A classroom is not the only place to learn a foreign language. Today, you can study anywhere, anytime, and anywhere through a mobile app at your fingertips. If you’ve been searching for one, you’re pretty much guaranteed to come across Duolingo.
While people may have different approaches and learning abilities, online language learning has commendably dominated the market in recent years.
Contrary to the textbook and traditional method, software and apps are inexpensive, convenient, entertaining, and, most importantly, flexible.
But as with everything, nothing is picture-perfect. There are some obvious benefits and drawbacks of using language apps.
There are plentiful options in the market that empower you to start with a few clicks. Of so many alternatives, Duolingo is a well-known app for studying a new tongue.
But can you actually learn a language with Duolingo, or overrated?
How effective is Duolingo?
Is it really worth it, or a total waste of time? What’s the difference between the free & plus plan?
In this Duolingo review 2021, I’m here to write my honest assessment and explain in detail its pros and cons. This will help you make an informed decision and what to expect. Let’s get the ball rolling!
Table of Contents
- The History of Duolingo
- What is Duolingo?
- Pros and Cons of Duolingo
- 3 Benefits
- 5 Disadvantages
- How much does Duolingo cost? — Free Vs. Paid
- My Duolingo Review: Below Average — 2/5
The History of Duolingo
Duolingo was founded as an academic project at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh by professor Luis Von Ahn and his Ph.D. student Severin Hacker.
After selling his previous company, reCAPTCHA, to Google, both aspired to try something new in the education niche.
Since there was an enormous demand for language learning tools worldwide, they went with language study.
Eventually, they launched Duolingo by the end of 2009. Later, many others joined and took part in developing further.
As per the Crunchbase report, Duolingo raised $183.3M of the total in over 9 rounds. As of January 2021, the investors estimate the total valuation to be staggering high, up to $2.4 billion.
About the founder’s Track Record
Before launching Duolingo, Luis von Ahn sold reCAPTCHA to Google in 2009 at an undisclosed price. Google might have bought because of the massive user base.
While the amount is unknown, Von said the amount was somewhere between $10 million and $100 million.
Regardless of the cost of acquisition, reCAPTCHA was extremely annoying and time-consuming on the internet. It was so stressful that almost everyone hated it.
He claimed that over 750 million people had solved one of his captchas. Yes, it prevented spam and fraud on websites to some extent, but notwithstanding, it wasn’t user-friendly and made life more miserable. I always despised it.
That is the reason, after purchasing, Google redesigned and made it less irritating by adding a checkbox I’m a human”. Now, in reCAPTCHA 3.0, it is invisible.
Do these things in earlier times really matter when I’m writing the Duolingo review?
This inevitably implies a lot!
The track record of the founder plays an indispensable role in evaluating current products. No matter how surpassing and innovative an idea seems, the woeful track record does make a world of difference.
And that’s why it starts with a negative tick. It may not matter to a well-funded company, but it matters to myself and my readers, who trust me for what I say.
What is Duolingo?
Unlike reCAPTCHA, Duolingo is friendly, relaxed, and delightful. This isn’t a Déjà Vu all over again.
With over 500 million users, Duolingo is the most popular language-learning platform and the most downloaded education app. It has grown so much over the past eleven years.
The number of users was 300 million before the spread of the 2020 pandemic. But because of COVID-19, the number has boosted Duolingo’s fortunes. With nowhere to go, many started using this addictive app.
While Duolingo’s headquarter is in Pittsburgh, the United States, but operates worldwide.
As you’d anticipate, Duolingo as a mobile application is available for Android and iOS operating systems. There is a browser version too.
It has successfully combined language learning with gamification intending to make education simple and more fun.
It offers a tree-based training strategy that uses flash-cards, images, listening, and writing lessons to motivate you to study new words, phrases, and uncomplicated sentences.
You can also connect with other users who are cramming the same language through their community characteristics.
How Does Duolingo Work?
