Duolingo is a web-based language-learning tool with apps available for Android, iOS, and Windows Phone mobile devices. It just released a Turkish course in beta, and its upcoming language courses include Esperanto, Norwegian, Ukrainian, Hungarian, and Klingon. Duolingo has upended the models used by traditional language-learning courses (such as Rosetta Stone, Berlitz, and Instant Immersion from TOPICS Entertainment) in at least two ways.
What Makes Duolingo Different From Traditional Courses
First, Duolingo is free (as in free beer) because of the model it uses to create its courses. They are built by crowdsourcing motivated members of the online community. When interest in creating a new language course reaches a certain threshold, work can begin. The new course exists in a beta phase for a period of time, until the community determines that its quality is sufficiently high for it to be released to the public. This community of contributors is vetted, however, and not open to just anyone in the worldwide “crowd” who happens to pass through the website or download the app. Contributors must apply in order to help incubate new courses or improve existing ones.
Second, Duolingo has gamified language learning. The courses are set up as bite-sized exercises that, once completed correctly, deliver “lingots”—a sort of gamer’s gold that allows users to buy power-ups, extra practice periods, and access to bonus skills. Earning lingots is an incentive for continuing to practice, as is earning “streaks”—the number of days of consecutive practice accumulates for value as well.
Duolingo’s Language Offerings
Its recent announcement of new language offerings moves Duolingo from a good app for a few common languages into an area in which it can compete with the traditional, trusted brands. Silliness aside (Klingon?!), what other company is offering courses in Ukrainian, Turkish, or Norwegian for free? Not many, if any.
Currently, there are 22 languages in Incubation Phase 1 (hatching), nine more in Phase 2 (beta), and a further 32 in Phase 3 (fully released). Twenty of the courses are for English-speaking learners of a second language, and 22 are for people learning English as a second language. The rest of the courses are for non-English speakers who are seeking to learn a new language. Eleven of these are hatching, two are in beta, and eight are complete. The courses are developed according to community interest, so it’s not surprising to find a German course for native Turkish speakers in development or a Portuguese course for Spanish speakers. In a way, Duolingo offers a glimpse into migration, virtual trade routes, and other sociological factors at work in the real world.
Duolingo appears to be working—it has won awards (iPhone App of the Year, 2013; Google’s Best of the Best, 2013 and 2014; TechCrunch’s Best Education Startup, 2014) to prove it. It has also been the subject of formal research by Roumen Vesselinov (City University of New York) and John Grego (University of South Carolina). Their study concludes that practicing with Duolingo for an average of 34 hours is more effective than attending an entire semester of a traditional college language course. According to Duolingo’s About page:
Participants took one university placement Spanish language test at the beginning of the study and one at the end. The improvement of language abilities was measured as the difference between the initial and the final language test results.
The study concluded that a person with no knowledge of Spanish would need between 26 and 49 hours (or 34 hours on average) to cover the material for the first college semester of Spanish.
Since a one semester university course usually takes more than 34 hours of work, this study suggests that Duolingo is more effective than an average university course.
For all of the awards and praise, Duolingo is not without its critics. smarterGerman critiques Duolingo on a number of fronts, including the imprecision of the content, ease of the exercises (it’s very easy to guess the right answers), and mispronunciation of content read by the software in human-like voices. Some of these criticisms are based on the fact that the excitable collaborative community members building these courses are not necessarily professional language scholars or teachers. But if your online application is accepted, and you’re willing to contribute material, then you and your content are good enough for Duolingo.
The computerized recitations of text mispronounce words at times, and exercises that contain randomly generated text can read as surreal and unconnected to our reality, smarterGerman complains. Similar complaints come from around the web, as with Lauren Steely’s post on the Hacking Portuguese blog:
[T]he way the system harvests its sentences from web content leads to a dry learning experience. Some of the sentences appear to have been created by stringing random words together, so you will find yourself translating awkward things like “The teachers have water” or “We watched tons of coffee” or “That’s not the way people are treated” instead of, I don’t know, “How are you? Which way to the beach? Is there a library around here where I could check out a Pimsleur course?” The sentences are so far removed from anything that you might actually want to use in conversation that I doubt how much value there is in rote translation. Many sentences are flat out wrong. I eventually tired of sending so many error reports.
And yet the point of (and hope of?) Duolingo is that those who wish to may become involved to such a degree that they can help correct these problems.
Duolingo’s Other Projects
Duolingo is moving into new territories beyond free language learning online. Duolingo for Schools has moved the app into the brick-and-mortar classroom, and it comes with lesson plans and tips from other teachers who are using the material: “Duolingo lessons give each student personalized feedback and practice, preparing them to get the most out of classroom instruction. Now teachers can track all their students in one place through our brand new dashboard.”
And with the classroom as a springboard, Duolingo is entering a lucrative area of language testing and certification. If this plan works, it may even carve space away from TOEFL iBT testing. In a formal study, the Duolingo certification scores “were found to be substantially correlated with the TOEFL iBT total scores, and moderately correlated with the individual TOEFL iBT section scores, which present strong criterion-related evidence for validity. The Duolingo test scores present high test-retest reliability over a two-week interval.”
But Duolingo’s roots are still in free language courses. Hidden within the announcement of the upcoming Klingon course is all the ferment and fun of an excited base of contributors coupled with a dynamic and forward-leaning language-learning company. Chaq HIq HoS qep reH Quch 'ej!