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    Duolingo Review – Any Lie That Works

    Duolingo Review – Any Lie That Works
    November 18, 2016
    Brent Van Arsdell

    Duolingo is a computer game that wants you to believe that you can learn a language in as little as five minutes per day. It’s a lie, of course, but we want to believe it. So we waste our time translating stupid phrases on Duolingo like, I am a duck who speaks English.

    Summary of this Duolingo review: Duolingo has only done one thing well. They have an excellent series of reminders to study e-mails that they will send you every day.

    English speaking duck.

    I am a duck who speaks English. Not very practical.

    Their language learning system is a computerized version of the Spanish workbook that didn’t teach you Spanish back in high school. And just like back in high school, you won’t learn much unless you spend a lot more time than five minutes per day studying.

    I suggest using Duolingo as a reminder to study with a more effective learning system such as the one for the languages listed below. Sign up for Duolingo and click on the daily reminder e-mails to keep the reminders coming, then switch to this program to make better use of your study time.

    If you want to learn a language that isn’t listed here, Pimsleur has a much longer list of languages they offer, and Yabla is good for intermediate to advanced learners of languages that they offer.

    The Detailed Duolingo Review Starts Here

    What would a language learning program be like if it were designed by a person whose previous “success” was that he developed the most irritating software on the internet?

    Duolingo co-founder Louis von-Ahn made you have to type a lot of these.

    Duolingo co-founder Louis von Ahn made you have to type a lot of these.

    Well, it would look a lot like Duolingo. You see, Duolingo was co-founded by serial entrepreneur Luis von Ahn, who made his first millions by selling reCAPTCHA to Google.

    I first heard of Duolingo when the company got its first publicity in 2011, back when the home page said, “With Duolingo you learn a language for free, and simultaneously translate the Web.”


    Is learning while translating is a good way to learn? I don’t think so.

    At the time, I thought it was the stupidest idea I had ever heard of, so I promptly forgot about it. Apparently most other people also thought that it was a stupid idea, so the big headline on the homepage was soon changed to “Duolingo. Free language education for the world,” and then to the current “Learn A Language for Free. Forever.”

    Duolingo for the world image

    Marketing Statement #2: Free language education for the world. The world was not that interested.

    When Duolingo started, the founders said that they planned to make money by having people translate the Web and then charging customers like CNN for translation services. Well, apparently companies weren’t interested in having their documents translated by millions of language learners, so this business plan has been abandoned.

    Currently, language learning is still free on the Duolingo site, and the company now says it will make money by selling language competency testing for a fee in competition with companies like International Language Testing and ALTA.

    Why Duolingo’s History Matters

    The history of Duolingo is important to language learners, because companies are reflections of their founders for a very long time. ReCAPTCHA was founded on a lie that sounded very public spirited: “Help digitize books.”


    That man who made millions of you fill out this annoying captcha, now wants to teach you Spanish.

    So where are the libraries of accurately digitized books that 750 million of us helped digitize? And if digitizing books was such a valuable business, why did Google re-design reCAPTCHA (after they bought it) into the current, much less stressful “I’m a Human” checkbox?

    So do you think that Luis von Ahn, a man who made his first fortune getting millions of people to stress out typing difficult-to-read words into their computer, cares if you learn a language or not?

    I don’t think so, just as I also don’t think that he founded reCAPTCHA because he wanted to waste his own time typing hard-to-read words on the Web.

    Duolingo has yet to show a profit, but they have raised a crazy $83 million, from perhaps crazy investors, who are once again throwing money at any silly idea with a strong strong user base, just like they did back in the 2001 dot-com bubble.


    The Dark Side of Being Educated

    So who else (besides you) would like to know who knows what languages you know and how well you know them?


    This is a Duolingo graphic that probably came straight from a pitch to investors.

    Well, big business and big government are certainly interested in knowing what you know.

    And while it seems fairly innocent that Air France might like to know how well you have learned French this year, others may want to know what you know with a much less innocent intent.

    Do you think that the CIA, the NSA, and the Russian GRU (formerly KGB) also like to know how well you know different languages? You bet they would.

    When times change and the winds of war or oppression blow over a country, educated people (and if you know more than one language well you are educated) are often singled out for imprisonment or death.

    Note that Japanese language teachers in Hawaii were singled out and jailed by the United States government during WWII. Also remember that in the 1970s in Cambodia, everyone who was educated was murdered. And of course, the Soviet Union had several pogroms against the intelligentsia.

    Do you trust Duolingo to only sell your competency data to you and not to all the intelligence agencies who want to know?

    So perhaps “Learn a language for free. Forever” in Duolingo’s case means either until they burn through their investor money or until they figure out how to get the CIA or the GRU to pay for it.

    There is no such thing as a free lunch.

    Was reCAPTCHA Killer Software?

    If murder is shortening the life of someone intentionally and manslaughter is shortening someone’s life accidentally, it’s very reasonable to say that high-stress software kills people.

    So has Luis von Ahn killed people with the very high stress of reCAPTCHA? Well, in his TED talk, he claimed that more than 750 million people had solved one of his captchas. With that large a user base and with the high stress of reCAPTCHA, a good statistician would find it easy to calculate the probability that von Ahn’s software has pushed more than one person into an earlier grave than necessary.

