Duolingo – A Waste of Your 5 Minutes?
You probably are here because you want to know what other people think of Duolingo.
Can you really “learn a language for free in just five minutes a day” with Duolingo as they claim?
Summary of This Review:
In this review, I will show you why you will NOT learn a language in just five minutes a day with Duolingo.
Why? Because after about two weeks of studying for five minutes per day, the amount of your language that you learn every day will be the same as the amount that you forget every day, and you won’t be making any progress.
Are You a Duck?
I will explain why you might not want to learn Spanish with a program that thinks you should study phrases like, “I am a duck who speaks English.” That’s my favorite funny phrase from the Duolingo Spanish program, but funny is not the same as useful.
I will cover alternatives that will be better for some language learners. I’ll speculate on who is really paying for Duolingo if you aren’t.
The Most Carefully Researched Duolingo Review
In the review below, you will read some things that seem unbelievable at first. But every claim has been carefully proven from highly credible sources. If you don’t believe me, read the footnotes.
Teach a Language — Go to Jail
I’ll also tell you about the time when foreign language teachers were imprisoned in America for four years, simply because they were language teachers.
Will Duolingo Work for Me?
Duolingos’s methods can work, but you’ll need to spend a lot of time on it. I’d suggest three to four hours per day.
If you are a beginner or intermediate and are looking for something more time-efficient, I suggest clicking on the flag of the language you want to learn below. Try a free lesson right now.
Please quack your questions or comments at the bottom of the page.
If you like this review, please share it with your friends on social media.
What Is Duolingo?
The first claim is clearly a lie, and the second one might be too, for all I know.
Duolingo has taken boring language textbooks with methods that don’t work very well and turned them into computer games that still don’t help you learn a language very well.
The History of Duolingo and Why It Matters
Duolingo was founded in 2009 by a serial entrepreneur named Luis von Ahn, with his co-founder Severin Hacker.
Von Ahn’s claim to fame is that he was the creator of reCAPTCHA. It was and still is an anti-spam device that web developers put in front of forms that they didn’t want to get filled up with useless content by the spammers on the web.
Von Ahn claimed that people who used reCAPTCHA were helping digitize books with words that weren’t easily readable by computers when they were scanned. He called it a “massive-scale online collaboration.”
Cashing In on the Labor of Others
Von Ahn later made his first millions by selling reCAPTCHA to Google for US$26 million. In 2015, a Massachusetts woman sued Google for using free labor to scan books and newspapers.
Software Can Be Good or Bad
In his TED talk, von Ahn claimed that more than 750 million people had solved one of his captchas. However, what was the price that those people paid? Certainly, they were subjected to a huge amount of unnecessary stress, which quite possibly led to earlier graves.
Software developers need to remember the phrase, “First Do No Harm,” just like doctors do. ReCAPTCHA in the form that von Ahn originally released was harmful software.
Why the Founders Matter
The history of Duolingo’s founders is important to language learners because companies are reflections of their founders for a very long time.
The reCAPTCHA device was founded on a lie (“help digitize books”) that made it sound like you were having to type those hard-to-read letters in a form for the public good.
Where Are the Books?
So where are the libraries of accurately digitized books that 750 million of us helped digitize?
And if accurately digitizing books was such a valuable business, then why did Google redesign reCAPTCHA (after they bought it) into the current, much less stressful, “I’m a Human” checkbox?
Why reCAPTCHA Was Worth Millions
Luis von Ahn made his first fortune by getting millions of people to type difficult-to-read words into their computer. And that company, which had either little or no revenue, was still worth millions to Google.
Why was it worth millions? Because it was installed on millions of websites, just before checkouts and registrations and ticket sales and things like that.
And the knowledge of what millions of humans are doing on the web (especially when those humans are buying and registering and commenting) is a very valuable thing to big marketers and big government.
It’s called “Big Data.”
Why Is Duolingo Valuable?
ReCAPTCHA was a stress-inducing blot on the web landscape, based on the lie that you were helping digitize books for the public good.
On the other hand, Duolingo is friendly and warm and fuzzy, and it pulls you in with the lie that you can learn a language in only five minutes a day. It keeps you coming back with the levels and the badges and comments on the message boards.
You see, human attention is very valuable, especially when you are talking about the attention of millions of humans with credit cards.
Human Attention Is Like Location in Real Estate
Let me explain this by comparing the internet to real estate. In real estate, commercial locations with more people going by, or richer people going by, are more valuable to businesses than other locations with fewer of them.
The internet equivalent of that is to develop a website with a LOT of users (and richer users), so you can show them ads, and sell products on Amazon, and mine the data about your users to sell to marketers and other interested parties.
