3 Tutor-Approved Ideas For Learning a Language With Duolingo

Language learning was so boring before a little owl in a tracksuit came along. 

Armed with addictive streak and modern technology, today's smartphone language learning feels more like a computer game than a language lesson. And in many ways, that's a great thing.

Read on to find out my top 3 tips for getting the most out of your Duolingo time.

Read more

Find Amazing Books and Courses for Mastering Language Structures

Woo hoo, welcome to part 2 of our Grammar ♥︎ Season here on Fluent. Previously, I gave you 3 ways to create a simple language learning routine without getting bored about grammar.

Today, let's turn our attention to the tools of the trade. Grammar can be learnt in so many different ways, and there are MILLIONS of tools out there. Some people love the pull out section in their dictionary (I'm so 90s). Others love automated study with tools like the rather excellent Reverso Conjugator.

What Makes A Grammar Resource Useful?

No matter what it is that you're going to use, your grammar resource should always fulfil the following key criteria.

Good Grammar Resources are:

  • Easy to Use
  • Easy to Access
  • Focused on one specific purpose (like "explaining" or "memorizing")
  • User-Friendly
  • Designed to Be Used Instantly

I think the image of a grammar table as this horrific torture device that students must learn to recite by heart is DONE. In a modern, self-taught and independent study routine, grammar becomes your door to speaking to people.

The purpose is a particularly relevant point for me. Sometimes you'll just want to look up an ending, other times you need context and answers. Not everyone enjoys the idea that having a grammar book on the shelf can come in handy, so the trick is really to treat these like an ace that you have up your sleeve. I don't ever read up on things in grammar books at the start of a lesson, but man am I ever glad that they're around when I get stuck.

For Example, Here's How Duolingo Can Be Your Grammar Question Map

Imagine you're working on your target language by building up skill trees on Duolingo. Duolingo is a funny little language learning system. Millions of language learners are using it every day, filling in gaps, learning sentence structures, and listening to that computer voice.

Maybe you know that I have voiced criticisms of Duolingo before, but one thing I do like is the way it builds sentences using a technique of patterns is useful. The app doesn't explain a lot of stuff, though the website has improved a lot in that respect.

Think of the structures Duolingo generates as a signpost pointing you at exactly what it is that you can study.

Every time you ask yourself why your app did a thing, it's time to dive in and investigate. This may be odd at first because it puts the responsibility of learning on you, but it is guaranteed to give you the best high-speed learning journey.

So the question here is not "is Duolingo perfect and useful?", but "where can I look up the answer to this question?"

Come and Join Our Webinar

As I mentioned above, I'm teaming up with Shannon from Eurolinguiste to give you a complete guide to finding the right grammar resources so you can

  • learn faster
  • start speaking earlier, and
  • avoid being tripped up by big gaps after an initial sprint.

To sign up, simply let me know your email address on my special Grammar ♥︎ Season page, and I'll reserve a spot for you right away.

It's a free app loved by millions. Is Duolingo wasting your time?

If you enjoy this article and topic, check out my 2017 update 3 Tutor-Approved Ideas for Improving Your Duolingo Experience, which discusses where language learning is at right now.

Whenever I hear that someone new is starting language learning, I get excited. They’re about to enter into this world of verbs and nouns, expressions and exclamations, new culture and new countries. When I hear you say “I’ve started learning a new language”, I want to give you a big ol’ high five.

duolingo review

That is, until you mention Duolingo. The little app with the friendly owl has become the absolute go-to resource for newbies trying to acquire any language. It’s free, it’s accessible and it is based on solid research. What’s not to love, right?

Here is the thing: I don’t love Duolingo. In fact, I don’t get it. I want to enjoy using this little app. I want to be part of the club of people who sit in a doctor’s waiting room levelling up their vocab, but somehow I just don’t get it. In today’s post, I’m going to try and give you some insight into what it is that is making Duolingo so unattractive to me. And by unattractive, I don’t just mean that I personally don’t want to use it. It’s that I actively stay away from recommending it to people as their first language learning contact. When someone asks me how they can get started learning a new language, I don’t want them to start with the Duolingo app. Why?

1. It’s not the Interface

Duolingo is well-designed, pretty, engaging and takes away a lot of the “dusty books” image from learning. It’s an app designed for modern consumers. The mascot is very cute too, so there is very little to dislike about how Duolingo is designed.

