Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head

A review of Duolingo

I had no motivation to learn Spanish until this week.

Then I tried Duolingo and I’m completely hooked. By the same life sucking, brain dead urge that has me playing Candy Crush, I’m now a model language student.

My “anything I can think of is better than studying a language” attitude is typical of a large percentage of my students over the years. Like most of them with English,  just because I should or need, in some hard to define way, to learn Spanish, it doesn’t meant I want to.  So if Duolingo’s website and app has had me studying (playing) for days in a row, it has to be worth recommending to learners.

I’d been recommended Duolingo a while ago but was put off by the fact I needed to register. This simple logging in with Facebook was just too much effort for something I don’t care about. But, one night, having run out of Candy Crush lives and unable to muster up sufficient concentration span to read or watch to a whole episode of Fawlty Towers, I forced myself through the ten seconds of registration with the incentive of blogging about it.

I kept myself logged into Facebook as I was fairly sure I’d be bored and want the distraction. But I was so absorbed, even just by the level test, that, as Facebook pinged away, I completely ignored it (which is an uncommon enough thing in itself) AND stayed in well beyond the thirty minutes I’d allotted myself.

Duolingo is free and works on the basis of fulfilling translation jobs – documents uploaded by paying customers for students to practise on. The translations are done by enough users that consensus and then a round of checking both ensure accuracy and give an alternative studying option for users. There didn’t seem to be any documents to translate at my “easy” level but there were a few to be checked. I did get bored doing that though as there were no gimmicks to keep me in there. That’s for serious learners.

I returned quickly to the part where I got points or lost lives, heard sound effects and watched the bar fill up as I got nearer my goal. More than once I’ve stayed on longer just to get the extra ten points to move up a level. I don’t even really know what the levels mean but there’s a virtual currency to earn so who cares?

Why Duolingo is great

  • The sections to study are short
  • You can view the Target Language in the lesson before you do it
  • It tells you afterwards which words you’ve learned
  • It shows you when you’re due to review material to fix it in your long term memory
  • If you fail a section, you can do it again but the questions vary
  • It teaches you some new words and draws your attention to accents.
  • It even allows for your mistakes if it has recognised them as being typos
  • It emails you to tell you you’re on a “streak” and a link drops you into the next challenge

What’s wrong with Duolingo

It’s not perfect. So far, in under a week of using it, I’ve found two major flaws.

The voice recognition software in the web based version lets in wrong answers (there is a read and record exercise and a translate and record exercise) while the app version refuses to accept anything I say. And sometimes it stops working altogether and I lose a life because I have to skip that answer as if I didn’t know it.

There is one terrible exercise where the cue is a piece of vocabulary in English with three **Spanish options to choose from. This would be fine but for some reason the writer has wasted what must have been hours finding pictures to go with each option, meaning that you’re just matching a picture to an English word and don’t need any Spanish to do the task.

Some people will get all high horsey about the sometimes meaningless, non real world sentences you’re translating. E.g. The mouse is on my shirt. The dogs eat rice. But I think those are outweighed by the fact you’re engaged by the activity and conjugation of verbs and lexis is a useful skill. Plus, it keeps you on your mental toes as the translations are not going to be what you might automatically expect.

How they could improve Duolingo

The exercises test your passive and active knowledge so I’d like metrics to show me the percentage of both that I’m getting correct and how the two compare over time. Perhaps even being able to choose which type of knowledge to practise would be good. They have this data so could easily provide it.


Am I learning?

Apparently this is the important question. I disagree with that. The question I is “Am I entertained?” I would bet any amount of actual ELT research that being able to answer Yes to the second question means a big YES to the first.

Incidentally to being fun, I reckon I’ve remembered lots of things I knew but had forgotten since I’ve mainly been going over the level I am at than studying new material.

I don’t know how effective Duolingo would be at higher levels, I’ll let you know when I get there. Because unlike with any other method I can think of, I probably will carry on with it.

I’ve already recommended it to my students and I’ll be interested to see how they get on with it. That’s if I show up to class and am not at home playing.

**French, German, Italian and Portuguese available.


5 comments on “A review of Duolingo

  1. Rachael Roberts
    December 1, 2013

    Ha! Thanks for finding me another way to procrastinate 😉 I’ve been brushing up my Portuguese on Duolingo since I read your post. It’s a strange beast, isn’t it? Very compulsive, which is obviously a good thing, in fact the best thing about it. But there are a lot of glitches and I get very angry (sad, I know) when the answer I’ve put IS actually correct but I lose a life, or I can’t hear the garbled audio. I’m halfway through level ten, and the choice of lexis is rather odd. I think I am definitely learning (or re-learning) but it’s very hit and miss and I would prefer it to be rather more systematic- but perhaps that’s because I’m an old-fashioned coursebook writer kind of gal. Very interesting though. Now we just need someone to do something like this that’s better academically…

    • Nicola
      December 2, 2013

      I’ve heard it’s not so good at higher levels…no danger of me ever finding that out personally though. I have no doubt it could be a better if redone with any one of us wonderful materials writers but the way it is addictive is, for me at the moment, in lieu of other addictive learning games, making up for its deficiencies. That said, I’ve not used it for a few days but am still embroiled in Candy Crush on a regular basis!

  2. Ray
    February 26, 2014

    I jumped on the bandwagon like everyone else and started refreshing my French and Italian. I live in Portugal so I have more access to languages than most Americans but that doesn’t mean I have learnt them. Moving on, I rather liked the concept in the beginning and tried to keep my hearts. Was I learning anything? I think I was exposed to some new vocabulary, most of which I would never use in the target language, but I doubt I improved in the languages I had chosen. I moved up to levels 8 in each language and then got bored when the grammar, like future perfect and third conditionals started to seem like a waste of time since I wasn’t going to use my French or Italian in writing essays, but only in actually speaking. Then I switched over to Spanish and Portuguese, languages I already know, having lived in Mexico, Spain, Brazil, and Portugal for more than thirty years. Ay, yai, yai, the problems really started to become apparent and annoying. On a higher level many of the sentences are, if not wrong then extremely awkward, in both the targt language and in English. I really started to get annoyed and gave up. Why would I want to translate “She will have missed the game in two years”, or “the girl will have drunk the oil when her mother eats breakfast.”? In Portuguese there were so many errors that it was appalling. Sentences like “Eu estou amando a minha aula”, (estou gostando ou adorando) “eu vi a rapariga” (rapariga is a whore in Brazil), and tu falas muito bem (when the verb with the tu conjugation is not normally used in Brazil) made me lose all confidence in the site.

    • Nicola
      February 26, 2014

      I think you’ve highlighted why most people will only use the site at basic levels. I guess their next move could be to employ trained materials writers (like me!!) to improve their content but I read somewhere that the creator of the site doesn’t really care about that part of the game, they make money off the translation part. It leaves it open for someone to come up with the more linguistically useful version but they’d need to capture the huge market Duolingo has managed to and I think publishers looking at digital products will take so long to copy it that everyone will have moved on to something else by then!

  3. Dathaniel
    May 11, 2014

    I hate duolingo more than most terroristic threats against the united states…

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This entry was posted on November 13, 2013 by in Learning English and tagged , , .
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