A site that attracts the positive attention of millions of people with credit cards is extremely valuable to a lot of people. That’s why Duolingo is a very valuable website.
Does Free Forever Really Mean Free Forever?
I first heard about Duolingo in 2011, when the company got its first big publicity.
Back then, the homepage said, “With Duolingo you learn a language for free, and simultaneously translate the Web.” I thought it was the stupidest idea that I had ever heard and promptly forgot about it.
Apparently, other people didn’t like it either, so the banner headline on the homepage was soon changed to “Duolingo. Free language education for the world,” and later to the current “Learn a language for free. Forever.”
In this case, “forever” probably does not mean something like, “The sun will come up in the east forever.” It probably means something much more like “I‘ll love you forever,” which tends to be a lot shorter kind of forever.
Duolingo Plus – Pay to Get Rid of the Ads
The free version of Duolingo currently is showing a lot of ads that you have to watch as your form of payment to use the program. If these annoy you enough, you can pay a monthly fee (currently $6.99) to get a version without the ads. This adds up to $83.88 USD per year so you can decide whether it’s worth that much to you or not.
If you are a curious person like me, you might wonder why they chose $6.99 as the monthly price. Why not $7.99, or $8.99 or $4.99? If anyone really knows the answer to why they chose that somewhat unusual price, please post the answer in the comments below.
My guess (and I freely admit that this is just a guess) is that this was approximately what they can make from advertisers by selling you very targeted ads.
Duolingo’s Search for a Business Model
When Duolingo was started, the founders said that they planned to make money by having people translate the Web and then charging customers, such as CNN, for translation services.
It turns out that companies weren’t interested in having their documents translated by millions of language learners, so that business plan was abandoned.
English Testing for $49.00
Language learning on the Duolingo site is still free (sort of), but the company now says it makes money by selling language competency testing for a fee, in competition with companies like International Language Testing and ALTA.
There is actually a very large market for English language competency testing and there is certainly nothing wrong with Duolingo competing in that market. People very often need to prove to a potential employer or a potential university, that they have achieved the needed level of proficiency in English.
Duolingo’s English test is semi-automated with the applicant being asked to upload images of his or her ID, then take pictures and video samples of themselves. Some parts of the test are very similar to Duolingo games, and there are also written questions that you must respond to in writing. You have to respond to some questions by recording short videos of yourself answering open ended methods.
Racially Sensitive Questions?
Since Duolingo is primarily in the business of data mining, they haven’t been able to resist asking their test takers questions that are utterly irrelevant to proving their competence in English such as “What race are you?” Someones race has roughly zero to do with the competency they have developed in English.
A person’s linguistic background may have a lot to do with how difficult it was for them to achieve a given degree of competence in English, but once competence or the lack of competence is proven, race is really an irrelevant question.
Perhaps you’ve heard this quote: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
So there is Duolingo, judging people by their race instead of simply measuring their competence in English. Shame on you Duolingo.
Still in the Red
Duolingo has yet to show a profit, but they have raised a cool $83 million from investors, who are once again throwing money at any silly idea with a strong user base, just as they did back in the 2001 dot-com craze.
For-Profit — But Not Yet
The company is listed as a “for profit.” Its goal, from its founding moment until today, is to get you to do something that has a monetary value for Duolingo.
Originally that value was supposed to be a translation, and so, as you might expect, translation is still a big part of Duolingo’s language lessons today.
The Dark Side of Language Learning
Here’s an important question: What’s really behind the free Duolingo platform? Who else, besides you, would like to know what languages you know and how well you know them?
Of course, big marketers and big government are always 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.
Are Intelligence Agencies Interested?
Is the CIA interested in how well you know a foreign language? I think so, and so does NBC News.[13.1]
Do you know a foreign language and would you like to work for the CIA? Their official careers web page says, “New employees who already possess excellent foreign language skills may be eligible for a significant hiring bonus.”[13.6]
What Do the TOEFL Test Makers Do With Your Data?
ETS, the creators of the well-established English competency test called TOEFL, says, “We make (and reserve the right to make) all lawful, worldwide uses of Personal Information subject to this Policy and applicable law.”
Selling your competency data to any intelligence agency with a budget is a lawful use. If you don’t like that, then don’t use ETS or Duolingo.
Historically, when times change and the winds of war or oppression blow over a country, educated people (and if you know more than one language, you are educated) were often singled out for imprisonment or death.
Teach Japanese and Go to Prison for Four Years
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.
Should You Trust Duolingo?
Do you trust Duolingo to share your competency data only with you, and not sell it to all the intelligence agencies and others who want to know?
