My teenage brother is not allowed to play online games. So he plays Duolingo.
The popular language learning app gamifies learning with bright colors, shiny medals and sound effects (ping, whoosh, ta-da). It’s free and it gives constant positive reinforcement. There is an audible back and forth. Some prompts ask you to speak to move on to the next question. You read, you actively remember what you’ve learned with in-app quizzes, and you learn.
Still, Duolingo’s gamification isn’t for everyone. Serious learners may find the program too inquisitive, frustrated by the idea of levels and a progression system. In this review, I’ll approach it as a complete beginner on various platforms and give you my thoughts, including whether or not I think Duolingo on its own can help you master a new language.
Spanish, French, English, German, Japanese, Italian, Korean, Hindi, Chinese, Russian, Arabic, Portuguese, Turkish, Dutch, Latin, Swedish, Greek, Irish, Polish, Norwegian, Hebrew, Vietnamese, Hawaiian, High Valyrian, Danish , Indonesian, Romanian, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Czech, Swahili, Hungarian, Ukrainian, Klingon, Navajo, Esperanto, Finnish, Catalan, Haitian Creole, Ukrainian
Online, Android, iOS, iPad OS and Windows 11/10.
Images, text, photos, audio, verbal
No need to create an account right away to start learning
How Language Learning Works
Duolingo on computer
A great thing about Duolingo is that you don’t need to sign up right away to start learning. I decided to start with Spanish on my computer and had two options: complete the introductory lesson or take the placement test. My Spanish skills in high school had been unused for many years, but I tried to dust them off to pass the placement test. It lasts about five minutes and gets more and more difficult. After a few minutes, I opted for the introductory lesson instead. Completing the placement test can unlock many levels that you may have already mastered, giving you a head start in the learning process.
The first question of the introductory lesson made me appreciate the diversity of the characters. The background was not distracting and the question was clearly readable. The visuals helped me understand the question. Duolingo doesn’t strike me as an intimidating platform to start learning a language.
After the multiple-choice question, I had to answer a writing question, with blocks like “man” and “woman” in place to avoid typos in writing on my part. I found blocks to be a clever design tool. I also liked that you could hear the Spanish words spoken out loud. It made the experience multi-dimensional and encouraged me to try pronouncing the word myself – as many times as necessary to get it right.
Then came the encouragement: a cute little green bird congratulating me for answering five questions in a row! Thank you, little bird, it’s wonderful.
Another type of question I saw was a listening question. I had to tap the screen to hear the sound, then I wrote down what I heard.
I appreciate the simplicity of the online interface. There’s just enough information to encourage you to pay attention, and the positive feedback keeps you going.
More: The 7 Best Language Learning Apps
Duolingo on iOS/mobile app
Would the positives of Duolingo’s web version hold true on its iPhone app? Yes, and I actually had a better experience on my phone than on my desktop. At the welcome screen, I started right away instead of logging in. The option to start without disclosing my personal information immediately establishes trust. It gives me the power to test the technology and decide if I want to sign up.
There are many languages available, but I wanted to try a language I was completely unfamiliar with to model how a beginner would approach the app. So I chose Chinese — I always wanted to learn but thought it might be too difficult for me. Let’s see how Duolingo presents the language.
Before starting the lesson, I had to answer a few questions about skill level (beginner) and motivation. I then chose how long I wanted to train per day and had the option to set daily reminders to reach my goal. I opted out of getting the daily reminder because I personally don’t like my phone cluttered with notifications, but you might find it useful.
I started learning from scratch. The first question I had to answer was an audio question: what sound does 好 make? The question was communicated via audio, and a voice said something that sounded like “how” in regards to the character 好. Of the three answer choices, nǐ, hǎo, and zài, hǎo sounded closest to what I had heard.
The second question was a translation question that asked me to write “你好” in English. It was easy to understand because I could hover over the question and see the translation as “hello”.
The third question asked me to recall the character I saw in the first question. When I clicked on an answer choice, I heard the corresponding sound. This was the third question:
Fortunately, I remembered the character I had just seen. I liked the way the questions built on top of each other.
The process of learning new characters and sounds was enjoyable. I was able to complete the first lesson and found myself trying to write the characters on my own. It was a small lesson for sure, something you learn in the first three minutes of a Chinese lesson, but it was a step closer to understanding.
By downloading the app and taking a lesson, I realized how Duolingo keeps students interested in the language: there are sequences, there are rewards – it’s fun. It’s language learning that keeps the big picture in mind without getting bogged down in the details, especially at first.
Two years of Duolingo
All told and done right, with enough commitment, Duolingo can be of great benefit to your language learning. My little brother is a Duolingo inspiration – he started using it two years ago when he was in sixth grade, and he still uses it. He rarely misses a day and is currently on a 143 day streak.
“It was easy to get started and understand all the concepts,” he told me. “It’s good for learning vocabulary and brushing up on old topics. It’s not the best learning platform for learning a language from scratch. If you have some knowledge of a language, it will help a lot.”
It started with French and expanded to Spanish, Hindi and Italian.
“It helps a lot to understand what’s going on in the classroom,” he said. “I understand more easily what my French teacher says.”
He is currently in the silver league and he has received 275 skill crowns or achievements.
He has also listened to 64 sets of stories in French, some of which require him to play a part in the story. I’ve heard the sounds of him on his iPad practicing Duolingo so often that I don’t even record it anymore.
At the end of the line
By bringing together languages from around the world on one platform, Duolingo creates more than just a way to expand your language skills, it’s also about expanding your horizons. The company’s upbeat way of doing it, with bright colors and interesting graphics, is eye-catching. Cheers make Duolingo users feel like they’re progressing.
In the United States, nearly 231 million Americans speak only English: that’s about 80% of the population. Being fluent in another language doesn’t just make you more worldly. This can be a huge advantage in the workplace.
Alternatives to consider
Memrise is another free language learning platform.
A reliable method based on 30 minutes of audio lessons per day.
Another reliable method with instant pronunciation feedback.