Language learning was so boring before a little owl in a tracksuit came along.
Armed with addictive streak and modern technology, today's smartphone language learning feels more like a computer game than a language lesson. And in many ways, that's a great thing. Did you know that every month, the world completes over 6 billion Duolingo exercises? That's a lot of language learning done voluntarily - no school teacher forcing you, no boss breathing down your neck asking "where are you with that language tree?"
Is Duolingo Good For Language Learning?
On the whole, I'm on record as a Duo skeptic. I'm a tutor, I've used it and worked with app users, and it really didn't make them "fluent". But I've come to realize that making you fluent is not the point of Duolingo.
Duolingo mobile provides structure and training in several core skills. Plus, it's sort of a productivity app, with the streaks and bite-sized lessons designed to fit into user's busy lives with ease. All in all, you get a free language-based computer game, an addition to classic courses and tutors and most certainly not a replacement.
I could make a clear case both for or against using this app. On the one hand, I want you to ignore when Duolingo tells you that you are "now 53% fluent" because that is laughable. But on the other hand, I've been truly excited to see constant improvements in recent years.
This app might not become any more effective in terms of teaching you language. But as users, we're becoming better at fitting a language learning app into our lives. And if you've tried it, here are some invaluable tips for raising your Duolingo game.
1) Use the Web Version of Duolingo
Duolingo's mobile app is nice enough, but it lacks solid explanations. If you're a new language learner, you might find it difficult to figure out many of Duolingo's exercises by yourself. Sometimes you are asked to construct sentences, even though the app never taught you how to do these things. In other exercises, a new topic is introduced and can feel overwhelming for app users.
The Duolingo web app is a different story and comes with Personally, I don't use the web app much - Duolingo is a mobile experience for me and I enjoy learning away from the desktop (more about how I learn in my Welsh language updates). But if you're a committed user and want Duolingo to be your main resource, here are 3 awesome things you will find in the web version:
The web version offers a fun practice option called "Timed Practice", allowing you to challenge yourself against the clock.
The ability to use the full keyboard and type out each of your answers, helping you to increase your spelling skills.
Explanations 👏! Duolingo web offers an extended "Tips and Notes" section. There are explanations, tables, and even references to which textbook unit you can use to train the same exercise. The content isn't uniform and varies by language, because Duolingo courses are partly created by volunteer experts in each language.
2) Use The Duolingo Skill Tree as a Guide
The skill tree is a the heart of Duolingo and structures it in a way that's quite similar to textbooks. So using the Duolingo setup as a guide, you can let your own questions guide you. Have a classic resource available to answer those questions - why not outside of Duolingo?
A few resources you could try are grammar books, textbooks, podcasts, online courses, language tutors, and even social media. You can read recommendations for more language learning resources in my Resource Guide when you sign up to the Fluent Cool Kids Club.
If you're wondering about the cost of extra books, I recommend checking out your local libraries and charity shops. You're more than likely to find resources for pennies.
Related: Watch My Talk "What You Need to Know Before Spending Money on Language Learning" on YouTube
3) Take Duolingo For What It Is
Duolingo is a language learning app, nothing more and nothing less. In many ways, this makes it perfect for casual users who want to fit in a few minutes of practice at different moments in their day.
It's certainly not a waste of your time if you work your way through a few lessons, and there are dozens of great advantages of using Duolingo. It's cute, it's a fantastic performing app, it's supported by language communities.
If you're a beginner and learning your first or second foreign language, I think that the web version can be your genuine "digital language textbook". But don't rely on it solely and start adding in other resources very early. A good language learning routine is built on habit, human contact and variation in resources.
Do You Use Duolingo?
Are you happy with the little owl? Or does it make you want to howl? I'd love to hear more from you in the comments - tell me which app version you're using!
And for more guidance on language learning apps, join our Fluent Language Learners Facebook group, where I've got a video in the archive for you.