An Honest Duolingo Review
If you've ever searched for language learning apps to use on your smartphone, you've almost certainly come across Duolingo. It's by far the most popular language learning program for smartphones and is used by 300 million people all over the world.
One of the great things about Duolingo is that it has made language learning accessible to everyone. You don't even have to speak English to use it.
The app also works for Spanish speakers who want to learn Catalan, or French speakers who want to learn German, for example. When learning from English, you can learn any of 32 Duolingo languages.
But the question is: is Duolingo good? Does it work?? In this brutally honest Duolingo review, I'll share with you both the good and the bad sides of trying to learn a foreign language using Duolingo.
This review is based on my own experience as an avid language learner and Duolingo user.
I have been studying foreign languages for many years, several of them to quite a high level. Before I quit my job to travel the world as a vegan travel blogger, I was a translator for the UN.
My husband and I even co-host a podcast for learners of English, so language learning is a big part of my life! And over the years, I’ve figured out what works and what doesn’t when it comes to learning a foreign language.
In this review, I'll focus in particular on the needs of language learners who are trying to learn a new language for travel purposes. And, in addition to explaining what Duolingo offers, I'll also talk about some other (better) apps for learning languages on the go.
But first, here's the nitty gritty on that cute little green owl called Duo and his super-popular app Duolingo.
Is Duolingo Free?
The best thing about Duolingo, and the reason it has become so popular, is that it's free. The company's tagline is "Learn a language for free. Forever."
Actually, the company follows a freemium business model. This means that they offer a free language learning tool and then try to convince you to upgrade to the premium version once you're hooked.
The premium version, called Duolingo Plus, costs $6.99 per month. I tried it for a month, and, to be honest, I don't really think it's worth the price, unless you're traveling in a country where you don't have data service on your phone.
All of the language learning features are already included in the free version of the app. The main extra features of Duolingo Plus are an ad-free learning environment and the ability to download lessons for offline learning.
Gamification in Duolingo
So, what about those language learning features? How does Duolingo help you to learn a language? Well, it does so by turning language acquisition into a game. And this is one thing that the developers definitely got right. Duolingo is fun, and it's addictive!
You can earn badges, climb up the leaderboards, and collect lingots, which you then spend on things like cute little outfits to dress your Duolingo mascot in. But for me, the most effective game element in Duolingo is the streak count.
A fire icon at the top of the screen records how many days in a row you have studied a language on Duolingo. Keeping my streak count turned out to be a VERY motivational factor for me. In fact, it got me hooked on Duolingo to the point where I was willing to overlook its many flaws. And yes, there are many.
Advanced Language Learning in Duolingo
Let me first say that Duolingo is primarily for beginners who just want to learn the basics. If you can already read 17th-century German Baroque poetry and want to level up your German game, this is not the app for you.
That's not to say that you have to start at the very beginning, though. It is possible to test out of multiple lessons at one time until you reach the right level for you.
If you already have a decent foundation and just want some reviews and extra practice of your language skills, Duolingo could work for you. But if you are at an advanced level, you'll probably find it too easy.
When researching this article, I used Duolingo to study eight different languages: Chinese, French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, Hindi, and Japanese. The first five of those languages I have studied and practiced for several years and speak pretty well.
Russian, I studied at an intermediate level several years ago and then stopped practicing. In the case of Hindi and Japanese, this was my first time studying these languages.
I had fun using Duolingo to study the languages I already knew well. The problem was, it just wasn't challenging enough. I tested out of most of the lessons and just did the ones I needed to reach the first of what Duolingo calls the "Crown Levels". In reality, I wasn't learning much; I was just in it for the crowns. See, gamification works!
Once I saw the golden owl standing on the top of the podium telling me I had "conquered" those languages, I stopped using Duolingo for all of them except Chinese (which is the weakest of the five for me).
You can keep going deeper into the levels, and the content is supposed to get harder. This is what I am doing with Chinese, but so far, it's still a bit too easy for my level. I'm OK with that, though, because my Chinese skills are rusty, and I'm just trying to refresh them a bit.
In my Russian studies, I reached a point where I was no longer able to test out, so I completed a lot more of those lessons than I did in the other languages. Eventually, I also "conquered" Russian.
This is kind of a ridiculous thing to say, because I can barely string a sentence together in Russian. But I'll get to that in a minute.
Beginner Language Learning in Duolingo
First, let's talk about what it's like to learn a language from scratch using only Duolingo. Because that's probably what you're here for, right?
