Duolingo: Cause for Applause

duolingo case for applause

You couldn’t make it up; the very same day we blogged about Duolingo’s language learning app Apple announced  it be the free iPhone app of 2013. Duolingo, which has been downloaded 10 million times from the appstore, has been recognised for it’s considerable contribution to mobile language learning. Ironically, our blog post flagged up an issue with the speech recognition that we noticed through demoing the application; it doesn’t work. Still… free’s free and the UI could pretty much write the book on “sticky” learner experiences.

Having said that … what are they basing that accolade on? Numbers of downloads? Surely not. Brain-meltingly addictive Candy Crush was the most downloaded free app of 2013 (as well as being the highest earning app, a testament to the effectiveness of a well-thought out freemium strategy). [Note from eltjam: if you’re considering downloading this app to see what the appeal is, make sure you’ve cleared your schedule for the next eight hours…]

Is it it’s language learning methodology? Doubtful, as it seems to be utilising fairly recognisable/traditional activity types: gap-fill, multiple choice questions, sentence ordering activities etc. It’s not immediately obvious that new ground is being broken.


Is it the quality of learning that it promotes? Maybe, but I don’t know how Apple would be in a position to assess how competent and confident Duolingo’s learners are. However, in a post back in the first half of 2013 we discussed the report produced by Duolingo claiming that learning through their platform enabled learners to cover material quicker than those learning in college classrooms. The contributing factor, it emerges, is learner motivation; a learner will feel more engaged and eager to apply their effort if it’s being used in a learning framework that is fun, rewarding and provides clear evidence of their improvement. Who knew? Even so… I’d be very interested in seeing how a Duolingo learner differs from a classroom-/teacher-developed learner. What can they do that ‘traditional’ learners can’t? Is there a noticeable difference in their learning skills? Are they more competent when it comes down to it?

What is the reason behind Duolingo’s chart-topping status? Perhaps it’s the fact that it’s the first language learning app that is getting serious traction. Its methodology is far from disruptive, its speech recognition is weak and the objectives of the company itself are far from promoting effective learning, so it must be the fact that it’s free, fun and finger-pleasingly well designed.

10 thoughts on “Duolingo: Cause for Applause”

  1. Coincidentally I started using this app on Saturday when I decided to learn German.
    From a learning perspective, you’re right the activities are recognisable – however, they appear randomly and as a learner this keeps me engaged. I am not knowingly about to do a series of gap-fills; it’s the random way that the activities are presented that keeps me keen.
    (plus the competitive nature of Facebook API)
    (plus the speed at which new language is introduced)
    The downside is that despite using it a number of times on my smartphone, it still required me to log in each time; though I imagine that will be fixed at the next release.
    I also really like the way that voice recording can be disabled if you are practising on public transport. In fact, if you don’t rate the voice recording you can disable it permanently. They seem to have all areas covered. Very impressed.

  2. I’ve been learning/brushing up Portuguese on Duolingo for about six weeks now. As an ELT teacher, trainer, author, I can tell you that they methodology is very old-fashioned and it can be incredibly frustrating as the app expects very direct translations, which are often actually bad English. I spend a lot of time second guessing what it wants me to put. There are no explanations of the grammar and the dictionary hints are very often wrong for the context.
    So why am I still on there? Because it IS very addictive, and because, in spite of the the problems, I am making progress. Undoubtedly the rewards, email reminders and sense of progress are very motivating. I also think the help from others on the message boards shouldn’t be underestimated. I’ve learnt quite a lot from other users that I wouldn’t have got from the app itself.
    However, I think it may be important that most of what I am learning isn’t actually new to me. It’s reminding me of vocabulary and verb forms that I used to know either receptively or productively. I’m not sure how effective it would be in learning a language effectively from scratch. You may ‘cover’ a lot of material, but it’s pretty superficial.

    • @ Rachael, I agree with your impressions. I also admire the game-like features but have doubts about its translation-heavy methodology. I’ve been playing with the English version, which in addition to the problems you mention tends to generate items like “The horse eats bread” which have no real meaning or relevance to learners. In addition to all that, the underpinning of the app is SRS — spaced repetition software — which is excellent for memorizing vocabulary you’ve already learned but was never meant to be a tool for introducing and teaching new words or structures. As you say, it’s fine for reminding you of things you already learned in another setting. But for people learning a new language from the ground up, it’s like trying to learn from flashcards alone. Still, it is a successful app and I suppose it’s better than doing nothing at all. At the very least, duolingo’s success shows that a huge number of people out there would love to learn a language but don’t know how to begin. I’m sure in the future we will see much more effective mobile learning tools to help these people, and I’m looking forward to that!

    • Rachel, check out WeSpeke, http://www.wespeke.com, a cross-language exchange and culture platform that connects a learner with native speakers. They help you learn Portuguese and you help them with English. Free with text, audio, and video chat. A nice extension from the language practice in Duolingo

  3. I echo Rachael’s comments above in terms of the limitations of the grammar-translation methodology Duolingo is built around, and the superficiality of the material covered. I think it works for me, and for many users, because we’re “dabbling”–we’re A1/A2 level users using the app to learn or review vocabulary items and straightforward grammatical structures that we have learned elsewhere, in language classrooms or through other “traditional” methods. It’s not a standalone language-learning solution, nor till it take you to any kind of real communicative proficiency, but for low-level learners (which I think the vast majority of North American language dabblers are) it’s a convenient and addictive way to complement classroom- or textbook-based language learning, be it past or present, or maybe fool around with some basic vocab in a language related to one we already know. And that’s really all most people need or want.

  4. I agree with @ Rachel and @Jennifer. I had no idea what it was going to be like to learn language with an App. I wasn’t expecting that I would jump to B2 with my Spanish. I probably won’t. But wasn’t expecting to be made so at ease by a learning tool either. The way it disguises learning behind a fun, easy(!) game, like learning is a walk in the park, how it brings to mind many games I had played before with progress feedback conceptualized through a journey/path (here egg-chicken theme) and the red hearts that add challenge and motivation to get it right. Even though the activities are repetitive, the level of difficulty seems to build up at reasonable enough pace to keep me interested. I’m not sure I am hooked but I am definitely enjoying it and the key is probably a combination of all the above: low-level, challenge element and a tangible evidence of progress as immediate reward.

  5. This is more or less what I concluded about Duolingo too – the fact it’s fun and addictive made me study where I would have done nothing otherwise. I did give up though but that is more a testament to just how little I want to learn Spanish than the app itself. A little bit of motivation and it would carry on working.

  6. This is more or less what I concluded about Duolingo too – the fact it’s fun and addictive made me study where I would have done nothing otherwise. I did give up though but that is more a testament to just how little I want to learn Spanish than the app itself. A little bit of motivation and it would carry on working.


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