Let’s jump in to see how Duolingo works!
UI (user interface) and UX (user experience) are quite likable and straightforward. The modern and creative design gives an intuitive and knockout involvement.
Similar to other language apps, you can register for a free account at Duolingo.com.
They have 3 easy steps to sign up: First, select the language and reason for considering it. Then, you decide your daily goal between Casual (5 minutes), Regular (10 minutes), Serious (15 minutes), and Intense (20 minutes).
Finally, register by using Facebook, Google, or any email account.
Voilà, you have created a profile! This will hardly take a minute or two to wind up the onboarding process. You can then choose a language and begin receiving in game-like bite-size tasks.
After spending a few minutes, you will understand everything. The whole interface is minimal and easy to grasp.
The Target Audience
With an intent to make education free to all, Duolingo’s primary audience is learners who are interested in acquiring a new language from ground zero.
While the company considers its target audience as “everyone.” But is fundamentally geared towards the beginner’s level.
You always have to start from the first lesson. If you feel a particular section is too advanced or rudimentary, you cannot jump to a different level.
So, if you previously have some acquaintance in your target language and fancy to move to a higher level, it is not for you.
To sum up, Duolingo is solely for elementary learning, which is precisely their target market. Of course, the company will not admit that, but this is what it is.
Courses Available on Duolingo
The Duolingo courses vary hugely, depending on your selection of the language.
For instance, as an English speaker, you can learn Spanish, with 29 million other participants, French, with over 17 million learners, or even you can study Romanian, with just over 500 thousand language enthusiasts.
But what if you speak Italian fluently or your mother tongue is Italian?
In that scenario, the possibilities are restricted. You can only choose between English, French, German, and Spanish.
Because of limited options for less common languages and combinations, they have also formed “Duolingo Incubator.” This program allows community users to volunteer to create courses in languages that are not available on the platform.
Suppose you are knowledgeable and possess an in-depth understanding of a particular order (both source and target language), and ready to collaborate and committed to the project.
You can apply for the same from your registered account.
With 100’s of languages, all user-generated contested are divided into 3 categories:
- Phase 1: Courses not yet released.
- Phase 2: Courses released in beta.
- Phase 3: Courses graduated from beta.
Thanks to thousands of volunteers, Duolingo empowered their community to develop all these courses. They also helped the company with Word-of-Mouth advertising.
While this creates a welcome variety, however, these programs vary in quality, sometimes a lot.
The audio quality of the words’ pronunciation’ can differ with strange voices, which cannot be very clear for many. Unlike the official version, some are more prone to influence by vernacular, dialects, and slang.
Despite the sheer number of contributors and checks and balances in place, there is no reliability and standardized flow for any language.
Which language can you learn with Duolingo?
Contextually, beating up almost all the online language learning programs in the current market trend, Duolingo sets to deliver 98 courses that teach 39 different languages.
The platform covers nearly all widespread languages, including but not limited to English, French, Russian, Spanish, Hindi, German, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese.
Whether you’re looking for less spoken ones like Danish, Irish, Catalan, and Norwegian or one of the endangered languages such as Hawaiian, Scottish Gaelic, Yiddish, and Navajo, Duolingo has all in the palm of your hand.
Are you fascinated with the fictional languages used in the Star Trek movies and Games of Thrones tv-series?
Well, you can learn High Valyrian and Klingon too. Plus, they also offer Esperanto — an artificial language. The probabilities are endless!
Types of activities
Duolingo is all about gamification. They have developed everything in colorful visual design, aesthetically pleasing pictures, progress bar, ticks, and clicks.
When you learn on Duolingo, you earn experience points (XP).
You earn through various activities like completing individual lessons, placement test, checkpoint quiz, skill practice, test out, and stories in a few languages.
This also assists you in increasing your overall standing in leagues.
While you’re at it, it will cheer you for moving to the next part, though you shouldn’t be overconfident about that (more later). In the pursuit of this journey, you will gain lingots, gems, streak, and crowns.
