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.
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. And 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 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.
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 is no better. 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 praise Duolingo 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.)
The lessons are also repetitive past the point of diminishing returns. And now they’re forcing users to repeat them over and over again. That’s no different than rote memorization. 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.
Duolingo 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. 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.
If they really wanted people to learn a new language, they would:
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.