Will Duolingo get you conversational?
Duolingo is a great program and app and I have used it heavily in the past and still use it occasionally now. But if you want to get conversational, if you want to learn to speak another language Duolingo isn’t going to do it for you. That’s not what Duolingo was designed for.
Before I jump into the why Duolingo works or does not work (and it does both) let’s look at the site itself.
Duolingo.com is easy to use and a novice can quickly figure out how it works. The site offers more than 30 languages with more added continually. The site also gives you the choice to work solo or socially by posting your progress, following friends and allowing friends to follow you.
The Duolingo site provides an active discussion group and every question I’ve had, from glitches in the program to grammar questions, has been quickly and clearly answered.
You will occasionally come across glitches in the program and Duolingo provides an easy way to alert them. When they fix the problem they do send a thank you email and let you know it’s been fixed.
Duolingo is addictive – this is good
A hallmark of Duolingo is its ability to get you hooked on the program and coming back many times in a day and every day.
This is great for learning a language. This is done by setting personal goals and getting rewards when you reach them and being rewarded for practicing consistently or getting many correct answers in a row, and other things.
Duolingo is almost more of a game with rewards for leveling up and conquering vocabulary and, as mentioned, you can ‘play’ solo or with other ‘players’. As you go through the lessons you accumulate points that can be redeemed for various rewards in the Duolingo shop.
The site also has a list of the words you’ve learned and a dictionary. If you are the social type and want to meet people in person, Duolingo has a page to find language events near you. There is a lot on this site, much more than I am listing here, so I suggest planning on spending some time looking around it before you get started so you can get the most out of it.
The lessons are arranged by topic and require you to move through them in sequential order. Each lesson has several levels and you can choose to move up to the next level or move on to the next lesson at the same level. You also have the option to review what you’ve done in previous lessons.
Can you get conversational with Duolingo?
So does Duolingo work? Does it get you conversational? Will you be speaking a new langue after completing the course?
Duolingo works but it won’t have you speaking a new language when you’re done. It won’t get you conversational.
As I said at the beginning Duolingo was not designed to teach you a language. Duolingo was designed to make money – Duolingo is a business.
This does not mean that Duolingo is useless, far from it! Duolingo is a great, one of the best, supplements for language learning. It is a great tool for building vocabulary and getting you to have daily contact with the language.
But this strength is also its weakness. Duolingo delivers vocabulary out of context and with isolated words and that’s, first of all, not how language works and secondly, and the most important issue here, not how you acquire a language.
How to get conversational
The only way to learn a language, the only way to get conversational, is via interaction – listening, and speaking. Listening to the language and understanding what is being said – comprehensible input – is what it takes to learn a language. The research is clear on this. If you don’t believe me watch this video on Comprehensible Input.
The second step is to start speaking the language, even if you only know 1 or 2 words. Once you are listening and speaking, that is communicating, learning the language – there is no other way to do it.
Drill and kill
This is where Duoling fails as a method to acquire a language but succeeds in building vocabulary. The drills Duolingo has you engage in are neither speaking nor listening in a way to get you conversational. Yes, Duolingo does have some minor speaking exercises but not anywhere near enough to acquire the language. And, yes, there is a lot of listening to single words and at later stages, full sentences but all of these are out of context.
And that is precisely the problem, we learn a language via understanding the meaning, which is in context, and then assign that meaning to the words from our understanding of the context. Duolingo’s drill and kill approach are classic old-school classroom techniques jazzed up for the computer. Those drills for memorizing tasks didn’t work in the classroom and they don’t work on the computer. Memorizing out-of-context single words and phrases is not speaking a language.
This is what makes apps and programs like Duolingo frustrating because after you use them, even for a long time, you still can’t speak the language, you are still not getting conversational.
Addictive but not effective
“Language apps like Duolingo are addictive—but not particularly effective.” This statement by David H. Freedman in the December 2018 issue of the Atlantic pretty well sums it up. Many of us are frustrated after using Duolingo and walking away not speaking or understanding the language.
We are not alone. Most people who have tried Duolingo know that it does not teach a language or get us conversational. The research confirms this. Learning a language to proficiency from apps or computer programs has about a 6% success rate.
This really isn’t so surprising when you realize that most of Duolingo is about
- memorizing lists of words and phrases
- reading short sentences
- listening to pronunciation
- listening to short sentences
but with no context and no comprehensible input. Without comprehensible input you can’t learn a language and you won’t become conversational.
Learning is too easy
Duolingo was, for the most part, designed through the lens of a business model. Joey J. Lee, the director of the Games Research Lab at Columbia University, studied 50 language apps and believes the model used in language apps is geared more toward making a profit than teaching a language. By making the lessons easier to master, students/customers are more likely to return.
More difficult lessons that result in better learning decrease the number of times students/customers return to the site. This, in turn, decreases profit. This is because Duolingo produces a profit in two general ways, through advertisement, and through subscriptions. Both of these revenue generators, and particularly the advertising generator, require the student/customer to return often to the site.
Tom Roeper, a linguistics professor at the University of Massachusetts and an expert on language acquisition sees two additional disadvantages to Duolingo style language apps and programs. Firstly, the human interaction needed to focus a student’s attention and secondly the ability to adjust the lesson as necessary for the individual. “There are all kinds of contextual factors in language learning,” he said. “It would be hard for an app to take them all into account.”
Duolingo is a tool for learning a language, not the whole program
Given this mixed review of Duolingo, I do want to stress that it has its place in your language learning routine. Duolingo can be useful. It excels in two important aspects of language learning. To attain proficiency in a language, a large vocabulary is necessary. Duolingo does a good job of providing a long list of vocabulary words.
Secondly, to make progress in a language, daily practice and practice throughout the day are important. Duolingo does an excellent job of both incentivizing learners to practice daily and to practice for the longer-term.
Duolingo can also be delivered via a smartphone which most of us have with us at all times. Additionally, the lessons can be done in a short amount of time, like waiting in line or waiting for a program to load. This allows you to be able to practice often without interrupting other aspects of your life or the necessity to schedule a time for practice.
If you use Duolingo as a tool to practice rather than as the primary way to learn the language, then from this perspective Duolingo works well.
Duolingo can be a useful supplement when learning a new language but it can’t be everything or even the main thing. Relying on Duolingo alone to learn a language is not practical.
The pros and cons of Duolingo
To sum it up,
- Easy to use comprehensive site
- Addicting – you will want to practice daily
- Offers many languages and always adding more
- Duolingo is designed for profit, not for language learning.
- You won’t learn a language with Duolingo alone
- Duolingo excels at creating consistent daily language practice
- You can build a robust vocabulary using Duolingo
To learn a language you must listen and speak in context and Duolingo does not provide that context or enough speaking opportunities.
|Easy to use site||You won’t learn a language|
|Offers many languages||Won’t get you conversational|
|Solo or social use||Designed for profit, not education|
|Many features||Uses out of context words and phrases|
|Responsive admin||Delivered in a drill and kill format|
|Get’s you practicing daily||The lessons are too easy for real learning|
|Great as a vocabulary builder|
|Fun to use, like a game|