2. It’s not the Gamification

Personally, I don’t feel that giving a language learner three lives to pass a lesson is an idea that you’d ever get away with in real life. Imagine if I carried that message into my lessons? Three errors and you’re out? Same error three times, let me start you again? If any IRL teacher did this to a student, they’d be asked to come in for a review with the pedagogy council. If nothing else, the “three lives” concept can actually deter a student from really learning something by understanding it. It prompts learners to guess their way through lessons by remembering what isn’t correct. The addictive nature of game playing makes it tempting to try again, but it doesn’t help with linguistic understanding.

Now why is this not a huge problem with the app? The thing is it seems to be what millions of people want. People enjoy the gameplay aspect of Duolingo so much that its user base grows every single day. And there’s no arguing with the masses. Maybe the gamification aspect is an ineffective gimmick, but it does make language learning accessible. I would argue that it doesn’t make it more fun, but if a label says “game” on it, you’re just more likely to try.

In other words: I don’t think you need a language learning game in your life, but I like that it makes you want to play.

3. It’s not the Business Model

In Episode 12 of the podcast, Chris Broholm and I touched on Duolingo’s business model, which includes selling user generated translations in exchange for providing free language training. I’m not 100% comfortable with this, partly because we would all be up in arms if Flickr or Facebook did it. Paying with your information is an accepted economic fact on the 21st century internet. In effect, Duolingo is not free. It just doesn’t take your money. As long as you're aware of it as a user, then go for it.

2017 update: Duolingo's business model is always evolving, and I feel confident that this is bringing lots of improvements and more transparency than ever. Thank you, Duolingo.

4. It’s not the Results

Hey, if there have been studies saying that this works then I am not qualified to argue. Duolingo officially works for getting people to do well on tests. In fact, I think as a pronunciation trainer it is doing a pretty good job. Will the system make you love your new language? Will it make you excited to go out and speak, or to read road signs from abroad? Those are the results I care about when a language learning app comes out, but they’re a lot tougher to measure.

So what is my problem?

Here we get to the nitty-gritty of what drives me crazy about Duolingo. Not the general issues or concepts, but the real reasons that I close down the app within minutes of opening it.

2017 Update: If you would like to learn more about how to overcome the problems below, check out the updated Tips for Improving Your Duolingo Experience.

1. It’s the Vocab

Duolingo telling me what my problem is.

Duolingo telling me what my problem is.

When I first started with Duolingo, I tested right into lesson 52 of French. This got me to a vocab level where the app thinks I should handle the following sentences:

“We needed fire.”, “You have to be big.”, “You must eat more.”

I’m not sure that I could come up with many sentences that I am even less likely to use in my life, or to enjoy translating. Because the app generates its sentences automatically, you don’t really get anything that’s very in-depth. In fact, this sentence from a critical review over at Hacking Portuguese sums it up perfectly for me:

The sentences are so far removed from anything that you might actually want to use in conversation that I doubt how much value there is in rote translation.

2. It’s the Translation Pre-Sets

Now, again this is the complaint of an accomplished language learner and not a beginner. I understand that Duolingo isn’t really built with me in mind. For the sake of this post, I tried out both a language I’m proficient at (French) and one that I didn’t know well at all (Danish). Yet I feel it’s justified to complain if they’re going to offer high-level grammatical structures that no one encounters before year 3 or 4 of French, then the computer just needs to become better at knowing that there is way more than one possible translation for most sentences. For a system that builds user habit and loyalty based on little hearts, I lose way too many hearts because I phrase my answers slightly differently than the computer wants me to do this. This is so incredibly frustrating, and so far removed from a joyful and challenging approach to language acquisition that it makes me want to shut down the app straight away.

3. It’s the Machine

I cannot tell you how much I dislike the computer voice. It doesn’t intone, it doesn’t emote, it’s just blank. A blank canvas of words coming at me. Who learns a language for that? Languages are about people. I wish they’d play and work with snippets from media shows or real people’s recordings. Just think of the big efforts Audio Lingua and Rhinospike are making in this area, and you can see that automated heartless computer voices really don’t need to be used in automated language instruction.

Whenever I switch on Duolingo, I get to a place that sits between boredom and outright irritation. Its mechanical, box-ticking structure reminds me of the worst in education, when learners are simply put in front of a multiple choice test and made to regurgitate whatever they had crammed into their minds before. This is not what language learning is about, and this is not how to become good at it. I just straight out refuse to believe that Duolingo can incite the same excitement that a book, a conversation or a foreign tv show could. It doesn’t do it for me.

