Duolingo Review: Does the Resource Offer Compelling Content?
Duolingo is one of the most popular language learning tools on the Internet. It is certainly the best known. It has been well promoted, and it is free, which is a big advantage. I have a limited amount of time available for language learning, so for me the fact that it is free is less important than making sure my language learning activities are effective, and conform to how I like to study languages.
The learning tasks at Duolingo are pleasantly presented and cleverly gamified. Duolingo tells us we can learn a language in five minutes a day, which I sincerely doubt. The user gets frequent rewards for correct answers. A variety of messaging is used to persuade us not to quit, but it didn’t work for me. I need meaningful content. Even with the same activities, I want them based on content that is larger, more substantial, more meaningful.
For reasons I will explain below, however, after several attempts, I have simply been unable to get far enough into Duolingo to do an in depth review. My comments here will be superficial, and maybe unfair. For a more detailed review I recommend one of the best reviews of Duolingo I have come across (below), a video review of Duolingo by Langfocus. I will just touch on a few issues in this post.
Can you Actually Learn a Language with Duolingo?
In researching Duolingo, I came across an article stating that 2.3 million people are using Duolingo to learn Irish. Are they learning Irish? I don’t know. Apparently more than 100 million people are using Duolingo to learn a variety of languages. What do these people actually learn? Duolingo tells us that “34 hours on the site is equivalent to a full university semester of language education”, based on a study paid for by Duolingo.
Needless to say this is a meaningless assertion. Success in learning a language would depend more on the attitude and commitment of the learner, the language involved, and the kind of university course being compared. The five minutes a day Duolingo recommends we spend on their system may not be the most important factor affecting the learner’s success.
Stephen Krashen has written an excellent article about that study in which he states the following:
“Participants in their study were not typical of university students: Their average age was 35, 69% were college graduates and many had graduate degrees. The mean time dedicated to Duolingo was 22 hours, but there was substantial variation: 25% of the subjects completed eight hours or less, with one student doing only two hours. Some students did much more than the average, with one student completing 133 hours. The standard deviation around the mean of 22 hours was large, 20.4 hours. There was a high dropout rate: Only 90 of the 156 subjects who started the program lasted until the end.”
How were these Duolingo learners tested?
“Subjects were asked to use Duolingo for 30 hours and to take a standardized test, the WebCAPE, a multiple choice test that is clearly form-based.”
Multiple choice and gamification, as well as translation, are at the core of Duolingo. In my view, they will not, by themselves, lead to language acquisition, even though many people enjoy doing these things. I believe, with Krashen, that only massive exposure to meaningful content can do that. The best scenario is that Duolingo users are introduced to the learning of a language, and become motivated to start doing the other things that will enable them to learn: reading, listening, writing and speaking.
Duolingo is undoubtedly greatly appreciated by many people or there wouldn’t be 100 million people using it. For me, however, Duolingo is quite limiting.
Using Duolingo for Greek
I have been studying Greek for a little over three months, mostly using LingQ. I have put in about an hour or an hour and a half per day. This consists of an hour or so a day listening and another 30 plus minutes reading and using LingQ on my iPad. My statistics at LingQ show that I have read almost 70,000 words, saved almost 10,000 words and phrases to my personal database, and have 2,700 known words. I have spend most of my time with our series of repetitive yet interesting mini-stories.
I have also worked my way through newspapers with the help of online dictionaries. I’ve had five online conversations with italki tutors. I was able to discuss simple things, like my planned trip to Greece, what I like to eat, why I decided to learn Greek, etc. I tried to talk about the economic crisis in Greece but I just don’t have the words.
However, at Duolingo, where I can’t get past the beginner level, I am tested on such terms as
“This is my turtle.”
“My dog drinks water.”
“A bird is eating a mouse.”
The questions are either multiple choice, translation or dictation. It is time consuming to do these quizzes and frustrating that I continue to get enough of them wrong so that I can’t progress to anything of interest to me. But looking ahead, even if I do get through these basic modules, what are lined up in front of me are more segments on food, animals, clothing and relatives. If I ever get beyond that, I have the feeling that I will only have more multiple choice, translation and dictation exercises.
At LingQ I can also do flash cards, dictation, multiple choice and cloze tests, but the vocabulary is from content of interest that I have read, and can listen to whenever I want, wherever I am. I don’t want to do all of my learning just sitting in front of a computer, going through unconnected words and sentences.
“Getting things right” in the various Duolingo tests is not that meaningful to me. I know from experience that I can get things right today, and then get them wrong a week from now. I need a lot of meaningful exposure for things to eventually really sink in.
On Duolingo I can’t explore the language. I have to submit to the system. The system dictates to me, tells me what to learn, things like “A bird is eating a mouse”. Langfocus did a great video on the ridiculous nature of many of the phrases that we are forced to learn in Duolingo called Duolingo is the Devil!.
Trying Again with Polish
But determined to give Duolingo a chance, I decided to try Polish. Maybe Polish would be better than Greek. In Polish I understand podcasts on politics, have read books with the help of LingQ and listened to serious audio books on Polish history. I have read 570,000 words of Polish, saved 35,000 words and phrases and know 33,000 words according to my LingQ statistics. I don’t know how many hundreds of hours of Polish I have listened to, but it is a lot.
However, even in Polish at Duolingo, I can’t bypass the first stage. I tried the placement test to see if I could bypass the beginning modules about animals, food, clothing and relatives. I failed, either because I made spelling mistakes, grammar mistakes, or because the text-to-speech audio for the dictation is barely comprehensible.
You might say that I should buckle down and work on the beginner exercises till I get them right, but I don’t want to. I don’t care about getting things right. I want language content that is compelling. I don’t have to write exams in Polish, I just want to understand what people are saying in films, books, or when I get together with them. That I have largely achieved. I know from experience that with a sound vocabulary and the exposure that I have, I will be able to hold my own in conversation, if not at first, then eventually.
I was told that Duolingo for Japanese is really good. I can see that a gamified and flash card approach to learning a completely new script can be effective as an introduction to a language. If we can read, then we can really commit to reading (and listening). When I went to check out Japanese on Duolingo, I found that the course is not yet finished. I will go back there in a few months and have a look, although I know Japanese, and in that sense it won’t be a real test.
Sorry for this superficial review, but it is an honest account of my reaction to Duolingo. Please refer to the two videos by Langfocus that I have linked above for more information, or Google for the many reviews available on the Internet.