Many students ask, is Duolingo a good way to become fluent in English. The answer is not so simple. There are positive and negative aspects to the popular language-learning app.
Let's start with the pros:
Price - Although they recently introduced a membership plan, you can still use the app completely for free. This is obviously a big benefit, because there are not many options for learning English for free.
Convenience - For convenience, Duolingo is hard to beat. It’s in your pocket on your phone and ready to go whenever you are. On the train or before bed, it’s right there.
Gamification - Duolingo uses what is called gamification (game + ification = making something into a game). It’s like playing a video game. You’re getting points and earning badges. It’s fun and some people believe this can motivate you to keep studying English.
Personalization - I think this is one of the biggest strengths of Duolingo. It knows you, and it knows your English level. As blogger Mallingual says, “[Duolingo] knows exactly what I can and can't do because it constantly asks me.” This is called adaptive language learning. Another type of personalization is self-paced learning. With Duolingo, you don’t need to worry that the class will go too fast or too slow. You control how fast you go and how much you study.
Science - There is also some strong brain science behind Duolingo. One example is spaced repetition. If you want to remember new English vocabulary, trying to remember them again and again, with more time in between each recall is a scientifically proven method for remembering. Duolingo uses this kind of science to make your studying more effective.
So these are some good things about Duolingo, but the app isn’t perfect, and some of the following points make me think that the app is not the best way to learn English for most students.
The Not So Good:
The Method - Duolingo is based on the grammar-translation method of learning language. Most experts today agree that grammar-translation is not the best way to learn a language. It certainly isn’t bad, but there are better ways.
Lack of Interaction - Most current theories of how we learn English put some emphasis on communication. With Duolingo, it’s just you and your phone. You have no classmates, no conversations, no group activities. Most experts agree that these are important elements to learning English. This is especially important if you want to become fluent. English fluency comes from speaking, not from translating sentences. If you want to become fluent, you have to speak!
No Teacher - Everyone is different, but most students like the ability to ask a question to the teacher when they don’t understand. Duolingo has some help options along the way, but it’s not the same as having a person to talk to.
Persistence - Persistence with apps like Duolingo tends to be low. This is bad, because learning a new language requires a lot of time. That means you need a lot of persistence, or you are wasting your time. Duolingo founder Luis Von Ahn says the users who persist are the ones that make Duolingo part of their daily routine. Users who “binge — spending hours on the site, cramming in French or German or Chinese language lessons — tend to disappear fast.”
Inauthenticity - As one blogger says, “Duolingo is horribly inauthentic. You'll quickly find yourself getting sick of 'red apples'.” You are almost always looking at sentences made up only to teach you language. This is definitely useful sometimes. I make similar sentences when teaching my students basic English grammar rules. But in a class, we make sure to mix in some authentic English.
The vocabulary you find in Duolingo is also very different from the most common words in English, because it depends on theme-based units about food and animals. That means the language you are learning is often incredibly useful.
Duolingo is fun. And you can definitely learn some useful things about English from it. Duolingo will not help you to become fluent. It isn’t good for people who lack motivation. It’s good for an app. It might be a good way to get extra practice at home or learn basic grammar, but by itself it’s certainly not the best way to learn a new language.