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If you are learning Spanish, chances are you already found Duolingo on Google, and you downloaded it from your Apple or Play Store. You’re probably familiar with its structure: you know the tree, the lingots, the translations, the cute and sleek design.
But do you know how Duolingo is actually helping you learn a language – or not?
Duolingo is a language learning app that offers language courses in many languages. According to their site, Duolingo allows you to “learn a language for free, forever”. They emphasize that “Learning a language with Duolingo is fun and addictive” through their Gamification techniques:
- “Earn points for correct answers”
- “Race against the clock”
- “Level up”
Additionally, they focus on the convenience of their apps and how they can fill idle time: “Make your breaks and commutes more productive with our iPhone and Android apps.”
Learning Spanish with Duolingo – Will it make me fluent?
Duolingo has a great User Experience. They do have great gamification techniques that make you want to go back to the app, continue unlocking levels and rewards, and typing in new words and idioms.
If you are a dedicated Spanish learner, though, you might find yourself wondering: is this going to help me when I order food in Mexico/have dinner with my Spanish speaking friends/want to understand a movie in Spanish?
Let’s see what Duolingo can and can’t do for you, diligent learner.
Don’t have to say much more about this, but it’s great that the app is completely free to use.
Duolingo app engagement
Gamification is a winner here. The Duolingo app is designed to be engaging, especially through its tiered rewards system:
- Hearts: The “heart” of any videogame – the fewer hearts you have, the closest you are to “lose the game”. Makes you feel urgency and excitement.
- Streaks: reminding your previous study sessions in a row helps you stay on track.
- Lingots: A direct reward from your time on the app that feels good to obtain.
Pretty cool and sleek, with a really good user experience. The sounds, the flow, and the whole interface are nice and sweet.
The Duolingo Tree
A great idea for structuring the learning. It gives you a great feeling of progression. Knowing what you need to study after is encouraging for motivation. The downside is – language learning is not reducible to that. It’s a fluid, changing, adaptable process. You never fully “master” a language and stop learning.
Spaced repetition for language learning
Spaced repetition is a famous Learning Theory right now. It incorporates increasing intervals of time between reviews of new words to learn them better. It does work, as proved in many papers, and it’s a great way of learning vocabulary.
In fact, many other apps apply it too, like Anki and Memrise. Even learning methods as the famous Pimsleur system. Also, having short lesson blocks makes it easier to have a feeling of completion.
Emphasis on Spanish learning
Spanish draws a lot of users to the app, and they have done a good job in understanding and representing the language quite well in the Tree. Now you can even study idioms and expressions that are more “from the streets” than their traditional vocabulary. I feel like that’s an advantage over languages with less global interest. However, their Spanish lessons are still limited and based just on translation.
Duolingo vocabulary and language skills are based solely on translation. So you use your language to learn another language. It’s quite obvious that it’ll only let you learn to translate your thoughts from English to Spanish, not to actually think and speak as Spanish speaking folk.
The Fluency Fallacy
My personal least favorite feature is the “Fluency Meter” on the app. Fluency is a very delicate topic per se. There’s no universal agreement on its meaning. There might be a “feeling” of fluency, but it is definitely something that you can’t reduce to a percentage, and even less based on a vocabulary repetition app. For example, one of my favorite Second Language Acquisition professors, Bill VanPatten from the Michigan State University, devotes a whole episode of his podcast Tea with Bill VanPatten to talk about “What is fluency”.
Fun fact: after finishing the whole Duolingo tree, the fluency level will only be 50-60%! They know themselves a vocabulary app is not enough to be able to speak a language.
You don’t speak to real people
The main drawback about Duolingo is that it doesn’t help you to speak with real people. That’s a concern that I’ve read over and over in the comments section of many language learning communities:
“Duolingo has really helped me to understand grammar and generally be able to read a language, but it hasn’t helped as much in being able to speak or have a conversation” (seen on Duolingo).
“Reading Spanish is not my problem, conversational Spanish is. And I think it’s because Duolingo is focusing on what is grammatically correct. Like my HS Spanish class”(seen on Duolingo).
“According to Doulingo, I have actually regressed in 8 months, I don’t think their testing system is really a good way to gage whether or not you have made progress. Really the only thing you can do is converse with someone who is a native speaker of whatever language it is your learning” (seen on Duolingo).
“I’ve started the spanish courses, and I can quite gladly tell you that the woman is drinking milk or that we are writing a book, but has anyone actually become fluent (or fluent enough to survive a holiday in that country) yet?” (seen on Reddit).
“When I’ve tried using the app, I’ve gotten an active feeling of having the illusion of learning rather than learning itself, and therefore no longer use it” (seen on Quora).
“If writing isn’t really what you’re interested in, however, then Duolingo may not be the best app for you” (seen on Quora).
“Duolingo is a good base for learning basic grammar and vocabulary. I’ve found it to be extremely useful. But once you complete the tree, you’re only just beginning” (seen on Reddit).
“I like Duolingo, but after using it for a year everyday practically, I’ve seen little to no tangible results” (seen on WordPress comments).
If you are learning Spanish in order to speak it with other people, probably Duolingo won’t be the most efficient help for you.
People just don’t create sentences like this. They use a lot of linking words, fillers, repetition, deictics, and a lot of stuff that it’s not systematic. You won’t find that in apps. But you can find it in movies, or TV shows.
Lack of personalization
It’s surprising that they claim to provide a personalized learning experience when they have no idea of a)the goals of their learners, and b)the learning method that they prefer. It’s actually a “one for all” kind of learning system. And if you want to learn Spanish to use it for your life, then it’s going to be a waste of your time.
Duolingo’s Spanish learning audience
I was curious about how people use Duolingo to learn Spanish. On their own reports, Duolingo states that Spanish is the second most studied language worldwide, with 17% of the total of Duolingo’s users learning Spanish (English is the first one, with 53% of all users).
In this interesting map, you can see the countries with most Spanish learners – the darkest ones: the United States, Canada, UK and the English-speaking countries in the Caribbean. In Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica, about 60% of Duolingo users are learning Spanish!
Here’s some more food for thought – according to Luis Von Ahn, 30% of users keep on using the app after a week. For a mobile app, 30% week over week retention is great! But, if you really want to speak the language, you already know that’s not enough.
What language level can you achieve with Duolingo?
The main question I get about Duolingo is the same question that I hear about language learning systems like Rosetta Stone or the Pimsleur Method.
If you really want to use the app and you stick to it, you’ll certainly learn some words and expressions, and maybe even some grammar.
If you acquire everything that’s available via the app, the maximum amount of knowledge it encompasses is equivalent to the A2 level.
But keep in mind that having the knowledge is not the same as being able to use the knowledge.
Because, of course, doing Duolingo is more effective than doing nothing. But the real question is: Is it the most effective way to learn a language?
Gamified learning, or a just word-based game?
At the end, everything boils down to the question of:
Do you want to play a game, or do you want to speak a language?
As a game, Duolingo does a great job, and it incidentally will get you acquainted with new words in a new language.
As for speaking Spanish, or any language, Duolingo won’t do much to actually help you manage real situations in a new language. And, after a while, you’ll find out that the lingots and the streaks and the rewards aren’t what you’re actually looking for.
And, if free is the best feature of the app, it doesn’t say very much about their learning efficacy.
Now you know what Duolingo can do for you and what it can’t. Use it wisely!
And remember what the company says in their own “Manifesto”
Our ultimate goal is to give everyone access to a private tutor experience through technology (Duolingo’s Manifesto)
So, while they work on the technology to achieve that goal, you can skip that step and access private tutor’s experience right here, from a real person.
¡Hasta la próxima semana!