Does Duolingo Work?

children-593313_1920Duolingo is a really interesting language learning system because it’s game-based, consists of micro-lessons and caters for continuous learning. I’ve been interested in the system for a while and my visit to Barcelona provided me with an opportunity to use the app consistently to learn Spanish. I found it quite useful to compare this experience to my traditional classroom based language experiences. This is what I’ve learnt after a month of using the app consistently:

  • Learner motivation still contributes hugely to the effectiveness of a language learning system: The immediacy of needing to navigate a foreign country has been a far more effective form of motivation than learning a language which could perhaps be useful to me someday. This motivation means that I practiced consistently, which is half the battle  This huge motivation differential means that it’s not really fair to compare the gamified Spanish experience to the more traditional Portuguese classroom experience.
  • If you do want learners to practice, it’s important to be really specific about what you want them to do: When I was learning other languages, I’d spend valuable practice time trying to define what I needed to learn. This wastes time and is a further barrier to practicing. What I really like about Duolingo is that the entire course of study is decided for the learner when you open the app.
  • Continuous reinforcement is powerful in learning: I probably spend as much time per week learning Spanish as I did when I was going to weekly Portuguese classes. The only difference between two were the length and the frequency of practice. The small daily doses provided by Duolingo are really powerful.
  • Gamefication elements really work: My big problem with learning a language is that you get it wrong almost 25% of the time. In a classroom setting, this can be really daunting. The gamification elements of the app (for instance, the strong positive reinforcement you receive) really helped me to embrace getting it wrong.  I also like the instant feedback that the app provides.
  • It’s really weird not having the rules of the language explained to you: I like learning things that make logical sense. I feel a bit disconcerted not having the logic of tenses explained to me. However Duolingo means that you rely on your intuitive understanding of the language rather than overthinking it.

What was the result of my consistent use of Duolingo? Overall, Duolingo was an effective tool. I managed to do everything I needed to do in Barcelona. I was pleasantly surprised that I could understand complicated directions quite easily. However my spoken Spanish lagged my understanding of written and verbal Spanish considerably. I feel like this lag would have been less significant in traditional language classes. Overall, I suspect that the best way to learn a language is to combine traditional classes with something like Duolingo.