    Surprisingly, killing people through stress, either targeted individually or statistically, is not illegal. If a neurotic boss pushes a subordinate into an early heart attack and death, the boss won’t do a day of jail time. That’s just business.

    If a software entrepreneur stresses out 750 million people and some of them die early, well that entrepreneur will get tens of millions of dollars from Google and get invited to give TED talks.

    The first law of ethical software is the same as the first law of ethical medicine. “Primum non nocere,” or “First, do no harm.” ReCAPTCHA did a huge amount of harm.


    What’s Duolingo Like Today?

    Duolingo today is not the evil, stress-inducing program that reCAPTCHA was. It’s obvious that Duolingo hired a game designer and gave their program many of the standard elements of today’s successful online games. You probably will like it.

    But remember that the goal of Duolingo from its founding moment until today is to get you to do something that is valuable on the Web so that someone else will pay money to Luis von Ahn.

    Originally that “something valuable” was supposed to be translation, and so, as you might expect, translation is still a big part of Duolingo’s language lessons today.

    When you first sign up with Duolingo, you are asked what kind of learner you are, and you’re asked to set a daily target study time that varies from five to twenty minutes.

    Duolingo daily goal image

    Duolingo’s goal is to get you to visit their site every day so you count in the daily user stats. Any lie that gets you to do that will do.

    After you set your target study goal, you will begin by typing and translating (remember, their first goal was to sell translations). Occasionally you will be asked to speak a phrase in Spanish or your new language into your microphone. The voice recognition algorithm isn’t very picky, so as long as you say something that has the right number of syllables and the right stress, Duolingo will grade your answer as correct, and you can go to the next phrase.

    Does It Work to Learn Spanish, for Example?

    Currently Duolingo claims to have more than 120 million total users. Does anyone audit such a claim or is it true simply because Duolingo put it in a press release?

    With Duolingo, you spend your study time typing in the blanks and saying the occasional foreign language phrase into your microphone. It’s a computerized version of a simple foreign language workbook. Learning is slow and and inefficient. But as with many not-very-good methods, you can learn something if you put enough time into it.

    With Duolingo, you will form low-quality memories that fade quickly. Most language learners don’t realize that it is possible to create high-quality memories that fade very slowly.

    Having said that, if you put in enough time studying with Duolingo (and if you use it in the right way), you will probably learn something. You will have to spend a lot more than five minutes per day, however.

    If you want to learn one of the languages below, this system will help you form high-quality memories that fade slowly.

    What’s Good About Duolingo?

    Duolingo has a color-coded fade built into the lessons, with colors that fade as the time you studied them moves further into the past. This is good because it reminds you that language competence is a “use it or lose it” skill. Every memory that you don’t review will fade.

    With Duolingo you will form memories that are inefficient and will fade faster than, for example, with these learning programs: Pimsleur and

    Remember, Duolingo was built so that the company could get paid as you translated documents. So it shouldn’t surprise you that the program will have you do a lot of writing and translating. Of course there is nothing wrong with learning to translate as long as you want to learn to be a translator.

    How to Use Duolingo

    The outstandingly good thing about Duolingo is its daily reminder e-mails. These are, without question, excellent reminders to study. I highly recommend using these daily reminders, clicking on them to keep them coming, and then switching to a more effective program right away. You won’t learn much from Duolingo, but if it pulls you back to daily language study, that’s good.

    Language learning is a neuro-muscular skill, similar in some ways to learning a new sport. Your muscles have to be able to do what you need them to do.

    This is possible to do in Duolingo, but probably most people don’t. You need to say the foreign language phrases OUT LOUD after the teacher. It’s also good to say the foreign language phrases out loud at the same time as the teacher.

    You have to grow your foreign language muscles to learn a language.

    If you want to learn much with Duolingo, I suggest spending two or three hours per day with it.

    Stupid Phrases That Make the Teachers Laugh

    If you ask language teachers to make language lessons without giving them proper supervision, they get bored in a hurry. To counteract this boredom, they start making stupid lessons to entertain themselves.

    Duolingo has a huge amount of truly stupid phrases that the teachers who wrote the course probably thought were funny. These vary from phrases about ducks who speak English to phrases that will help you when you need to talk to your cat.

    IAmCat image

    A great phrase to learn for talking to your cat!

    A Link to Their Site

    Duolingo’s site is located here.

    Please Answer The Question Below:

    If you have read this far, you are obviously a serious language student. Please tell us what you have done (other than using Duolingo or other commercial language learning programs) to keep yourself studying every day.

    Leave A Comment

    2 Comments to “ Duolingo Review – Any Lie That Works”

    1. Linh Hoang

      Thank you for writing these type of reviews. I thoroughly enjoyed reading these to get a glimpse of your view what is a good language software. I guess you have all the answer and I’ll give language101 a try. Thanks again.

      • thomas

        Linh –

        Thanks for the feedback! We do our best to provide an excellent product. Let me know if you need any assistance using the software –

        Thomas Wyse

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