As of 2023, Duolingo is probably the most famous language learning platform. You’ve probably heard of it even if you aren’t an experienced language learner, and it’s been reviewed over and over. However, as a site which reviews language learning resources, it wouldn’t be complete without having at least a few words to say about the current leader in the industry. Even if you’ve heard about Duolingo thousands of times, you might still have a lot of unanswered questions. Duolingo generated strong feelings in the language learning community, with learners both loving and hating it. A new language learner might be wondering why something seemingly so mundane causes such polarization, and what the truth is as to whether this platform is useful or not.
Why do fans love it?
Duolingo gained its initial popularity by being free and relatively comprehensive as far as free platforms go. The previous industry leader was Rosetta Stone, which started in the 90s and was originally sold on discs in physical stores. With Duolingo’s accessibility, ease of use, and being comprehensive enough for beginner and lower intermediate users, it quickly rose to the top, and many learners probably don’t even know what Rosetta Stone is anymore.
Over time, Duolingo expanded, adding languages, features, and course content. In addition to the main “tree”, the set of lessons available for a particular language, Duolingo includes interactive “stories” and practice exercises. The main lessons consist of introductions to new vocabulary, followed by multiple choice questions, sentence translation exercises, matching, and optional listening and pronunciation exercises. The lessons are categorized by topic and grammatical features, and build upon each other. Practice lessons include review exercises similar to the main lessons. “Stories” are interactive stories which stop the reader and pose multiple choice questions.
Many fans love Duolingo because it has a decent selection of languages, an intuitive, easy to use interface, and, depending on the language, a lot of content. Although Duolingo is no longer free for the full version, the free version is still a “good enough” supplement for casual learners, and the paid version is inexpensive and still cheaper than a lot of other resources.
Why do critics hate it?
Despite everything that made Duolingo so popular, you may have heard that Duolingo has some very strong critics, as well. It is worth mentioning, however, that many of these criticisms, if listened to more closely, are not actually directed at Duolingo, but at the way some users use it. In fact, after taking this into account, the amount of people who actually “hate” Duolingo is very small. Even many Duolingo fans might agree with some of the criticisms of how the platform is used.
Essentially, some learners expect Duolingo to be their one stop shop to learn a language. They are then disappointed when they complete an entire Duolingo course and find themselves not knowing the language. A lot of times when it sounds like someone is making fun of Duolingo users, it is not actually Duolingo users that are being laughed at, but the idea that what is essentially a language learning game meant to use on the side is supposed to teach the entire language.
There are, however, other criticisms of Duolingo. Some feel that the gamification is too much. Duolingo has many features that seem straight out of regular video games, like XP and even XP boosts that allow a user to earn more XP for a period of time. This XP, of course, does not have any real life use, it’s just a way to make it fun. Some find this to be too not serious for a language learning tool, however, if learners really don’t like it, they can easily just ignore it.
Another criticism related to this is that Duolingo encourages bad learning habits due to how far the gamification has gone. If a learner gets too caught up in having fun by trying to earn as much XP as possible, it can distract from actual learning. Essentially, the practice lessons, which are useful if used correctly, can be done very quickly to earn large amounts of XP. At some point, repeating practice lessons over and over does not really give the user much progress in terms of actual language learning.
Gamification aside, some feel that Duolingo is designed to keep the learner doing a course as long as possible instead of actually learning the language. They feel that Duolingo progresses too slowly while not really teaching much. This criticism has become more common after the “path” update. Essentially, the former Duolingo course structure was a bit more flexible. Users could choose to level up a topic all the way, or just pass and move on to the next part. Also, multiple topics could be unlocked at a time, and users had some flexibility as to what order they were completed in. However, with the path update, there is a set learning path and no longer so much flexibility.
Duolingo has also been criticized for giving disproportionate amounts of attention to particular languages. If one opens, for example, the Spanish course, and then the Navajo course, it is immediately obvious that the lengths of the courses are drastically different. Trying out the courses will also show that the quality differs significantly as well. Even with more popular languages this is noticeable. Anything besides Spanish and French receives a significantly lower amount of attention from the team.
So, should I use it?
Despite all the criticisms, and, many of them being legitimate, I would still say that the answer is a resounding “yes”. First of all, the biggest problem with Duolingo is just the attitude that some users have to it. It is not a replacement for studying, it is not a replacement for consuming content in the language. Duolingo is a fun language learning game that is a useful supplement.
Yes, the gamification can be a bit distracting and somewhat silly at times. However, it is up to each person how much attention is given to this. The most legitimate criticism is probably that the courses are somewhat inflated and do move slowly, especially with the path update. However, if one is learning properly and using multiple resources, it is possible to test out of units and even skip lessons based on one’s performance. So, even this criticism is not too much of a deal.
The difference in course quality between languages is a legitimate criticism as well, to an extent. Only “to an extent” because, all in all, it’s better to have courses available than to not have them available. That being said, some of them were definitely pushed out of beta too quickly. The Navajo course especially has much lower quality than other courses and probably shouldn’t have been pushed out like that. Some courses started out fairly low quality and did improve a lot. Learners who remember trying the Polish course when it first came out might have found it quite low quality, however, it has improved since then. One problem with the shorter courses is that they often reject correct answers because it can be difficult for the developers to input every possible correct answer, and, priority, of course, is given to French and Spanish. This is somewhat annoying, however, generally it isn’t annoying enough to make the course not worth using.
Some of the less developed courses like Hungarian, Turkish, Ukrainian, and Romanian are still quite high quality. However, Latin, for example, is extremely short, and, although fun, not really useful. The Navajo course is so short that it doesn’t even seem useful for anything. However, most of the courses are fairly good, and definitely “good enough” for beginner needs.
All in all, Duolingo is a good supplement, and it’s worth at least trying out. For all its shortcomings, there is a lot more positive than negative about it, and, if used properly, it’s a great tool to use in one’s language learning journey.