Whenever people find out I am learning Spanish (or German, or French, or any other language I have spent time learning!), one of the first questions they ask me is “Are you using Duolingo?”.
I don’t use Duolingo.com or the Duolingo app to learn languages. I tried it, but from the very first lessons the vocabulary was weird. Learning ‘fox’ and ‘wolf’ felt irrelevant. Working through 5 repeats of every lesson to finish, I also quickly found Duolingo very repetitive, and I got bored with repeating each lesson five times.
It seems the Green Owl has become one of the (English speaking) world’s most popular language learning apps. And why not? It’s colourful, it’s fun, it’s like a little 5 minute game. It certainly seems more fun (and cheaper!) than serious language apps like Babbel. That’s why, when I came back to French after a 20 year break, I chose Duolingo because it was all those things. But then things changed, and I found I didn’t enjoy it anymore. But you might – it all depends what you are looking for :). Let’s take a deeper dive…
What Is The Duolingo App?
Duolingo is a gamified language learning app (and accompanying website) used by 200 million language learners around the world.
Each language course is called a “tree”. Lessons are around 5 minutes in length, and include listening, speaking, reading and writing around the theme of the lesson.
Each theme has 4-6 lessons on each level, and has 5 levels to complete. There are several themes in each level, and several levels, depending on which language you are learning. French has 9 levels. The levels only unlock as you progress through the themes.
Is Duolingo Free?
Duolingo is a “Freemium” app. That is, you can download and use it for free, but there is a premium version with no ads, and some extra features.
The free version has ads. Some you can’t avoid. Some you get to choose if you see them, in order to earn extra ‘hearts’ (lives). It doesn’t limit your usage of the app, nor does are the ads super intrusive. They simply appear at the end of a lesson, but they do take a couple of extra seconds and clicks before you can progress to the next lesson.
The other thing worth knowing – when using the app with the free version, if you make 5 mistakes during your lesson, you lose 5 hearts, and you have to wait for them to regenerate. It takes 5 hours to regenerate 1 heart, a full day to regenerate all 5. However, you can regenerate them more quickly by choosing to practise old lessons, or using gems (won when you finish lessons and other goals) to buy hearts.
BUT! There are no hearts on the web version, so if it annoys you, you can always go to the web to get more lessons in.
If you choose to upgrade to Duolingo Plus, the ads disappear, and you also get some extra features.
What Extra Features Come With Duolingo Plus?
Apart from an ad-free experience, Duolingo Plus gives you the following benefits:
- Unlimited hearts (lives) which means you can make unlimited mistakes!
- An easy review of the things you messed up on during your lesson
- Special quizzes, that give you an extra measure of your progress
- The option to test out of a level, if you feel you have learned those concepts.
Also – and perhaps most useful for those who live or commute through areas with intermittent wifi – with Duolingo Plus, you can download lessons to use offline.
How Much Is Duolingo Plus?
The cost of Duolingo Plus is US$6.99 per month, charged per month as a subscription through your phone.
For the price of two lattes, you can have an easy, breezy language learning experience.
Is Duolingo Plus Worth It?
Yes… the Duolingo Plus subscription is worth investing in, for those who enjoy the platform. For a start, we tend to value that which we pay for. So from a pure motivation standpoint, by paying for a subscription you are more likely to use the app. That certainly seems to be Duolingo’s observation too, noting that users who pay are more than 4 times as likely to finish their course (at least in the case of the French tree). The more you use the app, the more language you will learn.
It also is incredibly useful to have the offline access, especially if you live in an area that doesn’t have fantastic internet accessibility.
If you are serious about learning your language, but prefer the app to the web interface, the 5 heart limit in the free version will probably be very annoying. If you have a bad run, you may only get 5 minutes practice before you lose all your lives, and will either have to do practise exercises to regain them, or pay gems, or wait a day. With Duolingo Plus, you just refill your lives and keep going.
Of course, if you are really just dabbling in the language, and don’t actually care too much about learning to a proficient level, then it probably isn’t worth your while.
But if you are planning to focus on using Duolingo as part of an overall language learning plan, I think paying the subscription just makes the experience very smooth, and adds to the quality of your experience.
Is Duolingo Effective?
In my opinion, Duolingo can be effective as a language learning app, with some caveats.
Duolingo is a tool; and if you think of it as just one tool in your belt, then there is a place for Duolingo.
Duolingo will give you a very broad base in vocabulary. Not always the most useful vocabulary, but at around 6000 lexemes, it is a decent introduction across a wide range of topics.
The gamified environment is very appealing for some users. Features like ‘streaks’ (number of days you use the app), leagues and leaderboard are effectively used to draw users in, and reinforce engagement. That all means you will want to play more, and consequently will learn more language. That’s a good thing.
There is also a great deal of repetition built in, which is great if you feel like you need to go at a slower pace, and have a lot of revision to truly absorb new material.
However… it is not a magic bullet. If you only use the Duolingo flashcard feature, whether the app or the web interface, you will not reach a very high level of the language, and your speech in particular will still need a considerable amount of work.
The general consensus is that without additional resources, the most you can hope to reach is an A2/B1 level (in other words, a VERY basic conversational level) in topics that you know well.
Languages On Duolingo
There are currently 37 languages available on Duolingo to learn from an English base.
From Spanish, you can learn:
There are other languages, like French and German, that also have access to some languages. Check out the Duolingo website to find out what other languages are offered from different language bases.
What Are Duolingo Leagues?
Duolingo Leagues are one of the features that Duolingo uses to help users stay motivated. Leagues are weekly competitions among language learners, or ‘Duos’ as Duolingo calles them. The leagues are language independent – that is, they are not related to which languages you are learning. They are simply leagues of who earns the most XP (experience points) each week. Each league has between 30-50 ‘players’, randomly assigned, and all of similar rank who earned their first amount of XP around the same time.
There are ten league ranks. From lowest to highest, they are:
At the end of each week, the highest 10 in each league rise to the next rank, and the lowest ten are demoted to the league below.
Are Duolingo Leagues Worth The Effort?
Whether it is worth spending much time on the leagues is a hotly argued topic in forums. My advice: if you find it motivating, pay attention to the leagues and use them as fire to maintain your regular language practice. If you find them stressful, or demotivating for whatever reason… don’t. It has no real impact on your language progress, unless it is something that you use to get excited about your lessons.
Alternative Apps to Duolingo
There are many language learning apps out there, some flashcard/vocab like Duolingo, others with a different spin. Babbel is one paid app that many language learners like (you can read my review of Babble here). Personally I love Memrise (which has both a free and premium plan); I use it for every language I start.
When it comes down to it, Duolingo is a perfectly reasonable app and website to use to learn a language if you like it. Many, many people apparently do – hence the 200 million users!
My own dislike of Duolingo is most likely that I learn vocab reasonably quickly, and like to feel like I am moving through things at a reasonable pace, BUT I also like to feel like I have ‘finished’ one lesson before moving on. And with the advent of the 5 crown system (introduced a few years ago), I really can’t ‘finish’ without suffering excrutiating boredom as I repeat and repeat levels until I have achieved the 5th crown for each level.
However, many of my language learner friends, who are not quite as obsessed as I am about goal achievement and perfection, absolutely love the little Green Owl, and find the game incentives really motivating.
As long as you supplement the app with other language learning materials, there is no reason why it can’t be a part of YOUR language learning experience.
Do you want a language learning app that is designed to take you to a conversational level with a holistic approach to language learning? Check our our review of Rocket Languages… you may find it is more up your alley!