Ah yes, the be-all and end-all question: Can Duolingo make you fluent?
Given that Duolingo is one of the most popular ways to learn a language, it’s a question that gets asked more times than the owl can tell you “It’s time for Spanish!”.
Back in 2016, I was asking this very question.
I remember being absolutely determined to learn Italian but I wasn’t 100% sure how to go about it. I’d dabbled with Duolingo for other languages previously, and given it had a lot of decent reviews on the App Store, I figured it would be worth a shot.
Fast forward 5 and a half years, and I finally have an answer — which I’ll share with you shortly!
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To do so, we’ll consider a few things, such as the hard-hitting research, Duolingo’s stated objectives and how each course differs from the next. We’ll also take a look at what’s required in the language acquisition process, before arriving at the all-important conclusion.
But first things first…
What do we mean by ‘fluent’?
It’s funny. Everyone wants to know if Duolingo can make you fluent. But how many of them actually know what ‘fluent’ is?
Fluency, and what defines it, is an idea that gets batted around more than any other in the language learning community.
If Jessica says she knows a bit of Spanish, I can almost guarantee that Bob will respond: “But can you speak it fluently?”
The funny thing is that 99 times out of 100 the person asking doesn’t even know what fluency means.
Jim might have you believe that to be fluent in a language means to comprehend and produce it perfectly.
Sarah might argue that fluency simply means that you’re able to hold a conversation.
Abdul might contend that to be fluent means to know a language nearly as well as your mother tongue.
And Gertrude might suggest that it all comes down to whether you know how to order a pizza.
Truly, there are many different flavours of fluency. It comes down to personal definitions.
My definition of fluency?
To be able to transfer a wide range of ideas from one mind to another.
Even if you don’t know every word in the dictionary or fully understand every grammatical rule, so long as you are able to express an idea and have another person understand (and vice versa), that, to me, is fluency.
The good news is that if you don’t like my, or anyone else’s, definitions, then you can always refer to one of the many language learning proficiency frameworks, which give us some hard and fast definitions.
The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, otherwise known as the CEFR, is a popular framework and actually underpins how Duolingo ranks proficiency (we’ll get onto that a little later).
The basic model is as follows:
|A1||Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type. Can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has. Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.|
|A2||Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment). Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters. Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.|
|B1||Can understand the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered in work, school, leisure, etc. Can deal with most situations likely to arise whilst travelling in an area where the language is spoken. Can produce simple connected text on topics which are familiar or of personal interest. Can describe experiences and events, dreams, hopes & ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.|
|B2||Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in his/her field of specialisation. Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party. Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.|
|C1||Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer texts, and recognise implicit meaning. Can express him/herself fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions. Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes. Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.|
|C2||Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read. Can summarise information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation. Can express him/herself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in more complex situations.|
As you can see, it’s fairly clear cut.
If you fall into the A1-A2 bracket then you would be considered to have basic proficiency.
Make it into the B1-B2 bracket and you would be considered to have independent (or intermediate) proficiency.
And if you find yourself hitting the heights of C1-C2, then you would be considered to be highly proficient in your target language.
The cool thing for Duolingo users is Duolingo use this same model to not only evaluate their courses but also to help them set targets for where they want to get their learners to.
This is something Duolingo CEO Luis von Ahn outlined at Duocon 2021. Using the CEFR, the guys at Duolingo want to get their users to B2 — the upper intermediate tier — which is considered enough to get what von Ahn describes as a “knowledge job”.
Basically, if you can get to B2, then you can get by in a language with minimal discomfort. You won’t be perfect, but you’ll be more than capable of functioning.
This pretty much marries up with my definition of fluency. And so, if you subscribe to my definition, it could be said that Duolingo aim to make you fluent.
But does this mean that Duolingo can make you fluent?
Follow me on Duolingo!
Up for some friendly competition? Then be sure to follow me on Duolingo!
My username is DCiiieee 🙂
(If the link doesn’t work then just type my username into the ‘Search for friends’ bar on the app)
How fluent can Duolingo make you by itself?
B2 is a solid target, but one some might consider a little optimistic for a free language learning app.
So how far can Duolingo really take us by itself?
To answer this, it’s worth considering a couple of things.
Firstly, the research.
Duolingo have conducted some research into how their courses stack up against university courses. For this they focussed on learners taking their French and Spanish courses and examined their progress in listening, reading and speaking.
These learners disclosed that they had limited to no knowledge of their target language and used Duolingo “as their only learning tool”.
Duolingo compared their learners’ proficiencies after 5 units with the studies of Tschirner (2016) and Rubio and Hacking (2019), who, like Duolingo, used the ACTFL (American Council of the Teaching of Foreign Languages) proficiency ratings for their measurements.
When it comes to listening and reading, they found that 5 units of Duolingo is comparable to 4 university semesters.
As for speaking, they found that at least 50% of learners that had completed 5 units of the French and Spanish courses reached at least an A2 level of speaking. That means they’re able to hold basic conversations about everyday topics.
It’s fair to say that these are some pretty promising results!
Additionally, we can also look to individual case studies and examples.
In a recent article Duolingo shared success stories of three learners who used Duolingo (and only Duolingo) to learn French.
They had been using Duolingo for 2.5, 4 and 5 years respectively, and all three reached a point where they could communicate with others using the language.
