Meeting the Brief
You may have already read some criticism of Duolingo online, and may be sceptical about exactly what its appeal is, or what it even is in the first place. Before turning your mind off to the app in the wake of this criticism, let’s see what this app is all about. Duolingo, at its most basic, is an app designed to make the process of learning a language not only fun, but more immersive, easier to digest, and more likely to hold your attention than a pile of textbooks or 6 months (or more) of traditional language lessons. For this purpose, it can be said without reservation that Duolingo meets (and arguably exceeds) this brief.
The app itself has a sublime design, with the setup being virtually identical whether you opt to play for free or bite the bullet and pay for the ongoing subscription. The app, which certainly fits into the “gamified” category of mobile applications, offers a progress-dependent, responsive, and graduated progression through difficulty levels, best described as “skill tree”. Beginners simply must choose a language they wish to learn, and then get stuck into the process. The levels of difficulty are split up sections of this skill tree, each of which you must complete to a certain level before getting access to the next.
Absolute beginners are given plenty of prompts and illustrations, with the safety net of being able to tap on most of the words/phrases to bring up a bubble that has the translation of the words and/or components of these sentence being tested. As you complete each level/section, more words and increasingly more complex phrase offering are gradually introduced, easing you into the increased intricacies of the language as the sentences grow in length and grammatical/contextual nuances become trickier.
The Duolingo approach doesn’t just feel immersive, it is immersive. From the outset, you’re presented with a combination of multiple-choice, choose-the-correct-word challenges. The multiple variations of the challenges range from simply reading the challenge and choosing the correct answer from those provided, to hearing a phrase spoken by the (admittedly stiff and monotone) narrated voice and being challenged to type out the phrases you’ve heard from scratch. Beginners in the early stages are presented with illustrated prompts to help them become familiar with the words and phrases that they will later be required to simply know and repeat without prompting.
Language as a Game, Learning as the Ethos
As for the game-ified aspects of the app, you earn an in-game currency as you go (these are called “Lingots”), and there are classic game-like options such as being able to connect with other users and even compete to place in XP competitions against other users. You can also choose the level of intensity at which you wish to learn, with options ranging from basic to intense, with the former requiring you only to earn 10 XP per day, while the latter requires that you complete enough lessons to earn 50 XP.
The ethos of Duolingo’s setup – as is stated on the Duolingo website as well as during one of the many loading-screen blurbs that appear between lessons – is the learning of language “for free. Forever.”. There is a Duolingo Plus option that can be purchased on a rolling-subscription basis, but this isn’t an attempt by developers to grab money from users while restricting content. In fact, you can access virtually the same content as a paying user without paying a penny. Users willing to pay for Duolingo Plus does can access some minor benefits such as using the app without the presence of adverts, downloading lessons to use offline; this subscription can also be cancelled at any time by the user
Some Prose and Cons
In terms of design, this app is app is polished. It looks extremely professional, particularly for non-paying users, who are getting an extremely intuitive, well-designed app without a hint of cut-corners, basic design, or clunky interface. The only negatives here are the advertisements, but these feel minimally intrusive and allow users to continue learning languages for free. And there are a lot of languages to choose from, too: a total of 24 languages spread across 85 courses between the app and the website. This includes exotic languages such as Hawaiian, and fictional ones such as High Valyrian
It is important to state that this app is aimed at beginners, however. Advanced language-learners may notice the app lacking in explanations of grammar and context, which will also impact on the beginners’ experience too. At times, it can feel like you’re learning to parrot certain phrases without explanation of the grammatical and contextual nuances that can lead to you answering some challenges incorrectly.
The AI that powers the app could also improve on recognising small variants in phrasing. This may not be a concern for beginners, but intermediates/more advanced users that are familiar with phrasing variants can find themselves being marked down or told their response is “incorrect” if it doesn’t match the precise phrasing of the given challenge. These negatives aside, Duolingo certainly fulfils its function as a forever-free language-learning app ideal for immersing new learners into their chosen language without suffering from the stuffiness of the standard free online language lessons.