Is Duolingo bad? You’ve probably heard a lot of criticisms of this popular app if you’ve been hanging around language learning communities online. Duolingo gets a lot of flack, and there’s good reason for that. Nobody is going to reach fluency in a foreign language just by using a game app, and a lot of Duolingo users seem to think they can. Still, I think many critics miss an important point: Duolingo scratches the phone itch. And that’s no small thing.
A lot of ink has already been spilled on the pros and cons of Duolingo by more accomplished language bloggers (and more self-confident redditors) than me. So I won’t go into the details too much here. The biggest gripe I have with the green owl is that he mostly asks for translations out of the target language rather than into it. The sentences also aren’t very natural and some are downright weird. It’s definitely not the most effective way to learn, and you’ll get a lot more mileage out of other methods like making your own flashcard decks, practicing with speaking partners, or even just watching TV in your target language.
So Duolingo’s advantage isn’t that it works. It has something else going for it.
Duolingo can replace other addictive apps
If you’re anything like me, you probably pull out your phone almost compulsively whenever there’s an idle moment: standing in line, riding the bus, waiting for meetings to start, going to the bathroom… This isn’t the place to go into whether or not that’s a habit worth cracking, but it is relevant to discussing the pros and cons of Duolingo because the best use for Duolingo isn’t as a study tool but as an upgrade to our phone addictions.
Maybe Duolingo should do a better job of pointing that out instead of marketing itself as the “best way to learn a language.” But the “usefully addictive way to start learning a language” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Duolingo is a language-learning game. It takes advantage of a lot of the same psychology that keeps us compulsively pulling out our pocket-screens over and over and over again. With all its bright colors and achievements and rewards, Duolingo is frighteningly easy to get addicted to, just like many of the apps we already use. Except that instead of encouraging you to browse social media or crush candy or word with friends or whatever, Duolingo will give you language exposure.
Imperfect language exposure, yes, but language exposure. Especially for beginners (A1-A2 level), I think that Duolingo works great as a sort of nearly-passive rolling review of vocabulary and grammar. Seeing words and concepts that you’ve learned elsewhere again in a new (admittedly sometimes super awkward and weird) context never hurts.
Duolingo isn’t bad if you use it effectively
The best way to use Duolingo is to substitute it 1:1 for other things you’d already be doing with your phone that don’t help you learn. Just take care not to let Duolingo start creeping in on the time you’d usually spend on more effective study methods.
Use it when you’re waiting in line at checkout, use it when you catch yourself scrolling endlessly through facebook videos, use it stealthily under the table during boring meetings, on the subway, on the toilet–you get the picture. It won’t get you far on its own. But so long as it’s always a an appetizer and never the main course, it can only help you. You won’t get worse at your target language by using it, and you might even get a teensy bit better.
Bascially, treat Duolingo like any other phone game you can’t go wrong.
As an example of how this can work, I used Duolingo to start learning German at a time when I had just just enough motivation to drag myself through my university coursework and watch TV from underneath the pile of unwashed landry I forgot to clear off my bed. Just swapping in Duolingo for my old phone habit checking the New York Times headlines (I didn’t have a subscription, just read the headlines over and over) and switching the TV to German got me to a point where I could start compulsively checking Süddeutsche Zeitung headlines in about three months. Three months of really not putting any effort in.
I did watch a lot of TV, though.
This all comes with a caveat, though. Like I said, Duolingo works best for beginners and once I hit an intermediate (B1-B2) level, I found myself using Duolingo less because I could finally relax and passively consume content made for German native speakers. Forgive me, but while there’s plenty of material out there made specifically for new learners, I’m just not interested in hearing another story about b e i n g a n e x c h a n g e s t u d e n t i n M u n i c h or pestering Viennese train station employees for unrealistically detailed directions to a hotel. I found it tough to get drawn into beginner resources. But once I was able to start reading, listening and watching real content in German, I got addicted to plenty of great podcasts and Youtube channels and gradually retired my Duolingo habit.
Anyways, I’m sure that others would say that you’d be better served by subbing out whatever you tend to do on your phone with X,Y, or Z. And X, Y, and Z probably will help you learn faster than Duolingo—if you can manage to get as addicted to them as you are to whatever you do with your phone already.
If not? There’s nothing wrong hitting up Duo for some good fun translating classic phrases like “they wash the holy potato.”
Owl trophy image from https://forum.duolingo.com/comment/8613388/I-Have-Conquered-My-German-Treewith, edited by me