least one lesson. One of the most important parts of learning a new language is practicing it daily, so the way they ignite that desire to keep coming back is great. They also do a good job of offering different modes of displaying the information, you have to listen, write, and read to complete a lesson.
However, Second Language Acquisition research suggests that people don't learn a language well if they learn it from direct translation, and Duolingo is entirely based on direct translation. While direct translation can be useful at times, it should not be the sole means of learning, there should be some immersion involved. Unfortunately, there is no way to do immersion learning on Duolingo, which is a major fault with the app.
Additionally, Duolingo does not do a good job of integrating the Interpersonal and Presentational modes of communication. They focus mainly on the interpretive mode, which is the easiest form. Finally, Duolingo does not adequately teach the 5 C's of language learning--Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities. They focus only on the Communications aspect and don't teach anything related to the culture. This is a HUGE flaw. One of the biggest things someone needs when communicating in a foreign language is an understanding of culture of the person with whom they are communicating. If you do not understand the underlying culture, there could be a disconnect in meaning, even if you understand the meaning of each word individually.
--Michaela Parisi, LoonyLearn
Duolingo’s gamification of the language-learning process makes it really engaging and fun for users. This is a huge strength, since it can take what feels like homework for some and turn it into a voluntary activity. I was polishing my Spanish last year and kept a daily streak for more than 6 months! I was so committed to keeping that streak going that I set up notifications for myself every evening so I wouldn’t forget.
That said, it’s good for intuitive learners. It will slowly introduce you to different grammatical structures and verb tenses, but it doesn’t spell it out the way a teacher or handbook would, so you may struggle with it depending on how you learn.
Another language program that works exceptionally well at teaching conversational language is Pimsleur. It won’t get you very far in a classroom, but it can teach you a lot in a small amount of time if you have a vacation coming up. I’ve used it to learn a little Spanish, Turkish, and Mandarin before my own travels.
--Daniel Caughill, The Dog Tale
At first glance, Duolingo seems like a great app and service. It gives you a neat way to start learning something as complicated as a new language. Their teaching methods, like colorful pictures and sound recordings, are really well done and have certainly helped me a lot when I was first starting to use the app.
I've started learning German, as I was preparing for a trip there, and thought using Duoling would be an inexpensive way to prepare myself for the visit.
After a couple of months, I can say it helped. A little. I knew a few key phrases and sentences, I also could listen and understand the gist of the language a bit easier.
I think that everyone is aware that apps can't replace meaningful interactions between real people, and I think that's the thing that's missing the most from Duoling.
I crammed the material and knew it by heart, but when I needed to improvise and adapt it to a specific situation I failed.
I think that's the main con of Duolingo, but I also think that anyone should be aware, and no one should expect to come out sounding like a native speaker after a couple of months of playing with your phone in a foreign language.
--Bryan Stoddard, Homewares Insider
I've used Duolingo on and off over the years and while it won't get everyone to fluency, it can offer you a solid base in a language. Duolingo gives people the chance to learn languages that most other big apps don't such as Hawaiian or Welsh. And for my fellow nerdy folk, they even offer constructed languages (also known as conlangs) like Klingon and High Valyrian.
For those just looking to refresh a language they've learned in a more formal setting, Duolingo can be a great way to keep basic skills up to par. It's also helpful for those who may be taking a trip in the future and don't need to know all the ins and outs of a language's grammar.
For more serious learners Duolingo isn't always the best place to start. My most recent experience has been trying out the Korean course and because I've used things like textbooks and language exchange partners, the lack of explanation around certain topics can be jarring.
The games are simple and as a platform, it's fairly accessible. They also offer courses in a wide range of languages other than English.
All in all, it probably won't get you fluent, but it won't hurt to use.
--LeDonna Jackson, Discovering Language
I have been using Duolingo to learn Spanish for over 14 months now. I do think that it has helped me to get to a certain basic level of understanding, but I currently feel that I am stuck.
After six months of using Duolingo every day to improve my Spanish, I met up with a couple that I know who are originally from Madrid. When I told them that I've been learning Spanish for over 6 months, they were very pleasantly surprised and immediately switched over to speaking Spanish with me.
This is when I realized that I can only understand about 10% of what they say and struggle hard to say something back to them. I figured that I just needed to practice more. Now after a year of being on the platform, I met the same couple again and they asked me if I was still learning Spanish. When I said yes, the same thing happened, they started speaking to me in Spanish and after all this time of learning Spanish for over a year and having a 300+ day streak, I still only understood 10-15% of what they were saying.
So what I took away from this was that Duolingo can get you to a certain level, but if you want to advance higher from there, you need to figure out another method of learning. Since I'm seriously interested in learning Spanish, I started taking some one on one lessons from a language teacher and this is what has really helped me improve my Spanish. Now I'm looking forward to seeing the couple again and I am also looking forward to travelling to Spain to put my skills into use and further develop them.
--Lisa Arlington, Giftsnerd
Language learning takes a long time. I have passed the highest possible level of the Japanese Proficiency Test, but I’ve been at it for around 20 years.
I believe the quickest way to learn a language is by listening and speaking. This is partly because you can to do it while doing other things, eg. while walking, driving or taking transport. So it becomes much more efficient and manageable in everyday life. Duolingo can only be done when you are concentrating on it alone, meaning the time you can devote to it is instantly limited. For this reason, using duolingo as your main way of learning a language is not the most time effective way to do it.
On the positive side, Duolingo still provides a lot of learning value at the unbeatable price of zero dollars. You’d have to say that’s a big plus. And unlike most platforms, the entire core feature set is free. The paid version just gives you a couple of time saving features by removing ads and allowing you to take tests to jump ahead in the content. Paid also lets you download lessons, but that doesn’t seem like such an issue considering the availability of mobile networks and data these days.
Duolingo really shines in its slick gamification. It motivates you with badges, leagues, competing with friends and strangers, buzzes, whizzes, little birds popping up from the side of the screen. So if you approach it like you would spending time playing any other game, it makes sense. You’ll definitely be learning more than if you were running round shooting up zombies.
Overall, I’m a fan of Duolingo, as a starting point, and as something to “play” around with that will give you a measure of language practice. Just remember that if you want to be a language champ, you’re also going to have to spend very many hours actually “on the court”.
--Peter Head, Japanoscope