Duolingo Review: Playful Lessons That Take You From Novice to Fluent

I can still vividly remember the first time I downloaded Duolingo. It was 2014. I was in my final year at university and I had just made friends with a group of Brazilian exchange students.

Wanting to meet them halfway, and knowing my bilingual Spanish knowledge would come in handy, I decided to learn some Brazilian Portuguese. To this day, I still remember one of the first phrases I learned from Duolingo: 

VocĂŞ gosta de abacaxi? (Do you like pineapples?). 

Random, I know. But it stuck! That’s the power of Duolingo.

And little did I know that since then I’d use the app to learn some Italian, brush up my French skills, and get confident in the basics of Danish (thanks to the TV show Vikings for that journey!).

So when it comes to Duolingo, I think it’s fair to say I am a bit of an expert.

Duolingo logo bird

What is Duolingo?

Released for public use in 2012, Duolingo is a language-learning app that aims to make the experience as interactive and fun as possible. 

They achieve this through interactive, short language lessons, storybooks to read, extra content to be bought with gems, friendly competition with friends, and bonus vocabulary lessons on fun topics like trying to find a date.

Duolingo app

Editorial credit: Postmodern Studio / Shutterstock.com

Which languages are available on Duolingo?

Duolingo boasts a long list of language options to choose from. From the most spoken to little-known languages, they have a list to impress. Some of the languages on Duolingo include:

  • Spanish
  • Italian
  • French
  • Chinese (Mandarin)
  • Japanese
  • Arabic
  • Hindi
  • Hebrew
  • Ukranian
  • Navajo

And if you are a fan of Game of Thrones or Star Trek, they even offer courses in High Valerian and Klingon!

As for those of you who don’t speak English as a first language, fear not! Duolingo provides courses that cater for other languages, too. So if your mother tongue is Spanish, French, Italian, Hungarian, Dutch, Portuguese, Turkish, Arabic, Chinese, or Japanese, Duolingo has language courses available for you, too!

Duolingo language courses for Spanish speakers
Duolingo language courses for Arabic speakers

Learning with Duolingo 

Setting your level

Before you even begin learning with Duolingo, the app offers you the chance to take an aptitude test to see your current level in your target language. That means instead of having to go through easy vocabulary you already know or having to search for the right place to begin, Duolingo will set your level and start you off where you need to be.

Find your level on Duolingo

Lesson Plans

Duolingo has created an intuitive lesson plan that takes you from beginner all the way through to a fluent pro. Each lesson has been specifically organized to make your language journey flow.

As well as increasing intelligently by ability, they also provide a mix of grammar and vocabulary lessons, so you don’t get bored learning just one thing all the time. 

Duolingo units

Each lesson focuses on giving a healthy mix of the four main disciplines of language:

  • Listening (L)
  • Talking (T)
  • Reading (R)
  • Writing (W)

As such, in each lesson you’ll be asked to do a mixture of tasks that target one of these elements of language. Here’s a list of the types of exercises you’ll be asked to do, and which part of language they target:

  1. Listening to a phrase and choosing the right words from a selection (L/R)
  2. Listening to a phrase and typing the correct translation (L/W)
  3. Listening to a phrase and repeating it back through your microphone (L/T)
  4. Reading a phrase and choosing the correct translation from a selection of words (R)
  5. Reading a phrase and typing the correct translation (R/W)
Lesson on Duolingo
Lesson on Duolingo

The brilliant thing about the translating tasks in Duolingo is that they will ask you to translate both from your language to your target language and vice versa, which is a proven method of consolidating language skills to become fluent faster!

Audio lessons

It’s not always convenient to be looking at your phone or typing. That’s where audio lessons come in.

These lessons allow you to practice your language skills no matter what you’re doing – on a run, doing the washing up, knitting a scarf… 

Not only is this a brilliant option when you need your hands free, but beginners can greatly benefit from audio lessons, too. 

You see, language learning follows a pattern, much in the same way we learn to speak as children. The first skill you learn is to listen. Then once you get a bit better, you can start talking. After talking comes reading. And finally, the most difficult and advanced language skill to master is writing.

So, by using audio lessons, you are creating a strong base for your core language skills that will serve you well as you advance through the lessons.

Duolingo podcasts

Podcasts and storybooks

Podcasts and storybooks are a relatively new addition to the app that brings a much more immersive language learning experience.

Doing lessons, whether translating or audio, are a great first step. But one of the best ways to learn a language is through cultural immersion.

These podcasts tell you stories from native countries that not only captivate your interest, but also help you practice your listening skills. They have been cleverly created in a blend between English and your target language so that you can enjoy the story without feeling completely lost, while still challenging you.

Both the storybooks and the podcasts allow you good exposure to people speaking in authentic accents. And this will help you in two ways.

Firstly, you’ll improve your pronunciation as you start to notice patterns in the way the actors speak.