The blue-colored Gems and red-colored Lingots are virtual currencies in Duolingo. The gems are available on mobile apps, whereas Lingots are only accessible on desktop.
You will receive these rewards for achieving various activities like crossing levels, finishing a skill, translation, 10-day streaks, etc.
You can then take advantage of Gems/Lingots for shopping like streak freeze, double or nothing, heart refill, streak wagers, outfits for Duo, and bonus skills like learning idioms, proverbs, and flirting expressions.
Gems are for buying multiple things in the Duolingo shop. Wondering what they are? Here is the list.
(i) Refill your Health
If you make 5 mistakes and you ran out of heart during a lesson, you can use these perks to refill your health. This reminds me of the Candy Crush game.
You can just buy back 5 more hearts and continue with the lesson. The good thing is, the web version does not have the punishing “Health” feature.
(ii) Streak Freak
You have to practice your language on Duolingo every day. If you break your streak, you will back to zero. But there is a way to solve the winning it back.
This feature helps your continuity to remain in place for one full day of inactivity. You can purchase this anytime, and will compensate for a missing day.
(iii) Bonus Skills
These are some extra lessons that you can buy from the store. The cost differs, and some of them are only available for a limited period.
Some languages offer you to read some flirting words, and idioms & proverbs. So, you can use these incentives to learn something extra related to that language concerned.
(iv) Double or Nothing
You can buy this for 50 gems. Suppose you maintain a streak for 7 consecutive days, you get 100 gems. And if you fail, you don’t get back the five you used to buy “Double or Nothing.”
To summarize, you can earn these rewards if you are consistent in your practice.
Overall, they do a fabulous job of keeping you encouraged and hungry for more learning, making a favorite study resource among new learners.
Pros and Cons of Duolingo
Like any other language learning approach, Duolingo as a language app has its own advantages and disadvantages.
Some could be subjective, depending on how you see and your purpose.
For illustration, Duolingo’s principal goal is to impart foundational skills in various languages. This might be favorable for someone who needs to understand the basic conversation before going for a vacation in that country.
Possibly for a school-going kid who strives to learn something in their free time. They might not get lessons from a teacher. So, Duolingo is helpful.
To evaluate whether it will be beneficial, let’s touch upon the positives of Duolingo as well as its limitations.
Here are 3 great and clear benefits!
1. Easily Accessible
Whether you are a homemaker, student, or a professional who maintains a tight schedule, anyone can use Duolingo at its comfort with its interactive interface.
You neither need to travel far and wide to enroll in regular classes nor have any obligation to follow a fixed schedule.
You can study whenever and wherever you want at your own pace. You can jump right back into the next lesson or check out any previous one for revision.
You just need a smartphone, internet access, and an email account, which most people have these days.
2. Everything is Free on Duolingo!
It is absolutely free, and you can access everything. And that’s what makes the most popular education learning platform on earth.
Let’s face it — many people want to learn a language, but they cannot afford it.
A parent might not pay the tuition fee for their daughter, who wants to learn Korean because K-Pop, K-Drama, and K-Movie fascinates her.
Duolingo’s mission to “make education free, fun, and accessible to all” is unquestionably genuine.
You might learn nothing meaningful that can help you in your career or assist you to watch foreign movies on Netflix, but at least, it’s a start.
Remember, a journey of a thousand miles always begins with a single step.
3. You can learn multiple languages simultaneously
Do you want to become a polyglot?
Well, in that situation, Duolingo can play a small but crucial part of your goal.
The app doesn’t restrict how many languages you can learn concurrently. So, now you can easily switch seamlessly between Spanish and French whenever you prefer.
I’ve tried several apps, and most of them don’t allow learning another language unless you finish the first one.
On the contrary, Duolingo allows you to learn many languages simultaneously.
There is no restriction. If you have spent some time on Duolingo, you will see many profiles (like the one below) with several languages and their corresponding level.
