Does Duolingo work? A professional diplomat tries it out. What is needed to move from Duolingo to fluency?
How to learn languages
I am not good at learning languages. But my job as a diplomat means I have learned several, using many methods:
- French and German (and Latin): learned at school, aged 11-17, including home-stay visits in France and Germany (but not ancient Rome).
- Spanish: in language labs (a now defunct technology, sadly) and, much later, teaching myself online.
- Russian: a Foreign Office nine-month full-time language course including seven weeks in Moscow.
- Ukrainian: language lessons and an immersion course in Lviv in western Ukraine.
- Turkish: with Rosetta Stone online lessons and later immersion and regular lessons in Istanbul.
- I’m now learning Dutch, mainly with Duolingo. Does Duolingo work? Let’s see.
How to learn languages: horses for courses
All these methods worked for me. The languages I learned earliest are most deeply embedded. As I get older it gets harder to learn, but it’s still perfectly possible, even with a hard language like Turkish. The key thing about how to learn languages is that different techniques work for different people. I’ll come onto that in a moment.
Does Duolingo work for me?
Dutch is the first language I have learned from scratch with Duolingo. The app has impressed me. I have a phobia about grammar: when I learned German I famously scored zero out of 30 for grammar in three successive exams leading to my “O” level in 1973. But I can learn languages by listening, repeating and speaking. Duolingo teaches you in exactly this way, with lessons that let you listen to the language you are learning; speak it; and write it.
Duolingo works for me because of several features:
- constant repetition, checking back that you remember, builds your knowledge of the language;
- wide-ranging content covers many different aspects of grammar, plus lots of vocabulary;
- plenty of language material to read and to listen to (but see below), plus speech recognition so you can learn how to pronounce words;
- a highly encouraging interface gives feedback and praise, making it feel fun to be on the site;
- streaks, points, rewards, badges and reminders create a mildly addictive approach to keeping you engaged. Many is the time I’ve thought: ‘I’ll just do a lesson or two to keep my streak going’.
Does Duolingo work for me? Simply, yes. Taken together, these features have enabled me to build up a good grounding in the structure, pronunciation and vocabulary of Dutch in ten months. According to Duolingo I have done 1,921 lessons in over 140 hours of learning this year. End result: I can hold a decent conversation with a Dutch person – if we are focused on each other – including discussing abstract subjects such as politics or current affairs. It’s not pretty, and I make plenty of mistakes, but I can communicate fairly well.
The fact that I already speak German also makes learning Dutch a bit easier for me. If you’re interested in my day-job, have a look at my “dark and fun” short stories, “Seven Hotel Stories“, by clicking on the link below. Several of the main characters in the book are fluent in numerous languages:
Does Duolingo work for everyone?
The breadth and depth of the Duolingo app is excellent. After 10 months, I am around half-way through the course – in Unit 4 out of 7. The format of short units means that you can sit down and do a quick bit of language learning any time, anywhere. I often do a few lessons waiting for a plane, or on a train – you can set the app not to require you to say anything and use headphones to avoid disturbing fellow passengers (other smartphone users, please note!). Whether you’re taking a coffee break, getting ready for bed or travelling to work on a bus, you can always do a quick lesson. This is great for building the prolonged engagement you need to learn a language.
The way the app starts from a basic level and works upwards means that absolute beginners have nothing to fear. The friendly interface is also super for encouraging people who have had bad language experiences in the past. The addictive elements are, on balance, positive: they increase the chances of you keeping going when you have a bad day or two, or are busy. The app includes a good variety of activities, so it never feels too much like a slog.
So my basic answer to “Does Duolingo work?” is “yes – it’s a great app and worth trying”. To get a feel for Duolingo, download the app and try it out. There is both a paid and a free version; I have so far only ever used the free one.
Although I think Duolingo is a great app, it cannot, by itself, make anyone fluent in a language. And having the app on your phone won’t help if you don’t use it regularly. Let’s look at how I use Duolingo alongside other methods:
(i) first off, application. I’m not learning full-time. But I aim to do 30-40 minutes a day, on average, day in, day out. Much less than that and I would not expect, at my age, to make progress. As the course goes on, the exercises get harder. You have to make an effort;
(ii) I also do other things to build fluency. Most weekdays I watch the TV news, in Dutch, for about 20 minutes. I also try to read something in Dutch every day – at the moment I’m (slowly) reading a thriller by the British author Mark Billingham, in Dutch translation. Both these activities help me build fluency and embed the language, its flow, vocab and pronunciation, in my tired brain;
(iii) my aim is that Duolingo, reading and watching TV, taken together, will give me a good grounding in Dutch. But the key to actually being able to speak the language is to force myself to speak it with real people. This is the hardest thing. I have been lucky enough to find two kind Dutch people who are prepared to put up with me mangling their language. At the beginning, it’s painful for everyone. Only gradually, as fluency builds, does it become easier. But unless you make this step, you won’t break through from the good foundation provided by Duolingo to actually speaking the language.
So if someone asks me “Does Duolingo work?”, I say that it is a really valuable language-learning tool. But it works best if you combine it with other methods to build fluency. That will enable you actually to use the language in a real-world context.
How to improve Duolingo
I would welcome others’ thoughts on this. One thing I miss is an audio-only listening feed, such as longer stories or a radio-like streaming service, so that I can continue to learn while I’m going for a walk, or doing housework. At the moment most Duolingo activity requires you to look at the screen, so you can’t learn on the move. Or have I missed a feature somewhere?