I realize that most people are not language geeks like me and don't spend hundreds of hours practicing Chinese characters just for fun. I'm a weirdo, I know.
Maybe you just want to learn a few useful travel words and phrases for your next trip overseas. Can you do that on Duolingo?
Umm, maybe. But I can't really recommend it.
Lack of Grammar Explanations in Duolingo
I have two major complaints with Duolingo. The first is that there are no explanations of grammar rules. You are just supposed to pick up the rules intuitively as you go through the lessons, which are mostly multiple choice and translation questions.
Perhaps this would work if you were learning a language that was quite similar to your own. For native speakers of French who were trying to learn Spanish, for example, the grammar might be similar enough for them to figure out what was going on.
But as a native English speaker trying to learn Japanese -- a language that has complicated grammar and three separate writing systems and is nothing at all like English -- I needed help, and I wasn't getting it from Duolingo.
And I had an advantage over the typical English speaker, since many of the characters used in Japanese are the same as in Chinese. Even then, I was still lost!
I will say that is seems the app developers are working to change this. After a recent update, a little lightbulb icon now appears when I open a Chinese lesson. If I click on the lightbulb, it opens a page of brief grammar/cultural notes.
This does not appear in any of the other languages I've tried, though. Let's hope Duolingo will be rolling this out to other language lessons soon.
UPDATE June 2019: It looks like the grammar and cultural notes are gradually being rolled out for all languages. I now see them for Japanese, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian as well as Chinese, but still not for Czech, Hindi or Russian.
Ineffective Language Learning Exercises
And now for my second big complaint about Duolingo: it's too easy to guess the right answer. A multiple-choice question is much easier than an open-ended question where you have to come up with the answer yourself. And there are no open-ended questions in Duolingo.
Even when Duolingo asks you to translate a sentence, it gives you a jumble of words to choose from, so you basically just have to put the words in the right order. In practice, this means that you don't really learn, even if you get the answer right.
When trying to learn Japanese, I found that I kept progressing to harder and harder lessons without having learned the content from the previous lessons. I could have just kept guessing the right answers, but I knew that it wasn't getting me anywhere.
UPDATE June 2019: After a reader suggested this in the comments (thanks Alena!), I gave Japanese learning with Duolingo another try.
This time, instead of moving on to the next content bubble as soon as it is unlocked (after reaching level 1 on the previous bubble), I am continuing to study the same bubble until I reach at least level 3. This approach, combined with the new grammar notes, is working much better.
I still wouldn't recommend trying to learn a language solely with Duolingo, but I do believe it can be a useful tool when combined with other things, at least for some languages. Probably still not for Hindi (see below).
When trying to learn Hindi on Duolingo, I couldn't even make it past the alphabet. There were so many letters that sounded exactly alike, and the disorganized way in which Duolingo was presenting them to me certainly wasn't helping.
So, eventually I gave up and started looking for other language learning apps. I found several that were much more effective than Duolingo, which I will share below.
Before moving on to those other apps, though, I should mention that both the lack of grammar explanations and the lack of open-ended questions are apparently resolved in the desktop version of Duolingo. But who wants to sit behind a computer to study?
If you're like me, you need a study tool that you can take with you and whip out during those random minutes of free time throughout the day, like riding the subway or waiting in a doctor's office. That's why this article is about language learning apps, not language learning computer programs.
Better Language Apps for Travel
When I finally switched from Duolingo to Lingodeer to learn Japanese, it was like someone had flipped on a light switch in my brain. Everything started making sense!
Those grammar explanations I had been missing? They’re all there for when you want them, but they can also be skipped if you don’t want them. And the level of difficulty was just right. It was easy enough that I felt encouraged rather than frustrated, but challenging enough that I actually learned the content I was studying.
Like Duolingo, Lingodeer also has a lot of the gamification features that make learning fun.
Speaking Your Target Language
In addition, it also gets you speaking the language, not just listening to it. Actually, I do remember doing some speaking exercises in the Russian modules of Duolingo, but not in any of the other languages.
In any case, Lingodeer will get you speaking from the very beginning. You can listen to a native speaker pronouncing a word or sentence, then record yourself repeating it and play back the recording to compare your pronunciation.
At the end of each lesson is a "Story" section, where you can record a voice-over for a short video using the words and phrases you learned in the lesson.