But I won’t suggest going over 1 or 2. Language learning requires undivided attention, and focusing on too many will make you perplexed, and you might not concentrate on anything.
You can always endeavor the second one once you have reached at least an intermediate competency in the first target language.
Despite some apparent benefits associated with the Duolingo app, they still come with many difficulties that you must keep in mind before diving deep into it.
Here are 5 shortcomings.
1. It focuses more on English speakers
As an English speaker, you have plenty of choices.
What if you want to learn Mandarin as a Hindi or Tamil speaker or dive everything French as a Japanese native?
Unfortunately, you are out of luck!
Mostly, you have 1 or 2 options for several languages, and English is a common destination.
The app centers mainly on English speakers who want to learn another language than speakers of other languages who wish to study something other than English.
Perhaps, they don’t have enough resources to make these programs.
This is also conceivable that it is a daunting task since many languages are more colloquial in nature. Thus, creating such a combination meets many localization issues.
Whatever may be the case, your possibilities are pretty unsatisfactory as a non-English speaker.
2. It is only for beginners and not meant for Advanced learners
Duolingo is not a miraculous ‘cure-all’ that will enable you to quickly and smoothly gain any language with just a few taps of your mobile or laptop screen.
Forget about fluency; even achieving an intermediate level is a pipe-dream. This is one of the major problems of online language learning.
Everything begins and ends at the basic level!
Some people even fail to learn anything. Do you want authentic examples?
According to Forbes, Duolingo’s chief revenue officer did not immediately understand the spoken question “¿Hablas Español?” after six months of Duolingo Spanish study.
If this intrigues you, you can read some known criticism and complaints in the image below, taken from Wikipedia.
Duolingo’s lessons leave a lot to be desired for serious learners. If you have any crucial long-term goal like a career requiring languages, higher education abroad, immigration, etc., you should avoid it.
Instead, consider enrolling in a language school, finding a teacher, or taking help from other resources like books, audios, and video lessons.
By all means, you should try. But I’d firmly say keep your expectations low. So you won’t be disappointed once you complete the full tree.
3. Duolingo is all about a game
Language learning isn’t just playing a game. The entire strategy is gamified. There is undoubtedly some educational value, but not enough to make you learn it.
They don’t teach how to communicate in the language.
I doubt if anyone can even talk to a native speaker for 5 minutes or order food in a restaurant. You won’t catch anything if you watch a movie in that language without subtitles.
They incorporate some random vocabulary and phrases, which in the end means not sufficient for anything worthy.
In the end, it becomes all about beating the game.
4. You can only learn some vocabulary and phrases
You cannot learn a language just by practicing some words and phrases through flash-cards.
Duolingo explains things like informal and formal greetings and commonly practiced sentences. It also comprises frequently used nouns, verbs, tenses, adjectives, adverbs, and prepositions in further exercises.
There isn’t any proper and suitable grammatical explanation and rules for sentence structure. Everyone knows the varieties can be productive but are insufficient on Duolingo.
They are also horrible at teaching non-European scripts. If you intend to understand Hiragana, Katakana, or Kanji to study Japanese.
Perhaps, Russian Cyrillic, Korean Hangul, or some of the Mandarin characters or Indian languages, it would be almost unlikely that you will understand anything substantial.
When I first completed the entire tree for French. I asked myself, “Is this it?”
It left me much to be craved. Since I already knew French, I can say this was hardly an A1 level of DELF.
5. This is more useful for Kids and not Adults
These days, Duolingo is focusing more on adding cartoon characters and animations. It seems they are more targeting the youngsters.
The total number of users has soared from 300 million to 500 million since coronavirus spread in early 2020.
This robust growth is mainly contributed by school-going children who are having easy access to smartphones and laptops. Parents are mostly doing work from home, and thus, they don’t mind their children studying something new.
But for the adults who want to learn effectively, this doesn’t serve the purpose.
