“No, you are an apple” “I am a horse” Most people who use Duolingo in their language learning journeys probably have encountered sentences like this, and wondered, how does this even make sense, or how does this even help me? Duolingo is one of the most widely-used applications that aid in learning foreign languages, released to the public in 2012, initially offering French, German, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian for English speakers, and English for Portuguese, Italian and Spanish speakers. Since then, the number of languages offered has greatly expanded, with Finnish being the most recent addition when writing this. Languages are generally added through community effort by native or fluent non-native speakers, giving a robust Duolingo incubator community, and an equally strong user community.
Duolingo has a focus on constant practice, garnering some memes about the visit of some green owl to your doorstep when you miss a day of practice and breaking your 1000-day streak. This application has received both praise and criticism, showing how controversial this learning method is. How does Duolingo compare to other methods of language learning? This is the question The Language Closet attempts to answer, but this is by no means an objective stance. Each learner has their own optimal way of language learning, so if applications like these help, then you should continue using them.
I started off in Duolingo back in 2013 with French, when this was relatively brand new. At that point I did not remember Duolingo having an emphasis on speaking nor reading, but more rather the translation exercises between languages. Many would remember how stale it got after realising that each section in a skill was essentially a fixed sample of sentences repeated to completion, and I would definitely understand that some would question if they had learnt anything at all. Content revisions were quite constant, seeing how new sections were added to these languages, encompassing idioms, stories for comprehension and other vocabulary one might encounter. For now, we shall break the review down into key parts observed during my experiences with Duolingo.
In terms of grammar, I remembered the web version had extra notes for some grammar pointers one should take note, but this is largely omitted in the mobile versions even until now. This may be a sub-optimal decision, given the large growing number of language learners relying on mobile devices to practice their languages in daily commute, for example. Personally speaking, going through exercise after exercise without understanding the grammatical patterns can be quite detrimental to one’s experience. In Spanish, there is a larger emphasis placed on verb tenses and how they conjugate with person, number, tense and aspect, while in Russian, one has to consider case endings and when to use them. Although the latter is often overlooked in colloquial speech, an awareness of such inflectional patterns has to be made. Nevertheless, there is room for discussion as Duolingo allows users to review the question immediately after being told if they are right or wrong.
Improvements I would personally suggest include the inclusion of some grammatical notes for relevant grammatical sections to inform users of special cases, or usage of certain grammatical patterns, rather than allowing users to go in relatively blind and having a vague understanding of how ‘ser’ differs from ‘estar’ in Spanish, for instance.
Each vocabulary-related exercise follows a theme, allowing users to build related flashcards to couple with this learning method. In some prompts, one can tap on a new word to reveal the translation(s), which can add on to their word banks. In addition, when studying languages with gendered nouns like German, Swedish or French, they would include the grammatical gender the noun adopts, which I reckon is especially helpful when there is no easily distinguishable pattern between which nouns adopt which gender.
The same case may apply for plural nouns, where languages like Welsh often lack fixed patterns on making plurals. This feature is quite helpful in informing users about how nouns will change in the plural, allowing notes to be taken elsewhere.
However, in terms of semantics, this is where Duolingo gets a lot of attention. Many memes that pop up often target how the new words that appear, or even normal words, do not make any logical sense in a given sample sentence. I feel that this is a problem that has appeared time and again since the project’s inception, but has somehow materialised as a laughable feature.
This is probably where the app is often mocked through posts showing Duolingo’s ineffectiveness in helping learners with conversations in their target language. Perhaps an improvement to this system is to re-evaluate the relevance of sentences in colloquial or main literary contexts, or to replace nonsensical sentences with those that make sense like, “The deer is eating grass”.
Duolingo does not provide a pronunciation guide in any of its languages, but allows playback of a sentence or words in some languages. This feature helps with figuring out stress patterns in those that have a heavy emphasis on them, like Portuguese, Russian and perhaps Ukrainian. Similarly, it helps users in distinguishing tone in languages with complex tone, or even simple intonation patterns like Chinese, Vietnamese, and Swedish (anden has two meanings depending on intonation). The playback for a word helps users deal with how a word is read, or ironing out how to pronounce relatively foreign sounds. Overall, this is an extremely helpful feature to have, especially when no phonetics guide is given.
As we move to higher level sentences, we would expect to see more emphasis on how the sentence sounds. Does the statement or question end in a rising tone, or a falling tone? Also, how does the rhythm play out in the overall sentence? When there is a focus placed on word pronunciations, it is natural to overlook the importance on how word sounds string up in a sentence. Liaisons, ligation, eclipsis and lenitions can all affect how words are pronounced when placed next to, or between certain words.
