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Aah, Duolingo. Quite possibly the most famous language app today.
It has been around for quite some time. I first discovered it in 2013 during my second semester of university, which was also my second semester of French.
Then, I started using it again in 2015, this time much more consistently, as I began to cultivate a habit of daily language learning.
In this time, Duolingo has changed. It has gotten much better at accepting alternate answers. And I don’t think there are as many weird sentences floating around any more.
Although I have been maintaining my streak there, the time that I spent on Duolingo, and the number of exercises I completed, have varied in this time.
Currently, I do 2 exercises a day on the German from French tree on the desktop. If any skill is not golden, I would work on that. Otherwise, I would learn something new.
I even have a few of my friends, who are interested in learning a language more… shall we say… casually, use the application before.
I think the big question that they wanted to know was whether they could really learn a new language with Duolingo.
My answer? It depends.
Depends? On what?
It depends on how familiar you are with learning a new language, and whether you know languages similar to the one you want to learn. If you are an experienced language learner or have had some exposure to a similar language, then it’s more probable.
It also depends on what you mean by “learn” a new language. If all you intend to do is to be able to do is translate text from one language to another, then, yes, Duolingo is perfect for helping you learn.
But if you want to be able to understand announcements made at the train station, talk to locals, and actually use the language as a native would use it… I’d have to say no.
Even if you wanted to learn just a bit to get by as a tourist, Duolingo is probably not the way to go. (Get a phrase book – the content would be more relevant.)
The first thing to understand is that Duolingo teaches you to learn by translation.
Now, I don’t think that using translation to learn is a bad thing. I don’t agree with the “purists” who insist that you should only learn in the target language. There is a need for explanations (which are most useful in your native language when you are a beginner in your target language).
And it’s hard to not think of the sentence first in your native language and then translate it. I think it works well too. It is used in Michel Thomas’ method, and more recently, Language Transfer does as well.
The problem is that you don’t get to learn the grammar rules. Yes, for some languages and for some units, there is now a short explanation of grammar that you might see if you use Duolingo on the desktop. But these notes are usually nowhere near enough.
I know that many people hate learning grammar. I am sorry to say that I do not hate learning grammar. I love learning new sentence constructions and using them. I love doing grammar drills. So, personally, not having a good explanation? It’s completely unacceptable. I cannot continue very long that way.
Personal preference aside, this lack of grammar can prove to be a real problem for languages that are significantly different from English. This is especially so when it is your first foray into learning a foreign language.
Once, in 2014, I tried to learn German with Duolingo. I think I made it as far as the third unit before I never touched it again. Nothing made any sense.
I tried Esperanto when it was released. I got further with that, because Esperanto is simple to learn (it is designed that way), but about a year later I still had nothing to show for it.
Yes, I could translate sentences. Mostly. But to try to understand when someone is speaking Esperanto? Nope.
Construct my own sentence to express my thoughts? Nope.
That is the first problem: Insufficient grammar explanations.
A second problem: Computer generated audio for most languages.
I love the audio for Esperanto, which were recordings done by a person. It was one of the reasons that made me continue with Esperanto on Duolingo. The voice was pleasant. It was natural.
But for most other languages, it is a computer-generated voice.
It’s good that there is at least some sort of audio. On Memrise, depending on the course creator, there may be no audio at all. Sometimes I would end up reading words to myself, only to discover that I’d been pronouncing it completely wrong all along.
But the main issue is that the audio is not authentic. When it comes to having to speak to a native speaker, I think it’s quite obvious that there would be problems. You start to get used to how the robot voice speaks, and that is not how a native speaker would speak. You don’t get to hear how the language really sounds.
And I don’t know about you, but I think that you lose out on part of the beauty of the language when it’s reduced to a computer’s voice.
Now, a third reason is that Duolingo isn’t good for learning vocabulary. You don’t always learn a word at a time. Then, whenever you see a new word after that, you pretty much are expected to already “know” it. But this is hard, especially when you are struggling with how the sentence even works in the first place. (There’s almost no grammar explanations given, remember?)
Trying to recall the new word as well, and not succeeding? Frustrating, because now that you got it wrong, your lesson progress bar goes down.
In addition to that, because of the sentence way of learning, you are just not as exposed to as many words as you can be in the same time frame. I don’t deny that there’s the advantage to seeing the word in context, but to effectively use a language requires the knowledge of the words for what you want to say.
Duolingo does have some sort of spaced repetition system where skills lose their gold colour to indicate it’s time to revise that unit, but that’s for whole sentences. Sometimes, you simply have trouble with that one word, and then Duolingo’s really not the best application for locking that word into your memory for good.
The final problem is not really the fault of the app, because it is just an app. It’s to do with us, and how we learn.
The only way to be able to do something is to practise. Practise until you get it.
I can tell you that the years of French in university didn’t help me speak French, though it helped me to be able to understand French, simply because I didn’t practise speaking.
Even during my stay in Switzerland, where I heard French every day, I didn’t get very much better at speaking it. Oh, yes, I got much better at understanding it, because everything was in French (I was living in Suisse Romande), from the train announcements, to the newspapers. I even had half of my classes in French. But my speaking ability barely improved.
It only started getting better when I started to practise.
The same is true about why I think you cannot really learn a new language fully with Duolingo. The app is limited in its scope. It can only prepare you for so much.
When it comes down to it, what you can learn from Duolingo is simply not enough out there in the real world.
Now, for all the negative things above that I have said about Duolingo, it is not a useless app.
Far from it.
While you cannot rely on it alone to successfully learn a new language, it can have its place in your daily language learning routine. It is a part of mine, as I have said in the beginning of this post. (One thing I really appreciate is the vast number of language pairs available, more so than many other apps that use English as the base.)
However, it should not be the only thing you rely on to learn a language.
The general principle applies to other things as well. You cannot depend too much on any one thing, whether it is an app or a book, and expect it to teach you everything. There are so many individual language skills: listening, reading, speaking, writing… You could also say pronunciation is one.
To rely on one resource and expect it to be the holy grail of language learning simply doesn’t work.
That’s why my answer to whether can you really learn a language with Duolingo is pretty much a no.