Duolingo’s gamification of language learning has really set it apart from other language learning apps. But that fame has brought with it a lot of heat from people who are unhappy with the app. For every person who is in love with the cute little green owl, there are others who think he’s overrated and not that cute. Check any random forum about Duolingo and you’ll find comments like, “Duolingo doesn’t work.” “It’s a waste of time.” “I used it to learn French for a year and still can’t speak the language.”
Duolingo isn’t a miraculous fluency pill that you can take and start speaking flawless French. However, I do strongly think it can be an effective tool for language learning.
If you’re using Duolingo and are frustrated with the results, the problem might not be the app, but how you’re using it. Here are five tips for using Duolingo in the most effective way.
No. 1: Treat It Like a Supplement, Not a Main Meal
The only way to learn to speak a language, is to speak the language. I often say in my blog, “Language is a skill.” To develop the skill of speaking German, you need to practice speaking German, and that needs to be the main focus of your training. Just like someone who is learning to cook can flip through recipe books day after day, but they won’t start getting good at cooking until they start cracking some eggs, so to speak.
So let’s go back to the comment “I used it to learn French for a year and still can’t speak the language.” Well, was Duolingo the only thing, or even the main thing you were doing to learn French for that year? In that case, yes. Duolingo will not help you speak French. But the fact is that no language app will, if it’s used in that way.
Let’s imagine I want to get buff. So I begin taking protein and creatine supplements every day. Am I all set? At the end of a year will I have arms like tree trunks? No. I still need to put in the work of regularly going to the gym. Otherwise the supplements can’t do their job.
When I started learning Russian in 2004, I didn’t own a smart phone. I had these old devices called “books”. (Super retro!) And it was the same story. I liked my books. I enjoyed reading them. But in order to make progress in the language, I had to use what I was learning and speak to humans in Russian.
So language apps, like books before them, are a supplement. They can fill in blanks in your understanding, teach you new vocabulary, help you grasp the mechanics of a language, etc. But in order for them to do their job, you need to “hit the gym”. You need to find humans to speak the language with on a regular basis. So the app is like a book that gives you recipes, but then you need to go out and “start cooking” by using what the app is teaching you in conversations.
No. 2: Take Your Time; Don’t Try to Cover too Much Ground in a Day
One problem with a learning app that feels like a game, is that you might be tempted to keep playing it long after your brain has decided it’s had enough. Duolingo encourages this by giving you 15 minute XP boosts when you earn a crown, or with periodic “XP Ramp Up Challenges”. That could be fine if you’re spending extra time practicing old skills that you’ve already studied. And let’s face it, there are worse ways you could be spending your time.
But you should avoid falling into the trap of wanting to conquer too many new skills in a day. Your mind needs time to take things it learns and put it into long-term memory. (SIDE RANT: This is a big reason why getting enough sleep at night is critical for serious language-learners, since sleep is where this process of forming solid memories happens.) It’s like eating too much during a meal; your body can only digest so much food at a time. If you give it too much, after a certain point it starts storing the extra food as fat and you lose most of the nutritional value.
Your brain can only digest so much new information at a time. So pick a pace that’s reasonable for you. I go for earning one crown per day. So for example if I need to complete five lessons to get a crown, I’ll do a lesson when I wake up, then another lesson every couple of hours until I’ve gotten the crown. THEN I STOP, because I don’t want to just cover ground; I want to learn. If I still have a hankering for some Duo, I’ll either switch to a different language (usually one I already know and want to keep fresh), or I’ll practice old skills that I’ve already learned.
No. 3: When You Get an Answer Wrong, Check the Comments to See Why
In some of the more popular languages like Spanish and French, there is a feature where if you make a common mistake, the app will actually tell you what you did wrong and give you a little exercise to redeem yourself. This is extremely helpful, because we don’t just want to get XP points; we want to learn. But even if you’re learning a language that doesn’t have this feature, you can still get the same benefit.
All you have to do is click on the comments. If you do, 99% of the time, someone else has made the same mistake as you and others in the community have very helpfully explained why it’s not correct and how to fix it.
Sure, you could just make a mental note of the correct answer and keep going so that the next time the answer comes up you can get it right. But don’t you want to know WHY your answer was wrong so you can avoid repeating the same mistake in the future? It will only cost you another minute or so of your time, but the long term benefits will be well worth it. Rushing through the game strengthens your XP. Taking your time and understanding what’s going on with the language strengthens your language skills.
No. 4: Read the Tips if Available
In some languages, certain lessons have tips you can read that explain what new vocabulary or grammar you’ll be introduced to during the lesson. When I’m beginning a new skill, I always make it a point to take a little time and read these tips. It’s much more helpful to have an idea of what’s going on that to just dive headfirst into a skill with no idea what’s happening.
Bonus tip: If you’re using the app on your phone/tablet, but there are no tips for the skill you want, go to the online version at duolingo.com. I’ve noticed that quite a few times tips that don’t show up on the app do appear on the web version.
No. 5: Be Consistent
As with all skills, consistency is king. I find that planning ahead helps me be consistent. So before I start learning a language I take some time to make a plan (which will always include speaking to humans in the target language somehow). Now as far as the Duolingo supplement part of that plan, if my target language is available on Duolingo, I’ll see how many crowns are available in that language and decide on a reasonable date by which I should be finished getting the last one.
But anyway, let’s take Russian as an example. Russian has 474 crowns you can earn. So if a person was planning to learn Russian in 2022, and started earning one crown per day on January 1st, 2022, they would finish earning their last crown on Thursday, April 2th, 2023.
Of course, life happens, I may be overwhelmed with other obligations and only have time to do a little practice of an old skill, or a particular skill may just be so hard or complicated that I need two or more days to earn one crown. But I find this kind of planning ahead helps me to stay on track and stay consistent, because I have a definite date I don’t want to fall too far behind on.
Duolingo isn’t a magic program that will download a language into your brain. But if you consistently use it (and at the same time consistently speak the language with human beings) it can help you learn a language.