Do you think that perhaps “Learn a language for free forever” means, in Duolingo’s case, either until they burn through their investor money or until they figure out how to get the CIA or the FSB to pay for it?
Do you know where the data collected from the Duolingo platform goes and how it will be used in the future?
How Many People Have Used Duolingo?
As of August 2019, Duolingo claimed to have more than 300 million active users. (Does anyone audit such a claim, or did Duolingo simply put a number into a press release and everyone believes it?)
Regardless, think about how the data from so many “free” users can be used and what forces might be interested in using it for their own purposes.
There is no such thing as a free lunch. There never was, and there never will be.
How Well Does Duolingo Work to Learn Spanish?
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 5 to 20 minutes.
After you set your target study goal, you begin typing and translating (remember, their first goal was to sell your translations). Occasionally you’re 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.
Because Duolingo was built so that the company could get paid as you translated documents, 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.
Because with Duolingo you spend your study time typing in the blanks and saying the occasional foreign-language phrase into your microphone, the efficiency of their language teaching method is not very high.
It’s Like Your High School Spanish Class
Essentially, Duolingo is a computerized version of a simple foreign language workbook that did not teach you any Spanish or another foreign language in high school. And, just as you found in high school, you won’t learn much unless you spend a lot more time studying than five minutes per day.
Learning with Duolingo is slow and inefficient. But as with many other not-very-good methods, you can learn something if you put enough time into it.
With Duolingo, you will form low-quality memories that will fade quickly. Most language learners don’t realize that it is possible to create high-quality memories that will fade slowly and put these memories into their long-term storage.
Having said that, if you put in enough time studying with Duolingo (and practice as much as you can), you will probably learn something. But you will have to spend a lot more than five minutes per day studying.
I’d suggest that you spend three to four hours per day with it. Boy, that would be a terrible headline!
What If You Don’t Like Games?
What if you are a person who doesn’t like games, and certainly not everyone does. What if you would prefer to use a program that was faster to learn Spanish, German, or French and didn’t have all the overhead required to turn language learning into a game?
For people who are highly conscientious, I recommend the program linked to the flags below.
The program below will work very well for people who are doctors, lawyers, and anyone who has never missed a day of work for five years.
If all of your friends say that you are a very reliable person, this program will work well for you.
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 their boredom, they start making silly lessons to entertain themselves.
Duolingo has a huge number 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, or even when your cat needs to talk to you.
What I Like About Duolingo
Duolingo has a color-coded fade built into the lessons. The colors fade as the time you studied the lessons 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.
Language learning is a neuromuscular skill, similar in some ways to learning a new sport. You have to grow your foreign language muscles to learn a language. This is possible to do in Duolingo, but probably most people don’t.
How to Use Duolingo
You need to say the foreign language phrases OUT LOUD immediately after the teacher says them. Typing them doesn’t give your mouth muscles the practice they need.
Remember, for the most part you are not trying to learn how to type a new language, you are trying to learn to speak it and understand it. If you want to learn to speak it, you have to open up your mouth and speak.
What Duolingo Does Exceptionally Well
Two essential features are needed for any language learning program to work. It has to work technically when people diligently apply it, and it has to work psychologically for some portion of the language-learning public that wants to use it.
Duolingo falters technically. Its methods are not very good, and it doesn’t work very well even if applied diligently.
But what the creators of the site have done exceptionally well is to build a system that pulls people back psychologically.
Other companies with systems that work better should gamify their language learning systems to solve the psychological problems of language learning.
Good Reminder Emails
The best feature of Duolingo is its daily reminder emails. I highly recommend choosing the daily reminders, clicking on them each day to keep them coming, and then using a more effective language learning program for your studies like Anki, Memrise, or Language101.com.
You won’t learn quickly from Duolingo, but it still can be very useful if it pulls you back to daily language study. Use the following alternative programs that make better use of your study time and will help you form long-term memory storage.
I Have a Reputation for Honest Reviews
When you read this review, you might think that when I write reviews of other language learning products, I always say that they aren’t as good as Language101.com. But as I have said many times, there are definitely some other excellent programs out there. For example, Pimsleur is a good program that has a much longer list of languages than what we offer. Yabla is an excellent program for intermediate to advanced learners.
If You Are a Beginner — Try These Free Lessons
If you need to learn one of these languages below, click on the flag of your next language and try the free lesson for 30 minutes right now.
So What Do Other Experienced Language Learners Say about Duolingo?
“I have a huge problem with Duolingo. The biggest problem with Duolingo is, it’s memorization. It’s 99.9% memorization. All you are doing is memorizing words and phrases, etc. Memorization is not comprehensible input. In fact, you could memorize the entire dictionary. You could memorize the whole Spanish dictionary, the French dictionary, Arabic dictionary, etc. and you would still not speak the language. It just doesn’t work that way.”
