There’s a lot of debate concerning Duolingo’s effectiveness as a language learning tool.
About how far it can take us.
Whether ‘gamifying’ the process is an efficient way to learn.
And whether we really need to know the various translations of ‘The spider eats bread’.
As someone who’s poured a lot of time into Duolingo, I feel as though I’m conveniently placed to comment.
I’ve seen it grow, change, improve and adapt.
I’ve also come to know what works and what doesn’t; what we can achieve and what we can’t; what’s effective and what’s not.
You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.Friedrich Nietzsche
While it’s impossible to know the ins and outs of a language with Duolingo alone, I believe it has a lot of value as part of a comprehensive language learning routine.
It’s helped me reach and maintain a comfortable level in Italian, and helped me through some of the most difficult aspects of Russian. It also got me started in several other languages, too.
To be sure, there is no ‘right way’ to use Duolingo, just as there is no ‘right way’ to learn languages.
But there are certainly unhelpful ways. Approaches that do little to encourage progress, and more to encourage giving up.
So in this article, I’ll guide you through the approach that has worked for me, unpacking how I’ve used Duolingo over the years, where it fits into my language learning routine, and how it continues to help.
How I use Duolingo
There are many aspects to my use of Duolingo.
It typically depends on several factors. What stage I’m at in a language. How much time I have. What I’m currently working on. And what else I’ve done in the language that day.
That said, there are a few consistents.
1. Use Duolingo every single day
If you’ve read my Get Streaky article then you’ll know I’m a big advocate of building a massive Duolingo streak.
This might seem unnecessary. After all, it’s just a number.
However, I’ve found it’s had a positive effect on my language learning.
It’s actually one of the main reasons I continue to use Duolingo. The bigger my streak gets, the more I want to keep it. This keeps me on track with my language learning, ensuring I always do at least a little bit of conscious study every day.
And because we can use Duolingo anywhere, this is really easy to do. We can check-in at home, at work, at school, on the bus, on the train. No matter where we are, if we’ve got a smartphone, we can complete a lesson.
I’ve used Duolingo everywhere. No matter the country, no matter the situation, I always make time for a lesson.
These days, I often find myself completing lessons at work, either on my break or when I get a spare 5 minutes between jobs.
This accessibility, combined with my commitment to my streak, means I can guarantee spending at least a bit of time with my target language every day, no matter what.
And this is great for my language learning prospects!
2. Use Duolingo alongside other forms of input
This might come as a surprise, but I don’t actually spend much time on Duolingo.
Over the course of my current streak, I’d say I’ve averaged about 20 minutes a day. No fewer than 5; no more than an hour.
This, in my expereince, is more than enough.
I usually start the day with Duolingo, usually over breakfast, before moving onto passive forms of learning.
This includes reading news articles, watching TV shows, and listening to music in my target language. This is where the bulk of my learning takes place.
As such, I wouldn’t recommend spending more than an hour a day on Duolingo, irrespective of where you’re at in your target language. Your time is better spent engaging with authentic content and actually using the language.
You also need to be mindful of burnout, which is common for beginners.
It’s very tempting to go hard in your first weeks of using Duolingo. It’s fun, the modules are easy, and we feel as though we’re making big progress in little time.
So, of course, we want to expedite the process. After all, time with the language is super important when it comes to acquisition. If we’re enjoying it, why slow down.
Unfortunately, the novelty eventually wears off. The modules get tougher. The leagues become more competitive. And our rapid improvement appears to slow down.
It’s at this point that a lot of beginners give up. They quickly go from 1000XP a week to nothing at all.
Which is why, in my experience, 20 minutes a day is plenty. It reduces the risk of burnout and gives you more time to engage with authentic content.
I think it’s important to have a good mix of active and passive learning. For me, Duolingo represents the bulk of my active learning, while everything else represents the passive.
3. Use Duolingo to get started
Duolingo is almost always my first port of call when I start learning a new language.