Many would consider this sufficient to be labelled ’fluent’ — suggesting Duolingo can, in fact, make you fluent.
Pretty exciting stuff!
It depends on the language… among other things
As promising as all this is, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
What the research suggests is that, using Duolingo and nothing else, you can get to as high as B2 in your target language. It’s not just their stated objective; the research and the French success stories suggest that Duolingo can carry you to a conversational level, period.
But this is misleading in at least two significant ways.
Some courses are better than others
If you’re a long time Duolingo user then you’ll know that not all of Duolingo’s languages are created equally. Just because English speakers can choose from nearly 40 different language courses doesn’t mean that they’re equally supported.
Some courses are overflowing with high-quality content and receive regular updates, whereas others are disappointingly lacking.
There is a reason for this: the general rule is that the more popular a language course is, the better supported it will be.
So courses like French and Spanish generally have all the latest features, tips, modules and voices. Whereas courses like Polish are significantly shorter and nowhere near as supported.
For instance, the French course is jam-packed with high-quality content spanning 10 units.
The Polish course, however, only has enough content for 4 units.
There is also a disparity in the quality of the units. The French course offers sophisticated lessons with specialised voicing. It offers an array of different exercises, as well as conversation-focussed modules (aka Conversation Lessons). Each skill also comes with a bespoke Tips section, which is useful (some might argue essential) for understanding the complexities of a skill, such as conjugations, cases and verb moods.
Sadly, none of this is present in the Polish course.
The French course leads the way when it comes to new features. It boasts one of the largest libraries of Stories, with nearly 300 to choose from. It was also the first course to offer Audio Lessons (now also available in Spanish).
The Polish course, however, doesn’t get a sniff.
Sadly, the story of the Polish course is the same for most of Duolingo’s language lineup. It’s not that the guys at Duolingo don’t care, it’s just that they only have so many personnel and contributors to work on their courses. It’s only natural that they would prioritise the courses that the majority of their learners are using.
Nonetheless, it’s important to be mindful of this when you’re about to embark on your language learning journey.
The study we looked at earlier only measures proficiency in the French and Spanish courses — these being Duolingo’s best supported and jam-packed.
It’s one thing to argue that 5 units of the French course are equivalent to 4 university semesters, but you’d be hard-pressed to make the same case for the Polish course — not least because there isn’t enough content to even make 5 units!
Duolingo can’t make you fluent by itself
The other way in which the research is misleading is that learning a language requires more than just an app, in the same way learning just about anything requires more than just a textbook.
It’s clear that we can achieve a lot with ‘just’ Duolingo. The research and experiences of thousands of users (including my own) is testament to this.
But there are two sides to any learning process: Active and Passive. Duolingo nails the active but offers very little in respect of the passive.
This is something that both the research and the French success stories fail to acknowledge. In both cases, the learners state that Duolingo is their only “learning tool”, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they weren’t engaging with their target language away from Duolingo. It just means they weren’t using other software, enrolled in university courses, or receiving tuition.
Therefore, we can’t discount that the learners were engaged in passive learning — the ‘application’ side of the learning process. Things such as listening to music, watching TV shows, reading news articles, or talking to friends in their target language.
In my experience, passive learning is just as important — if not more so — as active. It’s in the passive that you see how the language is used in an authentic setting, where you can take everything you’ve ‘actively’ learned on applications such as Duolingo and put it into practice.
I’ve always found this pretty easy, as when I learn a language, it’s because I’m usually interested in the culture of the countries and peoples that speak it.
I had (and still have) so much fun learning Italian. It wasn’t easy to begin with, but over time doing ‘stuff’ in Italian became one of my favourite hobbies.
When I wasn’t watching Italian TV I’d usually be listening to Italian music. Spotify made it super easy to not only find awesome Italian music, but also created daily mixes filled with tunes the algorithm thought I would like.
I also spent a lot of time listening to audiobooks, one of the best ways I know to improve your listening comprehension. Audible was my go-to for this, as they have a massive library to choose from and offer a decent 30-day free trial.
Everything I picked up on Duolingo got cemented in the TV shows I watched, music I sang along to, and audiobooks I got lost in. These are things Duolingo simply can’t replicate by itself.
So, can Duolingo make you fluent?
By itself, no.
But when used in the right way, I would say it can — but this will depend entirely on your definition of fluency, the quality of your language course, and whether you actually use the language away from Duolingo.
Duolingo want to get their learners to B2 all by themselves. As a learning tool, the potential is there, and there are plenty of examples of learners reaching a conversational level using Duolingo as their primary tool (in French and Spanish, at least).
But it’s important to keep this in mind: whatever your target language, Duolingo is a learning tool. It is not an alternative to actually using the language in real scenarios.
As such, I would always recommend incorporating an equal amount of passive learning into your daily language learning routine. If you spend 20 minutes on Duolingo, spend another 20 minutes doing something real: read a book, watch a TV show, talk.
It’s one thing to know the language, but it’s another thing to be able to use it. Duolingo (or any language learning app/software/book for that matter) is no substitute for living and breathing the language in an authentic setting.
The owl may be able to walk you to the door, but you have to step through it. Real-life ‘stuff’ is essential. The answer to the be-all and end-all question is incomplete without it.