Jeff Brown, polyglot and full-time language instructor
“I would recommend it as a secondary learning aid. It is great to use when you have 10-20 minutes to kill, like while on a commute, as you will certainly learn something in the target language.”
Conor Clyne, polyglot, Language Tsar.
“The learning tasks at Duolingo are pleasantly presented and cleverly gamified. Duolingo tells us we can learn a language in five minutes a day, which I sincerely doubt. The user gets frequent rewards for correct answers. A variety of messaging is used to persuade us not to quit, but it didn’t work for me. I need meaningful content.”
Steve Kaufmann, polyglot
Duolingo claims that you can “learn Spanish in just 5 minutes a day. For free.” While you can learn some Spanish with Duolingo, it will take you a lot more than just five minutes per day. Plan on spending at least fours hours per day with it. Also read Spanish books and watch Spanish movies to become fluent.
1. “Learn Portuguese in just 5 minutes per day. For Free.” Duolingo. Retrieved November 11, 2019.
3. Craig Smith, “By the Numbers: 17 Amazing Duolingo Facts and Statistics (2019).” DMR: Business Statistics, Fun Gadgets. Last updated August 30, 2019. Retrieved Nov. 14, 2019.
6. D. Harris, Massachusetts woman’s lawsuit accuses Google of using free labor to transcribe books, newspapers. Boston Business Journal, January 2015. Retrieved March 20, 2018.
10. Frederic Lardinois, Duolingo Raises $45 Million Series D Round Led By Google Capital, Now Valued At $470M. TechCrunch, June 10, 2015. Retrieved March 23, 2018.
14. A number of resources indicate the use of the Social Security number or another governmental identifier for ETS (provider of TOEFL testing) (“ETS Legal: Privacy and Security,” ETS, retrieved March 9, 2018) and some indication about the use of language in national security (“Linguistics and National Security,” Linguistic Society of America, retrieved March 9, 2018, and P. Koning, “Using Languages in National Security,” The Language Educator, February 2009, retrieved March 9, 2018.
15. “Enemy Aliens: Japanese Americans in World War II.” In American Journey: The Asian-American Experience (Woodbridge, CT: Primary Source Media, 1999), retrieved March 23, 2018.
16. For more information on the genocide in Cambodia, see the sources below. Encyclopedia of Genocide states: “There were no practicing lawyers, doctors, teachers, engineers, scientists, or the like. These professions were deemed unnecessary or presumed to contain simple truths any peasant could pick up through experience. Those who had been such professionals under the old regime were either killed or had to work in the field like everyone else” (I. Charny, ed., Encyclopedia of Genocide: Vol. 1, A-H [ABC-CLIO, 1999], 135). Also, “If you wore glasses, or could speak a foreign language, or were educated, you were classified as an enemy; were arrested, tortured, then killed.” G. Stanton, Blue Scarves and Yellow Stars: Classification and Symbolization in the Cambodian Genocide, The Cambodian Genocide Project, Washington and Lee University, 1989. See also: Genocide Watch (n.d.), Cambodian Genocide Project, and “Cambodian Genocide,” World Without Genocide, last updated May 2018.
17. For more information see:
Library of Congress, “Internal Workings of the Soviet Union: Revelations from the Russian Archives,” Soviet Archives Online Exhibit (2016).
Stuart Finkel, On the Ideological Front: The Russian Intelligentsia and the Making of the Soviet Public Sphere. Yale University Press, 2008.
Dmitry Dubrovskiy, “Escape from Freedom? The Russian Academic Community and the Problem of Academic Rights and Freedoms.” Interdisciplinary Political Studies 3, no. 1 (2017), 171–99.
M. David-Fox, “Communism and Intellectuals” in Silvio Pons and Stephen Anthony Smith, The Cambridge History of Communism, 3 Vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017.
E. Gracheva, “Of Russian Origin: Stalin’s Purges.” RT Russiapedia (n.d.). Retrieved March 23, 2018.
19. Parmy Olson, “Crowdsourcing Capitalists: How Duolingo’s Founders Offered Free Education To Millions. Forbes, February 14, 2014. Retrieved March 18, 2018.
20. Elvira Sanatullova-Allison, “Memory Retention in Second Language Acquisition and Instruction: Insights from Literature and Research. The IAFOR Journal of Language Learning 1, no. 1 (Winter 2014).
21. Suzanne Graham, Effective Language Learning: Positive Strategies for Advanced Level Language Learning (Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters, 1997), 14.