By Jonty Yamisha
Complete disclosure, I have my own language learning program that competes with Duolingo. I need to be open about that first. And yet, I feel obligated to push back against Duolingo and other “translation as language learning” programs because I think there are far better ways to spend one’s time. If you’re like one of the many people wondering, “Does Duolingo work?” then keep reading. I will try to explain why its shortcomings can ultimately ruin your language learning journey.
In a perfect world, people would use Duolingo in passing to brush up on their language learning in spare moments. It’s better than wasting time on social media or staring off into the distance at the DMV, waiting for your number to be called. That’s true. But, that’s not really what happens.
Instead, people think that using Duolingo will lead them to fluency. That’s not only inaccurate, but it can also put them off to learning a language entirely. As a language activist who values the appreciation, preservation, and use of multiple languages, I feel that Duolingo doesn’t work. In fact, I think it does more harm than good.
Duolingo founder, Luis Von Ahn, wants to blame teachers for people’s struggle to learn foreign languages. While there may be some truth that the education system has done more harm than good in promoting language learning, it’s hardly the fault of teachers. If anything, it’s the system they’re forced to work in.
Limited budgets, minimal time, a lack of student interest, and the constant need to test ruin the language learning experience. Still, a lot of his comments on the state of the education system in regards to language learning are fair. Schools definitely need to improve their curriculum and their approach to teaching foreign languages. It’s dated and ineffective.
At the same time, Duolingo doesn’t work either. It’s functionality is limited. It’s essentially a translation app that awards fake internet points to users so they stay on the platform longer. That said, the gamification is attractive for children, but if they’re not speaking the language, they’re no closer to fluency than studying a grammar or phrasebook in the classroom.
We know far more about language learning, cognition, and memory now than we did when these systems were first invented, and yet, schools have not done much to change their approach to teaching foreign languages. Duolingo doesn’t work. It’s a waste of time. In fact, it’s just as bad as the education system Von Ahn criticizes.
Duolingo outsources its translation services, allowing for awkward sentences to slip in undetected. And translation (the core of its platform) is already widely known to be an ineffective way to learn a language. Anyone who speaks a foreign language will tell you that you waste time going back and forth between your language and the target language in your mind. Instead, you should focus on thinking and speaking IN that language. While harder at first, it’s a far more effective strategy if you want to speak fluently.
Many people think Duolingo works because it uses gamification to make language learning “fun”. But this can be a bit misleading. Instead of focusing on learning a new language, you end up procrastinating towards your goals with a platform that only spins your wheels.
Just because something is a game with fake internet points doesn’t mean it’s effective. (And it’s not like you can actually cash those points in during a conversation.)
You’ll never learn a language if you don’t prioritize speaking it. There are a lot of different ways you can boost your language lessons. Flashcards, reading, listening, etc. But at the end of the day, language is a tool to be used, and you can only improve if you speak it. That’s where Duolingo falls short.
If you’ve ever been in a situation where you know that you understand tons of vocabulary, but you’re completely unable to converse with native speakers in your target language, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. You have the vocabulary, but no means or experience to use it. That’s the situation that Duolingo puts you in. Each lesson you cover, you get better at using the app, but you don’t get closer to speaking like a local in your target language.
Duolingo’s lessons are repetitive past the point of diminishing returns. And now they’re forcing users to repeat them over and over again. There’s no way to skip what you know. You have no power to choose your own path. That’s no different than being forced through a foreign language class.
All they need now is a few standardized tests…
Except, they’ve actually had standardized proficiency tests for languages in the past. And now, Duolingo has a Standardized Test for English Proficiency.
Duolingo may have started out as a language learning platform. But now, it’s simply a translation-flashcard hybrid that leans on the same broken practices it set out to avoid. Think about it, how often do you ever use the phrase, “He eats carrots as breakfast lunch and the evening meal.” Not often. But you’ll see it over and over again until you remember it. Because…Duolingo.
The app also feels cold and distant. It’s like you’re learning in a vacuum with no access to culture or explanation. Learning languages is about more than learning words and sentence structures. It’s about learning a unique culture, its people, and the intricacies of their language. You get none of that with Duolingo. Instead, you get to waste time with a cartoon Quizlet that gives you fake internet points and will leave you stammering through anxiety as you try and fail to order a meal in a cafe.
It has become the thing it set out to destroy. If you want to reach fluency, then you need to learn phrases you can actually use. But Duolingo is less concerned about educating its users and more concerned with the lifetime value of its customers. So, does Duolingo work? No. You can do so much better with your time.
After all, they need that vast user-base to generate ad revenue. And while every business needs to make money, they don’t need to put people off to the very thing they’re supposed to help users embrace, language learning, in order to accomplish that.
Of course, all of this takes time and money. But then again, they’re valued at $700 million company and earned $40 million in 2018 alone. We’re a tiny startup, and we managed to put together a language learning platform that gets people SPEAKING a new language instead of translating one with empty phrases
At the end of the day, Duolingo is content to keep the platform exactly where it is because it gives users the feeling that they’re moving towards fluency long enough so that they can profit off of ads. But in reality, its users aren’t getting any closer to fluency; they’re just wasting time.
You won’t reach fluency using Duolingo just like you won’t become a master chef by reading a cookbook.
At OptiLingo, we know there’s more than one way to learn a language. There are a ton of platforms out there that get you speaking the language. You need to pick the right one for you. Just don’t let that one be Duolingo. While it may be free, you’ll waste your time. And that’s one investment you can’t get back.