4. It’s the Lack of Explanations

So here is the thing: Immersion is fine, but I don’t think it’s the answer to all of an adult learner’s language issues. Starting with this app means making up your own explanations for why things are right, it means trial and error. I get the sense that here is where “immersion” becomes completely pointless. In this app, you learn by parroting phrases without even beginning to cover the background stories that grammar and pragmatics tell. I have seen so many forum posts and emails from language learners who felt like they were completely losing the plot and ever wondering “Why am I getting this bit wrong?”. Duolingo would make me so much happier if it provided grammar references, even the most basic ones, and a perspective telling the user “Here’s why people say things this way”. I just cannot fathom how any self-respecting adult learner would put themselves in this babylike position where they simply take the word of a robot as the law. Language learning should make you curious, while this feels to me like it wants to create robots.

Perhaps surprisingly, the aspect of explanation is another thing that the Tell Me More version of Rosetta Stone has been doing rather well. Rosetta certainly isn’t free, but I think it is not comparable.

In Conclusion

This review of Duolingo might fly in the face of what many language beginners experience when they first start interacting with the app. In fact, our regular writer Angel has recently shared her own experiences and lauded Duolingo for a lot of the good stuff it does. The “learning game for adults” aspect of the app is brilliant, and I commend Duolingo for giving millions of people something to do when they feel a little bored online.

I've recently examined Duolingo's advantages in this article, which is exactly how to use this app to really learn a language.

My thoughts come from the point of view of a language teacher, someone who wants people to get into feeling the language instead of simply mastering its technical aspects. Just like the promise of fluency that many tools throw at you, I want you to feel that you have a right to make up your own mind about the Duolingo system. You can use this once a week, you can use it intensively for a few days and run out of steam, or you can just never try at all. Whatever you do, it won’t make you a better or worse language learner.

You’re not going about this the wrong way - in fact, if you are just getting started with a new language, here’s my advice: don't make Duolingo your first stop because it's too likely to be your last. There are lots of cheap ways to start learning a language, so make sure that you put something into place that really is productive and doesn’t just feel that way because you earn 200 meaningless points on an app every day.

Have you had good experiences using Duolingo? Have you stuck with it for more than two weeks? I'm sure there are many ways in which you could argue I'm wrong, and I'd love to hear a few in the comments.

If you Enjoyed This Article..

In addidion to playing with the little owl, go ahead and subscribe to Fluent and receive a copy of my free resource guide to see what else is out there.

Building a Language Foundation with Apps: Babbel and Duolingo

If you're a Fluent regular, you'll be familiar with my regular guest author Angel Armstead, who is ambitious and varies her studies by learning German, Russian, Mandarin Chinese and Japanese. Angel has been focusing on German recently and is on hand today with her own experience report of two leading apps, Duolingo and Babbel.

In this article, she shares the frustrations and benefits of using apps to get a first language foundation.

babbel duolingo

My Language App Choices

I decided late last year to look up German language apps and courses. I came across both Babbel, Duolingo and many others. A lot of apps were just teaching vocabulary which I also need but some didn’t have any sentences so they didn’t keep my attention for long. I eventually decided to go for a Duolingo/Babbel combo and see how that would work.

I heard of Duolingo back when it was still new, and started off with some doubts. I just didn’t believe that it was really 100% free. I assumed that I would do a few lessons and like everything else it would eventually ask for my credit card number. The small amount of languages turned me off. They’re getting Russian soon and hopefully Japanese & Mandarin. Its game-like features also had me wondering if I would learn anything.

In December last year I decided to try it out after getting Pimsleur German from the library. I could understand what was being said in Pimsleur but I was sure that I couldn’t spell any of the words. That’s when I decided to try out Duolingo because I knew they had German. On closer examination, another objection was answered too: I did find out from other users that there were no hidden fees. Duolingo being free was my main reason for trying it out.

First Impressions of Duolingo

When I first signed up, I had decided that I would only be around for a few days then I would move on to something else. Duolingo has an RPG feel, which I liked a lot since those are my favorite games. You get to earn points, level up and buy things with the currency (lingots) that you earn. But I still didn’t expect to do more than just a week because I didn’t expect to learn anything. Within the first few days I learnt a few new words and sentences here and there. I confirmed that I totally couldn’t spell those words. I do like being able to take timed tests to see how fast I can answer a question.  And now, I’m still going with Duolingo. It has become extremely addictive to have RPG aspects plus learning on the same site. It’s the same aspect that keeps me addicted to sites such as HabitRPG.

