Duolingo is the world’s most popular language learning app, and for good reason. It spins your learning into an addictive game and claims to be able to take you to an advanced level of knowledge from the very bottom up. If you want to learn a language in your spare time and you don’t want to spend any money, this is probably one of the first – or only – things you’ve looked at so far.
However, as persistent as that god damn owl is in getting you to study, you can’t expect to reach anything close to fluency if it’s all you have in your daily routine. Duolingo perfectly supplements your learning when you’re on the subway or in the line at the bank. But it’s simply not enough on its own to get you into a position where you can speak confidently in a language. And here’s why.
If you’re one of the lucky few people with an excellent ability to motivate yourself, then you’ll get somewhere learning a language with just some apps and books. But the cold, hard truth is that many of us need a bit of a kick up the backside to learn a new skill, even if we’re aware of the value of that skill. To learn a language properly you have to invest some time and, ideally, money in order to make it happen. And the problem with Duolingo is that it’s just too easy to put aside when you start to lose interest.
Your first few days are great, because this app really knows how to make you feel good about yourself. You’ll start racking up bonus XP and other hidden gems. But it’s too easy to get bored and start doing something else, and if you haven’t reached that point yet I can assure you that you will.
Nothing compares to getting a teacher. They’re very reasonably priced on Craigslist, Kijiji or Gumtree, whichever applies to your country. You have to make time for a teacher and actually go meet them, and they’ll kick you in the shin if you don’t do your homework. This means that in the weeks when you’re struggling to motivate yourself or you can’t make time to learn, you’ve got a partner dragging you back up. Owly will hit up your inbox with murmurs of disappointment if you stop logging in to Duolingo – but he’s all too easy to ignore. After all, you’re not paying for this, so meh.
Duolingo doesn’t know you, or your interests, or where you want to go. It lays down a generic learning pathway that it determines to be the most universally relevant. The result is that you aren’t necessarily getting what you need out of the experience. It seems to love certain verbs and vocabulary, and will repeat them over and over until you can’t forget them. But these words won’t necessarily be useful to you in your travel endeavours or your new city.
I believe that unless you’re passionate about what you’re learning, it won’t stick. Duolingo can all too easily become a game, a training exercise, where you brain does what it’s being told to do to get an affirmative response. Out of habit more than anything. But it’s less easy to recall what you’ve learnt in a real-life situation because the app experience is just so far removed from that.
With a teacher, you can request focus on certain areas. Even if you’re determined to learn on your own, you’re better off watching videos and reading articles in the target language than hammering Duolingo for hours.
Duolingo teaches you stuff, but you don’t get the opportunity to really use what you’ve learned. The format of ‘translate this sentence’ doesn’t cut the mustard, and you’ll realize that when you land in your dream city and can’t figure out what anyone’s saying to you.
To become fluent, or even conversationally able, you need human interaction in which you can practice what you’ve learned. This isn’t as hard as it seems. Try to find a Mundo Lingo or other language exchange in your home city. Optionally, you can connect with native speakers on Skype on italki.
Is Duolingo enough?
Don’t get me wrong, Duolingo is great. I use it almost every day on the subway. But if you want to learn fast it’s simply not enough.
Try to accumulate a range of learning resources and enjoy a more ‘balanced diet’. You need to cover reading, writing, speaking, listening, grammar, vocabulary, plus real interaction and practice. Pick a few from this list to create a richer blend.
- Private teacher
- Evening classes
- Online courses
- Language exchange meets (including online)
- Apps (e.g. Duolingo, Babel)
- Free podcasts (e.g. News In Slow Spanish)
- Movies and television shows
- YouTube videos
- News sites