Since starting with Spanish in 2014, I’ve used Duolingo to get started in Italian, Russian, French and German.
For me, the simple, rewarding structure of Duolingo’s courses, alongside its burgeoning catalogue of languages, makes it an ideal starting point in a new language.
It starts you off with the absolute basics of your target language, and holds your hand through the more complex areas.
This is perfect for when you’re starting a language from scratch; with either limited or no prior knowledge.
In my case, once I’ve passed the first couple of checkpoints and got my head around the basic grammatical structures, I’ll then start to dabble with other things.
For instance, after working through the Italian course, I felt I had enough of an understanding to start learning passively. This meant I could begin to watch really basic videos in Italian on YouTube, and read some basic articles and stories on LingQ.
In this way, I found Duolingo even more useful for getting started in Russian.
Whereas English uses the Latin alphabet, Russian uses the Cyrillic. And while there are some similarities, for the most part, it’s completely unfamiliar.
In the beginning I found it really daunting.
But with a bit of time on Duolingo, it soon made sense. The starter modules made it really easy–even enjoyable–to match the characters to their sounds. And after a couple of weeks, I no longer needed to use a conversion chart.
4. Use Duolingo to practice
But it isn’t just beginners who can benefit from Duolingo. No matter how far along you are in your target language, Duolingo is great for brushing up on your weak areas.
Over time, the branches (modules) of your language trees (courses) will break. To fix them, you simply have to sit a quick lesson.
Depending on your level in your target language, these review lessons can take anywhere from 2 to 10 minutes to complete. They usually consist of a mixture of exercises to refamiliarise yourself with the module.
I’ve found this is a great way to keep my Italian fresh. Although I wouldn’t say it’s as effective as using it in conversation, it’s great for reminding myself of rules, tenses and vocabulary that I don’t regularly use.
The XP Ramp Up feature also presents a great opportunity to practice.
It’s an progressively challenging test of comprehension. Each round focuses on a different aspect of your target language, and becomes increasingly difficult the further you progress.
In the final round, you only have 105 seconds to answer every question correctly. This forces you to think quickly, and encourages you to trust your instinct.
I’ve found this has had a positive effect on my Italian comprehension. After a few attempts on XP Ramp Up, my comprehension for the rest of the day noticeably improves.
It helps most when watching TV shows and reading books. Somehow it gives me the confidence to let the words wash over me, as opposed to my usual approach of trying to understand every word (which isn’t particularly helpful).
5. Use Duolingo to set yourself challenges
A challenge, no matter the size, is a powerful motivator. And when it comes to learning a language, motivation is critical.
Fortunately, Duolingo presents us with plenty of opportunities to challenge ourselves.
Whether it’s completing a course, getting every crown, or finishing top of the Diamond division, there’s always a mountain to scale.
Recently I set myself the target of collecting every crown in the Italian course. By going back through, I’m refamiliarising myself with aspects of Italian that I don’t use regularly. This is great for both my comprehension and my production.
But you don’t have to be as ambitious as this.
It could be as simple as getting a 30-day streak, getting more XP than a friend, reaching a checkpoint, or getting promoted to the next division.
You just need to get creative. The motivation that follows will do wonders for your language.
Find what works for you
The beauty of Duolingo—and language learning in general—is that there is no one-and-only way to use it. Study the workings of 10 different polyglots, and you’ll find that they all do things slightly differently.
It’s a very personal experience.
Using Duolingo in small, manageable chunks, alongside other forms of engaging content, is what works for me. It keeps the learning process fresh, and encourages progress through practice and challenge.
But that doesn’t mean it’s the only way.
The best way is the way that suits you. Do as much, or as little, as you want. Focus on what you enjoy. Do the stuff that keeps you coming back.
In my view, not only is this the most effective way to use Duolingo, it’s also the most effective way to learn a language.
So if that involves knowing how to say ‘The spider eats bread’ in your target language, then keep at it. You’re on the right track!