Duolingo has Skills that you learn and some skills have up to 10 or more lessons. Skills are things such as “Basics” “Food” “Phrases” and a lot more. Duolingo German currently has over 70 skills. I have a long ways to go due to my study for a few days then review for a few days habit. I won’t be finishing my “Skill” tree for quite some time. The lessons seems so short and they are but it’s amazing how many mistakes I can make in such a short lesson. Duolingo has optional skills such as Flirting, Idioms & Christmas that you can buy with the lingots that you earn. I’ve decided to do all the optional skills last.

First Impressions of Babbel

I didn’t have the same negative assumptions toward Babbel as I did with Duolingo. The few people I talked to that used it said they learned a lot of vocabulary and were more confident in the language they were learning. But I wanted more than just the vocab part, so I ordered the three month course last month while they were offering 6 months for the price of 3. I found Babbel just by putting in German language in my Kindle Fire app store. I got Babbel after I started Duolingo and originally was getting it to have something to reinforce what I was learning from Duolingo. I also wanted to learn through different teaching methods.

One thing I noticed straight away is that Babbel is not as game oriented as Duolingo. There are many courses once you pay the fee. I’ve started with the Beginners course and there are 6 beginners courses in all with various lessons in each course. I’ve gone over how to greet someone, ask simple questions and practice dialogues. I’ve even printed out all my dialogues so far.

I love that you have a review lesson to go over those things. When you complete a course, Babbel lets you know what you should know and where it falls in CEFR. Duolingo is fun but I needed more explanation. I needed to know why some things were wrong. I couldn’t understand the German case system at first and wondered why der forms sometimes would change to den. With Babbel, I had to practice going over when to use der or den. I had the same problem with the different ways I saw sie being used. I got it wrong so much in the beginning but now I rarely do. One thing I like about Babbel are the certificates for each course you complete. Maybe I’m a bit of a showoff? This is something I would print out and frame so I can feel a little accomplished even if it’s simply the beginner’s course.

What I like Best about Duolingo & Babbel

I love the RPG aspect of Duolingo such as the leveling up, gaining lingots and “buying” timed tests. I retain a lot more than I expected that I would.  I like Babbel because I feel like it explains things more in depth and is a bit more serious. There are parts of Babbel where I had a whole page of practicing forms.

Once you’ve been put through such a long exercise of practicing all the forms for You, Me and I, you’ll find that they are way harder to forget.

Frustrations with Both

No site is perfect. The thing that bothers me the most is sometimes I feel that other translations could be used. An impersonal teacher such as a program cannot have every viable answer in it. It has the best ones but sometimes the “best” translation is not the one I write down.

Babbel is very strict on spelling. I’ve gotten a lot wrong due to that. I happen to spell too many words based on English spelling and not German. When it first happened it was disappointing because it seemed like I misspelled every word. In Duolingo you would get kicked out the lesson if you did really badly. Duolingo gives you three hearts per session, and if you lose them all you’re kicked out and have to start over. Babbel is not as quite frustrating but I’m kind of a perfectionist and I just kept getting the same words wrong every time. I ended up making flash cards of those words since they seemed to be ones I was having the biggest problems with. Funnily enough, I must be getting things right. Now my problem is the reverse! When I’m supposed to translate, I end up spelling the words in German. I’ve been spelling good as gut and man as Mann. But that doesn’t frustrate me as much when I make that mistake because it shows that at least I do remember the German word now.  

Where do I see my Language Skills 3 Months from now?

I don’t expect to be finished either Duolingo or Babbel because of how I study. I study for 5 days straight and then take a few days to review. I’m fine with taking my time to work on these programs. I wouldn’t mind in three months understanding more of some of my favorite German songs or even understanding more in a video game. I have future plans of a class, a private tutor or both, and I like the idea of having a foundation in the language before doing either.

Duolingo and Babbel are just two of the apps that I have decided to test out to see how well they really do. Busuu will be next and whatever else I can find. Apps are easily accessible to everyone and when I find some that I think can help I can easily recommend to other language learners. There are a lot of people that I talk to that would love to learn another language but either lack of time or money feel they can’t. Apps make it a bit more affordable in the case of Duolingo or are just simply convenient (Babble). And maybe the excuses for learning a language will grow a little smaller due to apps like these (and future apps).

Have you tried out Duolingo and Babbel? How long did you stick with it? How much did it help? As always, we'd love to hear more from you in the comments

For regular updates from Fluent and a free guide to the Best Resources for Language Learning, come and join my free newsletter.