The Best App to Learn Japanese, Chinese or Korean
Lingodeer is geared primarily to learners of Asian languages, so there's a strong focus on teaching the characters. You can watch animations that show you how to draw each character stroke by stroke.
For this reason, I highly recommend Lingodeer as the best app to learn Japanese. It's also probably the best app to learn Chinese or Korean.
The number of languages you can learn on Lingodeer is pretty limited right now, although it's growing all the time. In addition to Chinese, Japanese and Korean, English speakers can also learn Spanish, French, German, Portuguese and Vietnamese.
UPDATE June 2019: Lingodeer has now added Russian. Yay! And for most languages, they have also added a second level for more advanced learners.
Other language combinations are also available. For example, Russian speakers can learn Japanese, and Bahasa Indonesian speakers can learn English.
Advanced Language Learning with Lingodeer
While the initial course will teach you the basics of the language, for some languages there is also a second, more advanced course. In addition to studying the level 1 Lingodeer course in Japanese, I’m also studying the level 2 Lingodeer course in Chinese.
Since I’ve already studied Chinese for several years, it’s still well below my actual level. But it’s a fun way to review, and, unlike with Duolingo, I do feel like I’m actually (re)learning some Chinese with Lingodeer.
There’s a good variety of different types of exercises in each lesson. While this does include multiple choice, there are also some more challenging tasks, and you can do extra reviews in the form of a pop quiz any time you want.
The lessons come in a set order, on topics such as nationality, gender and days of the week. If you want an all-around knowledge of a language, it’s nice to have this structure to tell you what to study next.
And if you’re not starting from scratch with a language, there are various test-out checkpoints where you can skip ahead.
Language Learning for Travel
On the other hand, if you just want to learn basic Japanese for travel, it’s not ideal. There’s another app that I’ll mention below that’s better for just learning Japanese phrases for travelers (as well as travel phrases in many other languages).
That being said, the topic of travel does come up pretty early on in the Lingodeer lessons.
One thing I did notice today while using Lingodeer is that some of the sentences taught are rather … unorthodox. Like this one:
or this one:
Perhaps this is an Asian cultural influence? I’m not sure which country the developers are from, but I have a feeling this wouldn’t fly in a US-based company. In any case, the lessons are based around real-life, everyday topics.
And it’s kind of refreshing (and I guess realistic?) to learn words like “lazy” and “dumb” in addition to “smart” and “pretty”.
Lingodeer as a Stand-Alone Language Learning Method
Overall, Lingodeer seems to work well as a stand-alone language teaching method. If you used only Lingodeer and nothing else to study, you would still get a pretty solid foundation. And that’s something I definitely can’t say about Duolingo.
Of course, as you progress, you should still seek out as many opportunities as possible to listen, read and speak if you really want to learn a language. Keep reading for my review of another app that will help you do just that.
But Lingodeer is a very good starting point. It’s also available for offline study, so you can download all your lessons at once and take them with you.
Lingodeer is generously offering 15% off membership for Nomadic Vegan readers. Just go to the Lingodeer website and use the promo code NOMADICV when checking out!
If you are a visual learner, then you’re probably going to love Drops.
Drops teaches the basics of language learning – words – in quick 5-minute word games (matching pictures with words, completing phrases, solving word puzzles, etc.). What stands out the most about Drops is the way that it uses images to teach a language.
Duolingo is entirely based on the written language, while Lingodeer uses a combination of word-based and picture-based exercises. But in Drops, every single word or phrase taught is associated with a picture.
So far, I’ve only used Drops to study Hindi, and since I’m an absolute beginner at Hindi, I’m mostly just learning individual words and a few short phrases. And for this, the picture-based method is great.
It really does feel like a game, and my allotment of five minutes of study time per day simply flies by (if you upgrade to the premium version you can study for more than five minutes).
At some point, I would like to be able to string whole sentences together in Hindi, so it will be interesting to see how Drops handles more advanced levels of language learning.
With Lingodeer, I’m already learning full sentences and sentence patterns in Japanese, even at a beginner level. In Drops, I’m not sure if or when that will happen.
But with Hindi, my goal is not to become fluent. I really just want to learn a few useful phrases for my vegan trip to India this summer, and the Drops method is great for that.
So, while Lingodeer gets my vote as the best app to learn Japanese or Chinese, Drops is my favorite Hindi language learning app.
Keep in mind, I have different personal goals for those languages. If you just want to learn basic Japanese for travel, then Drops is probably the quickest way to learn simple Japanese phrases for travelers.
