Last month, I started using Duolingo’s Android app to learn Spanish. For the past 34 days, I’ve logged on every day and spent thirty minutes to an hour drilling through Duolingo’s exercises.
To my surprise, I’ve actually learned much more Spanish over the past month than I ever expected a free app could teach.
You don’t have to go far to find articles with very strong opinions on Duolingo. Some extol it as the future of language learning, and others demonize it as a total waste of time.
After my month of daily use, my opinion is falling right in the middle.
I don’t think the quality of instruction comes close to matching a live, in-person class, but I’ve still been impressed by how much I’ve learned.
After 34 days, I’d estimate I’ve learned a few hundred words and basic phrases. (Some I know better than others.)
It’s enough that I’m able to pick out key phrases when I watch Spanish-language television. I’ve also been able to get the gist of some Spanish-language articles that I read online, with minimal use of a dictionary.
The Benefits of Duolingo
I think that if you go into Duolingo expecting it to replace a classroom learning experience, you’ll be disappointed. In my mind, a better comparison would be to think of Duolingo as a fancy deck of flashcards.
Duolingo excels at helping you drill vocabulary and short phrases. It mixes them together well and seems to have the magic ability to bring old vocabulary back into the lessons right before I would have forgotten it.
I’ve also been impressed by which vocabulary it chooses to focus on. I remember in the earlier days of software-based language learning, too many programs wasted time teaching you the names of every color and animal before even introducing the basic phrases that you would need at a restaurant.
Duolingo, in contrast, does a good job of putting the most useful vocabulary first. It focuses on the kind of phrases you would need to introduce yourself, get directions, and interact with waiters and retail employees.
The Downsides of Duolingo
Although Duolingo has helped me build my vocabulary, its grammar instruction is severely lacking.
Grammar lessons are relegated to short pages of tips before each vocabulary drill. These lessons never go very in depth.
I know that some people argue that grammar should come naturally through reading and listening, but that style of language learning has never worked well for me.
Duolingo also has far too much hand-holding. They seem to want to keep all the lessons on the extremely easy side of things, in order to encourage you to keep using the program. I was hoping that the difficulty would ramp up a little as I went along, but so far it hasn’t.
The Bottom Line
I think Duolingo has been a fantastic introduction to Spanish, but it’s really just an introduction. It feels like the more time I spend using it, the less return I’m getting on my time.
If I continue with Spanish, I’ll absolutely need to move on to in-person lessons and a grammar book. I would likely continue to use Duolingo as a supplement though because the exercises are a fun way to drill vocabulary.
Don’t go into Duolingo expecting to gain fluency from the app alone — that will never happen, and isn’t the app’s intention. If you just want to get your feet wet with a new language though, I think Duolingo is a great place to start.