Duolingo: language learning or phone addiction?

October 20, 2023 by Alison Tunley

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Duolingo: language learning or phone addiction?

I have a track record with new technology: phase one involves scepticism and refusal to engage, phase two is full-blown addiction and obsession (a third phase of disengagement often follows during which I wonder what all the fuss was about). Whether it’s Facebook, Twitter or Strava, the pattern has been identical. So my newfound relationship with Duolingo is unsurprising. After a prolonged period of slightly snooty indifference, my eldest daughter succeeded in luring me in. She had embarked on a year-long mission to learn Welsh through the app. Having never lived there herself or received any formal teaching, she took to texting me in Welsh and expecting a coherent response. My own knowledge of Welsh was acquired from nursery school through to O level, combined with immersion in a community where Welsh was spoken all around me. But decades of living in England means my Welsh capabilities are best described as severely rusty and (let’s be honest) in danger of being surpassed by very non-Welsh daughter.

Forty-five days in to my Duolingo experience, and what have I learned? Possibly not a whole lot of Welsh, but most definitely a reminder of my susceptibility to gamification! Give me a league table of any kind — points, virtual rewards, kudos, gems — and I’m a sucker for hoovering up anything I can get. My far less gullible husband has downloaded the app to brush up his French and calmly does a 10 minute lesson each day then puts it away. Meanwhile, I’m stalking the latest points tally on my leaderboard to plot my best promotion strategy, wildly racing through lessons in pursuit of more XP (experience points), and zealously defending my daily streak.

So, is Duolingo addictive? If your brain is wired a particular way it seems it is. And maybe my chilled-out other half is the exception here, with 500 million registered users, 74 million monthly active users and 44% revenue growth in the second quarter of 2023, the app appears to be going from strength to strength.

The more interesting question for a linguist is: does it work? Criticisms of the app include its simplistic parrot learning with lots of “fill the gap” type tasks and no in-depth study of syntax. The spoken aspect of the app is also limited, although as someone who works exclusively with written texts, I’m quite happy with that design. There is an emphasis on comprehension and translation from the foreign language into English, which means you can progress rapidly with a bit of educated guesswork. Genuine tests of your foreign language skills with free written text are sporadic at best. Instead, the drag-and-drop, multiple-choice format allows you to gloss over vocabulary learning and accurate spelling.

Evidence about the effectiveness of Duolingo for language learning is contradictory. A much touted 2022 study found that “participants that completed a course had similar reading and listening proficiency to university students after four semesters of study.” An equally infamous counter to this claim comes from languages professor Stephen Sacco, who took a Duolingo Swedish course before proceeding to fail a standardised elementary exam in the language.

So does gamification undermine learning? Would the same time be better spent on more focused learning? Possibly, but if the reality is that you wouldn’t be engaging in language learning at all without  the lure of XP and gems, Duolingo is better than nothing. You just need to be realistic about the level of proficiency you might achieve. And guard against getting sucked into pointless competition. As this cautionary tale reminds us “I stormed to a first place finish in the Diamond league. I got a little achievement for it. Is the badge nice? Yes. Is my Japanese any better? No.”

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