One last observation is the incomplete coverage of pronunciation playbacks across languages. Relatively endangered languages like Navajo and Hawaiian, rather new additions at time of writing, had very little coverage on how words are pronounced. Navajo, in particular, has a more complex phonology compared to English, with tones, ejective consonants and nasal vowels not found in English. With a low proportion of words accompanied by audio playback, there is concern over how effective Duolingo is at teaching Navajo. Hopefully these gaps can be patched in future updates.
Speaking and Listening
There are some sections where one is required to voice out a sentence, or to translate or transcribe a given audio clip. Meant to help users with the audio and verbal aspect of language, this is very often one underused feature. The main limitations include the lack of microphones for speaking prompts, and the lack of conducive environments to practice listening or speaking, especially to an app. This assumes that a sizable amount of practice is done in commute or transit, which does not apply to all learners.
This feature was added for languages which have stuck on since the dawn of the project. We’re talking French, German, Spanish and the like. This style provides a short story in the form of some dialogue, with questions and prompts attached. It has a voiceover that synchronises with text, allowing users to know how words are pronounced. Some might say they cringe whenever a character is afraid of something, or how their tone does not necessarily match the atmosphere of the story. This is particularly concerning, given that this is probably the only section where learners are presented with intonations or accents of entire sentences, often with a dash of colloquialisms.
The prompts encompassing listening to comprehension, allowing learners to answer questions based on their understanding of the story as it plays out. I would argue that this is a helpful feature since one is very likely to encounter texts in their target language, and this is just one medium to practice. Some colloquial expressions may also be covered, giving users an insight on how these are used in conversation.
As one progresses with the story section, they find a transition from questions and responses mostly in English to mostly in their target language. This represents a step up to let the users attempt to answer comprehension questions based on their knowledge of the target language, and may require them to think in the target language, or take the less efficient route of doing a two-way translation process.
Duolingo certainly has come a long way since its inception, and still aims to introduce new content to the learning platform. It has eased accessibility for users to learn languages with substantially less reference material, particularly languages like Navajo, Hawaiian, and Guarani (for Spanish speakers). The addition of constructed languages like Esperanto, Klingon and High Valyrian adds another layer of coverage, aimed at people who want to learn the language in Star Trek, Game of Thrones, or what could be an international auxiliary language. Achieving coverage in relatively more obscure languages definitely is one direction Duolingo could take, to perhaps prompt interest in languages at risk of endangerment or extinction. However, improvements definitely do have be made in order to allow more effective learning.
Duolingo can help in the bare basics of language learning, or to help build up a fundamental competence in vocabulary, but struggles to satisfying more advanced learners who would prioritise cohesion of larger texts, sustaining conversations and appreciating more complex media. Personally, I would recommend Duolingo as a springboard to help launch users to learning languages in an interactive independent manner, but I must caution that this should never be a standalone method in language learning. Duolingo falls short on colloquial expressions, slang and other aspects as discussed. To supplement these areas, learners should explore other methods to couple with Duolingo, and eventually ditch the training wheels as they gain proficiency. Practicing reading the news and literature in a target language, or conversing with native speakers, these are both methods one should consider as they advance over time.
For beginning language learners, the heavy emphasis on translation between languages can often delude learners into thinking that this is pretty much all there is in language learning, which is a dangerous mentality. Duolingo should not be used alone when learning a language from scratch, but be supplemented, or be used as a supplement, with other various methods chosen based on what one wants to achieve out of this learning experience.
Improvements for Duolingo are plenty as there are criticisms surrounding its pedagogical methods. Could they add more features without compromising the integrity of user interface and responsiveness, given the growing number of mobile users, or have they found a sweet spot in what to focus on? As development progresses, one can only speculate, or evaluate other language learning methods as feasible accompaniment.
The Language Closet Rating: 6/10, declines with increasing proficiency
Note: This rating is based on user experience, criticism and evaluation through this post. It is in no way an objective stance, nor is it a static rating. This can change if Duolingo undergoes marked improvements or changes, which will warrant another review here in due time.
How would you rate Duolingo? How has Duolingo shaped your learning experiences? Let us know through the comments!
I have been itching to do a review of Duolingo for quite a long time. The memes, attention, feedback and criticism it has gained over the years have thrust it into the spotlight, compelling me to finally give a comprehensive, critical feedback on what is good, bad and ugly in the different features it has. I hope you have enjoyed reading this review, and I will see you in the next one.
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