Neither it explains the fundamental grammatical (they do some parts on the desktop, though), nor will it help you enhance your listening and speaking.
It also has no natural-sounding conversations and resembles more like a computer voice. You will not get a real-life insight into how people actually speak it.
A lack of intermediate lessons and face-to-face interaction like recorded videos is a big disappointment.
How much does Duolingo cost? — Free Vs. Paid
Duolingo’s unique selling proposition is that it is completely free. This is the primary reason for its popularity is rising at an unprecedented speed.
You can locate entire content, stories, and perks from beginning to end without paying a single penny.
You can use it on a smartphone and will sync the progress on all your devices you’re using with your account.
If you want to track your students, you can also try “Duolingo for Schools.” Once added, you can check their improvement from your account.
Is Duolingo Plus worth the money?
Duolingo offers the freemium model to its user base. Initially, the Duolingo plus give a 14-day free trial, and then the cost is $6.99 per month.
The Plus subscription offers some added benefits:
First, the plus subscription is totally ad-free. You can get rid of the ads and gain access to other features in the process.
Yes, the pop-up advertising is disturbing that randomly appears on your screen. But you can ignore it, the way we do it everywhere. After a while, you won’t care about them anymore.
Second, you can get everything offline, which might be an incredible feature a few years back. Today, when the internet is readily available everywhere, it is pretty much worthless, at least in most parts of the globe.
The last benefit is unlimited hearts and skill test-outs. It also repairs monthly streak and provides quizzes to assess your progress and mastery. These aren’t a big selling point.
In fact, there are some tricks to get all these in the free plan.
For example, you can use the browser version to get unlimited lessons rather than a mobile app. The last time I checked, there were no limitations on the number of mistakes you make.
Instead of paying for “Plus,” you can also track your progress on the Duome website. Type duome.eu/Yourusername, and now you can see all.
It shows the languages you’re learning and their levels, the required XP to reach the next level, and the Golden Owls you have gained!
You can access everything, albeit with some weaknesses, without taking a paid subscription. I’d recommend sticking with the free plan.
I don’t think the Duolingo plus will help you learn more or in a better way. This is honestly not worth it.
If Duolingo is not great, why is it so popular?
The reasons are the same as the 3 benefits and other points I mentioned above in this review.
- Duolingo is 100% free. Yes, you don’t need to pay a single penny to learn whatever you’re interested in. Who doesn’t like free stuff?
- You can access it from anywhere, anytime, and anywhere. The interface of the platform is also appealing, captivating, and simplistic.
- You can learn various languages at the same time. Again, this is difficult to do on other platforms. On Duolingo, you can switch to another language with 2-clicks.
- This is all about gamification. It occupies the learners’ thoughts more quickly and gets them excited about learning. The rush towards finishing the tree and gaining the reward makes you use it more often.
- You can also study some less common, going to be soon extinct, artificial, and fictional languages. You may not locate enough support like an educational center, books, or teachers who can support study some of these.
My Duolingo Review: Below Average — 2/5
Duolingo is the most familiar and straightforward language-learning tool and 100% free.
Although this is somewhat hit and miss. There wouldn’t be enough explanation if you stuck at any part.
I hope this Duolingo review was valuable for you to make the right decision. Overall, my experience with Duolingo wasn’t great. This isn’t meant for serious learners.
If you’re still on the fence, you can check it. At least there is no harm in trying it. Despite various negative aspects, at least it is free.
But don’t expect to achieve any notable fluency with Duolingo by spending 5 to 20 minutes a day with a few virtual flashcards activities. That is simply not possible. Here is my rating.
Duolingo is the most well-known language learning app. But, it is only meant to learn some beginners level skills. Don’t expect any meaningful proficiency. It is not worth it. By considering all the aspects, I rate “Below Average.”
I’ve tested several apps, and this is my second one after the in-depth Memrise review. I’ll write more in the future.
Let me know if you have questions about my Duolingo review. You can also share your experience in the comments!