And there are more than 30 languages to choose from in Drops, so, no matter where you’re headed on your next trip, Drops can probably teach you a bit of the local lingo.
Lessons are divided by topic, and you can skip around to any topic you want. This is also really handy for travelers, particularly if you have specialized interests.
For example, since I will be leading a vegan tour of India (find out more about that here), and food will be a major part of the tour, I’m focusing on the Hindi lessons about food and drinks.
And while there are other translation apps that can help you order vegan food, I would recommend that all vegan travelers use Drops to learn a few words like “meat”, “cheese” and “eggs” in the local language of their destination.
Drops is ideal for travelers who are looking for a low-impact, effective, and fun way to learn a new language. Plus, you can use Drops offline, so you don’t have to be searching for Wi-Fi all the time while you’re traveling.
It's already a cult classic and was just named Google's Best App of 2018.
I had known about Memrise for a while, but I had always thought it was just a flashcard program. And while that’s mainly true, the company has also developed language courses that include other types of exercises in addition to flashcards.
Some of those exercise types are only available with a premium account, but others are free to use. With Memrise, it’s important to understand the difference between the official language courses and the user-generated, “community” courses.
The official courses are created by Memrise, and they all follow a similar pattern and must meet a certain quality standard. Currently, there are official Memrise courses for 18 different languages, including two different variants of Spanish and Portuguese.
There are community courses for many other languages, but be aware that the quality of these varies dramatically. Anyone who signs up for a Memrise account can create a community course.
Often, these are meant to be personal study aids to accompany an outside course or textbook. In my experience, many of them are unusable as a stand-alone study tool. I tried several community Hindi courses on Memrise, and they were all pretty useless.
Eventually I discovered Drops, which is clearly the best Hindi language learning app I’ve found, and I gave up on Memrise for Hindi.
I’m still using it for Russian, however. Unlike the Hindi courses, the Russian course is an official Memrise course, so I’m confident that the content is accurate. Although, like with Lingodeer, I sometimes come across an unusual phrase or two …
Here’s hoping I won’t need to use that sentence when I travel across Russia on the Trans-Mongolia.
If Lingodeer had a level 2 Russian course, I would probably use that instead, but for now they just have level 1. Memrise has seven different levels in Russian, and I’m currently working my way through the fourth level.
So far, for my language level, Memrise has been the best app to learn Russian of the ones I’ve tried. It’s mostly just for building vocabulary, though.
[UPDATE May 2020: Two pieces of good news to report:
1. I made it safely across Russia and Mongolia without wetting the bed.
2. Lingodeer has released a Level 2 Russian course, which I'm now working my way through.]
For practicing listening and reading comprehension, I use a different app, called Beelinguapp.
Beelinguapp is rather different from the other apps described above. While some of those above focus on learning vocabulary words, and others teach a combination of vocabulary and grammar, all of them teach through exercises (multiple-choice, fill in the blank, translation, etc.)
But Beelinguapp teaches through bilingual audiobooks. Inside the app, you can read a short story, an article or even a whole novel in a foreign language side-by-side with your native language.
When you come across a word you don’t know, you can simply look at the English version (or whichever language you choose as your native language) to help you along.
In addition, you can also listen to a native speaker read to you as you follow along with a karaoke-style prompt that shows exactly where you are in the story.
There are many different types of audiobooks inside the app, ranging from fairy tales to scientific papers. And you can read and listen to them in 13 different languages.
If you are an absolute beginner language learner, then this is probably not the best app for you to start with. I recommend learning the basics first with one of the other language learning apps reviewed here.
What's the Best Way to Learn a Language?
But once you’ve built up a decent vocabulary and have a basic understanding of grammar, you need to get as much input as you can in your learning language to really advance. After all, this is how you learned your native language, right?
Sure, you studied grammar in school, but you were already speaking fluently well before your first day of school. And how did you learn to speak your own language fluently?
By listening to the people around you speaking. So, to speak a second language fluently, you’re going to need more than grammar exercises and vocabulary flashcards.
What you need is mass input, and reading and listening to stories in your target language is an excellent way to do that.
Language Learning Apps You Can Afford
The language learning apps reviewed here are the best ones I have found at an affordable price. Some of them have limited free versions, while others just have a free trial. None of them will break the bank, though.
Other apps such as Rosetta Stone and Mango Languages could also be very effective for learning a foreign language, but they are more expensive. If you're interested in those, let me know, and I may write a second article about more high-end language learning apps.