Secondly, you learn languages to communicate with other people from different countries, right? Getting used to long dialogue in their accent means when you come to real-life conversations, you’ll find it much easier to follow what is going on. Because, trust me, accents make a big difference in how you understand a language!

Duolingo podcasts and storybooks

Why I love using Duolingo

Duolingo has come a long way since its inception in 2012, and it has so many incredible features that make language learning fun and easy for everyone.

Duolingo makes you feel good about yourself

Duolingo encourages competition and unlocking achievements, just like an Xbox game would. And its fun graphics and kind words make you feel confident at the end of every single lesson.

And as we all know, when we feel good about something, we’re going to want more of it. That’s why it’s so hard to just have one piece of chocolate…

As you start unlocking more achievements, you find the drive within to push on and see how far you can go on your language learning journey, which is useful if you are someone that gets bored or quits easily.

Lesson complete on Duolingo

Similarly, the app encourages you to set targets to continue to commit to the language-learning process. You can set a goal for how many days in a row you want to aim for, and the app will remind you to get your lessons in every day.

Duolingo works on the premise that it’s not about doing long lessons every now and then, it’s about dedicating a few minutes every day to learning your new language. That’s the secret to becoming fluent.

Duolingo streak

Duolingo takes the guesswork out of learning

As a language learner, it’s hard to gauge exactly what your level of understanding is. Speaking as a language teacher myself, I can tell you it’s something we teachers sometimes struggle with, too.

So, the fact that the creators of the app have curated their lessons to correctly cater for each level of understanding is a big positive. And not only does the lesson flow help make language learning intuitive, but they also add recommendations on the correct storybooks for your level, so you don’t feel unchallenged or overworked when practicing reading.

Plus, having the option to take a test before you begin so you can be sorted into the right level is a huge bonus. I took French at school and the last thing I wanted to do is start from scratch. By going through the test process, it allowed me to pick up where I left off in college!

Lessons on Duolingo

It’s easy to find the information you need to complete your lessons

Do you remember being in a language exam at school, doing reading comprehension and having no idea what the key words in the paragraph meant? You get that horrible pit in your stomach knowing that without those key words, you have no hope in understanding the meaning of the sentence.

Duolingo doesn’t want you to feel like that, though. They’ve made it easy to click on each word in each phrase of the lesson to give you the translation you need so you can continue your lesson with ease.

And in case you feel like it’s cheating, think of it as using a flashcard – it’s actually a very useful revision technique!

Duolingo hints

Adapt the lessons to your needs

This language-learning app understands that not everyone has an aptitude for picking up foreign words. Likewise, not everyone is able to access the four disciplines, due to accessibility issues. So they’ve made it easier for you by giving you the option to adapt your lessons.

One way they do this is by giving you the option to listen to spoken phrases slower so you can pick out individual words if the speaker is talking too fast for you.

Another way they help is by giving you the option to turn off the speaking tasks if you are unable to talk in that moment (or struggling to be understood by the app – it definitely happens to me sometimes!).

Can't listen now Duolingo

Duolingo isn’t perfect

As great as Duolingo is, there are definitely some improvements they could make to enhance the user experience.

Duolingo Premium options

Duolingo Premium is awesome – in theory. It allows you to download lessons to complete offline. However, they currently only offer Duolingo as a subscription, meaning if you want access to the premium features, you have to pay monthly.

It would be much better if they offered the option to buy a one-off lifetime purchase in a specific language, as most other language learning apps do.

Beware of autocorrect

Autocorrect is great for languages with accents if writing is not your goal for fluency. However, it can also cause you headaches. If you’re anything like me, as soon as you know the answer, you type and click enter straight away.

But as we know, autocorrect is a cruel mistress. Type too quickly and you run the risk of accidentally submitting a wrong answer even though you spelt it correctly.

And if you are using the free version, you only get five lives. Once you lose them you either have to wait for them to regenerate or watch an ad to get more lives.

Not a great substitute for a phrase book

If your language goal is to learn some key phrases for a holiday, this isn’t the app for you. Duolingo is an app for the learner looking at long-term goals and fluency. 

As such, Duolingo tends to use random phrases that sometimes sound like nonsense, or just things you wouldn’t typically say (for example my pineapple example in the intro). 

And it serves a purpose – it teaches you how to conjugate sentences so you can play around and experiment with the language yourself.

But if it’s clear set phrases you need, I suggest you look elsewhere.

Is Duolingo worth it?

Duolingo spanish
Editorial credit: Guajillo studio / Shutterstock.com

YES. Absolutely yes. Duolingo has the capability to turn you from novice to fluent in a matter of months.

As long as you dedicate 10-15 minutes a day to your language lessons, you’ll see incredible improvement in your language skills.

And with its playful interface, competitive elements, valuable extra features, and quirky phrases, it’s not a language app you’re not going to get bored of Duolingo any time soon! 

Duolingo is free to download. 
Duolingo Premium starts from $6.99/month. 
14-day free trial available

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