Duolingo’s new “Learning Path”
In autumn 2022, Duolingo’s new “learning path” appeared. Instead of having a “tree” with a wide range of learning options, the new interface has a “path”, with little or no choice about how to move forward. Many regular users were outraged, and threatened to boycott or ditch the app.
For me, Duolingo’s new learning path is a classic change that a company makes for its own reasons that users dislike to begin with. I disliked it at first. I still dislike it, because it has fewer options to choose your way forward. But no doubt I will slowly get used to it, and will eventually forget the original, superior version.
Does Rosetta Stone work?
Several people have asked me to compare Duolingo with an older online language app, Rosetta Stone.
In many ways, Rosetta Stone blazed the trail that Duolingo followed. It was the first interactive app I ever used with voice recognition and a full course of lessons that took you a significant way forward. I used it to brush up Russian, Spanish and German and to learn Turkish from scratch. The way Rosetta Stone never explained any grammar appealed to me, although even I, with my grammar phobia, eventually found myself looking up why certain things happened they way they did. I notched up 127 hours of Rosetta Stone courses in six months learning Turkish in 2012 while I was ambassador in Ukraine, before I was posted to Istanbul. I arrived on the Bosphorus with a just-about-good-enough grasp of the language to begin immersion training.
Early versions of Rosetta Stone had one or two features that were particularly useful. In particular, their “milestone lessons” would plunge you into an interactive environment where you were a character in a simple story, and had to interact with other people. Ten years ago, I thought Rosetta Stone excellent and used it regularly – although, as noted below, the content was a bit strange.
I returned to Rosetta Stone in 2022 when I began to learn Dutch. I started with Duolingo at the same time. Several things struck me:
- Rosetta Stone is far less interactive and addictive than Duolingo. Rosetta Stone does not chase you to do your lessons, put you in league tables with other learners, congratulate you, or reward you with badges and streaks. When I am wondering whether to do a bit of one app or the other, Duolingo usually wins.
- Rosetta Stone has barely changed in ten years. It feels a bit like the lack of technological progress in Star Wars – as if the franchise owners don’t care about developing it long-term, but are just trying to maximise short term revenue. I’d be delighted to hear any contrary evidence about Rosetta Stone (or Star Wars).
- Rosetta Stone is relatively expensive. I can’t see any way to acquire a significant number of lessons for free. Given that you can do vast amounts on other language learning apps, including Duolingo, for free, this makes it poor value.
- Rosetta Stone hardly works on a phone. Indeed, many exercises are unusable – see below. This seems a glaring weakness when so many people use their phones to learn languages.
Despite all this, I remain faithful to Rosetta Stone and use it sometimes for a change from other language learning apps. If anyone from Rosetta Stone would like to hear my views on how to improve it, do get in touch.
Duolingo and Rosetta Stone: weird content
I’ve seen many complaints about the weird vocabulary in Duolingo. The course repeatedly uses words such as “turtle” and “rhinoceros”, for example: “It is useful to meet the important rhinoceros”. It contains many phrases you are rarely likely to use, eg “No, you are not an apple”, “The police officer has no experience with ducks”, “This is the club for people with no toes”, or “Most people think that I am interesting”.
Many of the sentences you learn are gently humorous. The Duolingo Twitter feed is a good example of Duolingo’s style, and often makes fun of its own bizarre choices of vocabulary.
Rosetta Stone, too, uses some weird words. Part of this may be because it uses the same vocab, and photographs, for teaching all languages. This leads to some odd combinations, where the wholesome-looking models in the photographs interact in heart-warming ways while saying things it is hard to imagine anyone saying in that language.
None of the strange vocab bothers me much. The key to success in a language-learning app is that it encourages you to continue to use it. Duolingo is great at this. The fact many of the sentences you are learning are ridiculous may actually help you remember them. The app is designed to teach you a language, not just a few phrases.
Rosetta Stone used to have a heavy domestic focus. When I used it in 2012, the format seemed designed for a woman learning a language because she had somehow become embedded in a ready-made family, including children, whose language she did not speak. Such a situation can arise; but it is not that common. I wrote to Rosetta Stone at the time setting out how they could make their vocabulary and settings more relevant to more people, including focusing a bit more on, for example, work situations, travel, or practical exercises such as making phone calls. They never replied, although I see the latest versions of Rosetta Stone group lessons in this way (“Places and Events”, “Everyday things”, “travel”, “work and school”) – a big improvement.
How to learn languages: part deux
I mentioned above that different techniques work for different people. Some friends of mine love sitting down and getting intimate with a grammar book. They can learn the rules of Russian or German, and remember them, just fine. I would rather kill myself than try that. Understanding that one method of language learning doesn’t work for everyone is vital to success.
So what are my four secrets of language learning? If you have found this blog post useful, let me know and I’ll write another one on “How to learn languages”.
Does Duolingo work? Next steps
Thanks for reading this post on “Does Duolingo work?” I’d welcome your comments – form below – if you have your own good or bad experience of the app.
If you’ve enjoyed this and fancy reading about a multilingual person who is a lot of fun, why not check out Ms N, mischievous and vengeful hero of my “Seven Hotel Stories“? These dark, feminist tales have proven successful with readers around the world. Ms N’s beautiful but naive sidekick, Tatiana, speaks many languages, too. Check them both out here: