Duolingo Review: 6 Ways to Get the Most Out of Duolingo

I had heard about Duolingo a while ago, but until recently I hadn’t paid too much attention to it. I had tried several other online language learning platforms and hadn’t been too impressed with them, so I wasn’t expecting much this time.

Well, I was wrong. Duolingo is a great language learning tool. A fantastic learning tool.

(Before I go any further, I’d like to mention–as I usually do with my reviews–that I am not in any way affiliated with Duolingo and I don’t get any kind of compensation. These are my honest opinions.)

If you’re not familiar with Duolingo, it’s a language learning website and app. It offers courses (as of this writing) in Spanish, French, German, Brazilian Portuguese, and Italian.

A presentation about Duolingo at Campus Party Mexico 2013
By Adrian Ceron (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], Image Source

With whichever language you choose, you progress through a series of lessons in your “skill tree.” The lessons are set up kind of like mini-quizzes, in which you rotate through the following kinds of activities:

  • Transcribe a chunk of spoken text
  • Translate a chunk of spoken and written speech into English
  • Translate a chunk of written text into English
  • Identify all correct translations of a chunk of spoken or written text
  • Identify the English meaning of a vocabulary word
  • Repeat a chunk of spoken text into a microphone
  • Interpret (i.e., verbally translate) a chunk of spoken text into a microphone

The lessons seem to be designed to be academic. What I mean is, the grammar and sentence constructions become progressively difficult as you go along. As is the case with Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur, you’re not explicitly taught any concepts, but the information is arranged in a way that makes it pretty easy to spot patterns and to understand what you’re supposed to be getting out of each lesson

In addition to providing you lessons, Duolingo lets you translate authentic written texts, line by line. You’ll be doing “crowdsourced” translation, in which you view others’ translations and vote on whether they’re accurate, and also provide revisions or original translations of your own.

You can jump in and get started on your own, but I discovered that it’s best to go in with a certain mindset and to make sure you do a couple things in the program that I think are essential. So here are six ways you can get the most out of Duolingo.

1. Try to win the game.

I recommend against treating Duolingo like a textbook that needs to be studied, even though its actual content covers the same content you’d get in a college foreign language course.

The developers made sure to structure the lessons as “games.” On paper, they don’t sound like very fun games, since they’re simply different forms of translation activities. But I found them fun, addicting even.

In each lesson, you get four “lives.” If you get an answer wrong, you lose a life. If you run out of lives, you have to start the lesson over again. (Update 1/25/2015–It looks like this is still the case in the timed lesson, but has changed in the regular lesson. Now in the regular lesson, you get a point added for a right answer and a point taken away for a wrong answer. To complete the lesson, you have to have scored enough total points.)

There are several ways to “win” or get ahead:

  • Rack up points for completing lessons or translation tasks.
  • Go up in “Level” for reaching point thresholds
  • Progress farther along your skill tree.
  • Get credits–called lingots–for certain accomplishments, like going up a level.
  • Increase your tally of learned vocabulary words.

Also, Duolingo lets you have “friends.” You’ll be able to see all of your friends’ scores in a leaderboard. Every week, you can compete with them to see who can get the most points.

What I’m saying here is, concentrate on getting further ahead in the game and don’t make a conscious effort to “study.” I have a feeling that if you make winning the game your first goal and language-learning your secondary goal, you’ll maintain your motivation better, you’ll find the program more addictive, and you’ll let a lot of the language sink in subconsciously via repeated exposure.

If you do it right, it won’t even feel like studying.

2. Take the placement test.

If you’ve studied the language before, Duolingo doesn’t make you start their program at the very beginning. You can take a placement test and skip ahead several lessons.

Since I’ve been studying Spanish pretty seriously, I took the test and was given credit for something like 35 lessons and was assessed at a Level 9 in Spanish. That level didn’t mean anything to me (and still doesn’t, I guess) but I was able to bypass all of the stuff I already knew.

I was a little worried that there was content I had missed by jumping ahead, but Duolingo is pretty good about reusing old material and concepts in later lessons. Also, you still have access to those lessons, so you can always go through and do them on your own.

3. Click “Discuss Sentence” if you don’t understand something.

Let’s say you’re in the middle of a lesson and get a question wrong. If you don’t understand why, look for the “Discuss Sentence” link and click it. A discussion forum for the question opens up.

Usually, you’ll see that someone has already asked your question and the answer is waiting for you.

If that’s not the case, go ahead and ask your question. Someone will answer it or point you in the right direction.

4. Review old lessons often.

After I took the Spanish placement test and jumped ahead, I blew through all remaining Spanish lessons in about a week. That’s a little faster than most people, I think, but I was truly addicted.

Now I’m going through old lessons again. With regards to the game, this helps me continue racking up points and keeps my vocab marked as “strong.” (If you don’t study words for a while, they lose their “strength” in the game.)

With regards to language learning, this is beneficial for spaced repetition and helping sink a lot of these words and concepts in your long-term memory.

5. Try timed lessons.

If you earn 25 lingots, you can use them to purchase the Timed Practice option in the Duolingo store.

Then you’ll be able to race against a clock as you complete your lessons. Time, as it tends to do, adds a new dimension to things. The rush makes things more challenging, and being put on the spot reminds me of the demands of live conversation.

6. Don’t rely on Duolingo alone.

I’m sure that you could nitpick Duolingo’s language teaching methodology.

And if you were to try to use Duolingo and Duolingo alone, would you learn a new language fluently? Probably not.

But that could be said of literally any activity. If you were only to read, or watch TV, or speak with a friend, or take a class, you’d have a hard time becoming fluent. But no one expects you to do only one thing. Each activity has its purpose.

The same is true for Duolingo. It’s another tool in your language learning tool box. You don’t have to spend time with it and nothing else. I mean, it’s not like you’re exclusively dating.

Wrapping Up

Give these tricks a try. If you have any of your own, leave them in the comments. And be sure to friend me at www.duolingo.com/LangSurfer.

  • Ivan Tarter

    Hi, I read your post and agree to a point, but I don’t think Duolingo is comparable to watching TV or having a conversation in another language because Duolingo’s sentences have no authentic context, and so it’s closer to memorizing a vocabulary list than practicing a skill. Here are my own thoughts on the matter: http://anglaispartout.fr/language/4-dangers-duolingo-users-face-and-how-to-get-around-them

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Hi Ivan! Thanks for the comment. I read your article, and I definitely understand where you’re coming from–even though I avoided most of those pitfalls by just understanding that Duolingo is one tool and not the ultimate answer. 😉 Now that I’ve finished all lessons for Spanish, my old lessons are expiring but I’m just like, eh, whatever. I go over old lessons when I feel like it and don’t get too hung up on the “rules” of the site.

      For the record, I agree that Duolingo doesn’t replace watching TV or having a conversation. I have a basic language learning template in my book “Language Master Key,” which is here on my site for free. I would say that Duolingo fits nicely into that template as a “studying” activity.

    • Bruce Lemieux

      Hi Ivan, my point of view about learning language in watching TV is not the same of you. You can’t start to learn a new language in just watching TV. The watching tv method is the best way when you are already an advanced user of this language. You need to understand 80% of the sentence if you want your brain is able to learn the word it doesnt know before. Duolingo will give you the base, after it’s your job to find new method to be fully fonctional.

      • Ivan Tarter

        Hi Bruce, I think you misunderstood. I do not believe that watching TV is best for all language learners at all levels. However, Duolingo does not give you the base in terms of basic conversational skills. 99% of Duolingo’s sentences are not what you would use in conversation. Duolingo does give you a base in reading and writing. Those skills are less interactive and much more descriptive, and match the grammar and vocabulary that Duolingo teaches.

  • http://caaenglish.com Ray Vogensen

    I did several languages at the same time, having a low level in German, an intermediate level in French and Italian, and an advanced level in Spanish and Portuguese. I am also an EFL teacher so I am a language freak. Duolingo seemed interesting at first, despite the use of vocabulary or sentences that I would rarely use in the target language. But I liked the voice, even though I thought the translation a waste of time. As I got to the higher levels, especially in Portuguese, I soon realized that most of what I was translating was worthless for actually becoming fluent in the language. There were so many awkward sentences both in Portuguese and in English that I soon lost any confidence in the program. Some of the sentences were totally incorrect. What is the point of translating, or transcribing sentences not used by anyone in the country, and totally out of context. Such gems as “my sister drinks oil”, or “I will have missed the game if I don’t go” are silly and serve no purpose. Another thing that started to piss me off was that as I progressed to a higher level in my “translating” I was merely working for the creators of the site. I honestly preferred Babel’s approach, though it too can only practice the listening and writing skills, because it was up front about charging a modest fee in exchange for a much more professional product.

    Another serious problem of the site is that after a while it becomes boring. The system never changes; there are no surprises. In education this can be fatal. At a paying language school students drop out; with duolingo they just disconnect.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Hi Ray. Duolingo does seem to be a little polarizing. People seem to love it or hate it.

      I definitely understand where you’re coming from. I know what Duolingo is doing with sentences like, “I will have missed the game if I don’t go”; they’re trying to teach a specific grammatical structure. While I agree wholeheartedly that this is not something you would try to say in everyday life, it’s the kind of stuff you’d see in proficiency tests, so I imagine there’s some pressure to include it.

      My personal opinion is that the translation work students do is a small price to pay for a free service. You and I might not mind $12/month for a good service, but that might be enough money to prevent others from learning. I have a friend in South America who started using Duolingo to improve his English, but couldn’t

      Coincidentally (?) I started using Babbel today and will be writing up a review of it soon. So far, it looks like a good product. It has a lot of things going for it.

      • sf_jeff

        “I will have missed the game if I don’t go”

        This is exactly the sort of sentence structure i want to use sometimes and none of the spanish speakers around me seem to be of much help.

        • Nicabugodonossor

          This makes as much sense in portuguese/spanish as it makes in english =P

  • Jules Tempest

    The most painless way to learn a language is to start with Michel Thomas language CDs (no I am not affiliated in any way to the company) and then to listen to the radio in your chosen language for an hour or so a day for a couple of years so that you get used to the speed of the language. Don’t bother with any language books – the most important thing is listening to the language being spoken. You then need to go to the country by yourself for a couple of weeks and only speak in that language. In a real conversation there is no time to translate you have to think in that language. Listening to native speakers in conversation is of most importance as you then pick up the pattern of answering to questions – you have to parrot what you’ve heard spoken. I think duolingo is of use in expanding one’s vocabulary but not much else. The Michel Thomas method enables you to construct complex sentences from lesson one.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      I’ve used the Michel Thomas CDs for German. They were definitely good, but they didn’t knock my socks off. (I still think there’s an element of personal taste in all this, so if you liked them and they worked for you, that’s totally cool.)

      I agree with you about the importance of listening to spoken language. I wrote a whole book on the importance of that, in fact. Click “Language Master Key” at the top for the link to Amazon, and I *am* affiliated with that book. 😉

      Where you and I disagree is that I think both language books and Duolingo have their place as more than a supplement. I think that a large part of picking up a language is pattern recognition. Listening and free reading are great ways to “acquire” patterns and vocabulary subconsciously. Text books, Duolingo, Michel Thomas, and the like are a good way to “learn” patterns and vocabulary logically, and if you drill what you learn, I believe that you can convert that learned knowledge into acquired, subconscious knowledge.

  • Ryan Hellyer

    Thanks for the nice writeup. I’ve been using Duolingo for a while now and am finding it an excellent way to learn German.

    In the past, I’d been trying to learn Norwegian, and ended up writing my own language learning application because there wasn’t anything available. But Duolingo is light years ahead of my Norwegian learning app.

    I’m now following you :) (on Duolingo)

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Hi Ryan! Thanks for the note. It’s interesting to hear your perspective, because you know firsthand how much effort and knowledge goes into developing an app. I always think there’s room for more materials, so if you’re up for it, I encourage you to keep going with your Norwegian app. Looking forward to following your progress on Duolingo!

  • Tandis

    I have recently tried French. it is a really good method of learning foreign languages and for me it had really worked and because it reviews the words many times it helps you memorize them well.by the way i need an English pen pal because my mother tongue language is Persian

  • Dave Colín

    Hi, I’ve been using this app for a month and all I can say is that it’s great. Now I want to to use other apps to improve my learning. What other app do you recommend?

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Hi Dave! If you don’t mind dropping a little money each month, Babbel is good; you can read a review of Babbel on my site. It’s a nice complement to Babbel.

      I’m also about to give Lingua.ly (which I believe is free) a try.

      People swear by Memrise. That’s not my favorite, but people really like it.

      And if you want some good flashcard programs, Anki is popular. It uses spaced repetition. I prefer the simplicity of Flashcard Machine though.

      Whatever you choose, I recommend that you work it into a routine that includes plenty of listening/watching TV, and free reading if you’re at that level yet.

    • sf_jeff

      I like Pimsleur audiobook courses. If you have bluetooth in your car then your audiobook picks up where you left off, so you get to fill time that would have been unproductive. It is expensive, though. I bought level 3 30 chapters for about $100.

      I will recommend that you not use duolingo while driving… :)

  • babli

    I read Hindi

  • Olek

    Duolingo is very useful. For the translations, you can always tap on the words that are dot underlined. The possible translations for this specific word will show, and you’ll need to adjust due to grammar concerns. Read more here: http://ergonotes.com/duolingo-learn-a-foreign-language-with-fun/

  • Angel Sobre DosRuedas

    Agree with your comments.

    Angel, an Italian learner from Spain… a know, not too hard! :)

  • Pavel B

    Hi Ron. I’m a native Russian speaker, learning English (moved to the US recently, currently at advanced level). As duolingo doesn’t offer studying English, maybe you could suggest me good and serious alternatives?

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Hi, Pavel! I can tell by your English writing that you’re way past the point where Duolingo would do you much good, even if English for Russian speakers was offered. Check out ReadLang, which can help you build vocab and tackle tougher texts. Also, identify your weak skills (speaking, writing, listening, or reading) and practice those. For instance, if speaking is lagging, then conversational practice is vital. Honestly, though, I’d just say to keep doing what you’re doing because you’re doing great.

      • Pavel B

        Hi Ron! Thanks for your reply! Currently I made a stop at LinguaLeo, looks like a really nice and helpful site, but unfortunately it seems it offers English lessons only for people speaking either Russian or Spanish or Turkinsh (that’s it).

  • Nicabugodonossor

    I’m learning french with the help of duolingo by now and it’s fulfilling all of my expectations so far. I am not feeling the need to complement it with anything yet. But I took six months of a french course a few years ago and I use to watch lots of french movies.

    Duoling is expanding my vocabulary and teaching me some grammar. I think I’ll have an intermediate level when I finish all the lessons and will be able to start trying to talk to people and study the grammar deeply.

  • Stefan Malic

    Hi Ron. I’m currently doing Spanish in Duolingo and so far it’s going great. I do have a feeling I’m learning a lot. While the words are sometimes very basic, I also find them important. My biggest concern though is: what do I do after Duolingo? Any particular courses/tools that could help me continue my study?

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Hi Stefan. I started thinking about your question and realized the answer could be a blog post by itself. Stay tuned!

  • Salim Reza


  • http://www.MannOverboard.net/ Steve M

    You should spell check your “language” review. Blew “threw” is not correct, for example.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      I updated the article to fix the typo. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. Best of luck in your language studies.

  • Luke Miles

    Good post! Duolingo has gotten slightly more powerful. Language learning is difficult, thanks for your tips.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Thanks! I’ve been using it again to review Spanish. What are some of the new features you’ve noticed? (Maybe I’ll add a footnote.)

      • Luke Miles

        The progress-o-meter for completing sections now goes forward more or less depending on how fast you answer, if you definition-hover on any words, and probably some other stuff. I think the % fluency is new as well.

        • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

          Awesome, thanks!

  • John

    Its South American Spanish not European Spanish!

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Hey, John. Sounds like that’s a dealbreaker for you? Coincidentally, someone else had a similar complaint in another article about Babbel. If you haven’t yet, check out the Podcast Notes in Spanish and the BBC language course Mi Vida Loca. Both of those focus on Castilian Spanish.

  • Stephanie Owens

    Don’t have a lot of money to spend, but I want my going to be 8th grader to have some basic “Spanish”. I thought about using both DuoLingo and Babbel. Recommendations?

  • Lev Raphael

    Users should be aware that not every language there is set up and moderated by people equally familiar with spoken vs. written English. I found the Swedish module terrific and fun. The Dutch is much more difficult for several reasons: the Dutch sentences can be weird without being entertaining; the English translations are often very unlike actual spoken or written English; and when people complain, the “staff” seems disputatious. I’ve even had comments removed. I recommend using it in combination with Pimsleur or whatever VD or DVD program works for you.