Duolingo is a computer game. The creators want you to believe that you can learn a language in five minutes a day. It’s a lie, of course, but it’s the kind of claim we want to believe. So we waste our time translating silly phrases in Duolingo like “I am a duck who speaks English.”
Summary of this Duolingo review: Duolingo has done only one thing well. The site has an excellent series of e-mail reminders to study that it will send to you every day.
This language learning system is a digital version of the Spanish workbook that did not teach you any Spanish 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.
I suggest using Duolingo as a reminder system for your language study while you learn with a more effective learning program, 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.
The Detailed Duolingo Review Starts Here
What would a language learning program look like if it were designed by someone whose previous “success” was to develop the most annoying software on the internet?
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.
The first time I heard about Duolingo was in 2011, when the company got its first publicity. Back then, the homepage said, “With Duolingo you learn a language for free, and simultaneously translate the Web.”
At the time I thought it was the stupidest idea I had ever heard of, so I promptly forgot about it. It seems that most people thought it was a stupid idea, 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.”
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. It turns out that companies weren’t interested in having their documents translated by millions of language learners, so the business plan was abandoned.
Language learning is free on the Duolingo site, and 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.
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. The ReCAPTCHA device was founded on a lie that sounded like a good public spirit: “Help digitize books.”
So where are the libraries of accurately digitized books that 750 million of us helped digitize? And if digitizing books were such a valuable business, we have to ask why Google redesigned 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 causing millions of people to get stressed out as they typed difficult-to-read words into their computer, cares if you learn a language?
I don’t think so, just as I don’t think 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 user base, just as they did back in the 2001 dot-com craze.
The Dark Side of Being Educated
Here’s an important question: Who else (besides you) would like to know what languages you know and how well you know them?
Big businesses and big government are 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 FSB (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 share your competency data only with you, and not sell it to all the intelligence agencies and others who want to know?
So 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 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 such a large 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 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.
The first ethics law of software is the same as the first ethics law of medicine: “Primum non nocere,” or “First, do no harm.” ReCAPTCHA did a huge amount of harm.
What Is Duolingo Like Today?
Duolingo is not the evil, stress-inducing program that reCAPTCHA was. The company hired a game designer and gave the program many of the standard elements of today’s successful online games. You will probably like it.
But remember that the goal of Duolingo, from its founding moment until today, is to get you to do something that has monetary value on the Web so that someone else will pay money to Luis von Ahn.
Originally that value was supposed to be in 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 5 to 20 minutes.
After you set your target study goal, you begin typing and translating (remember, their first goal was to sell 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.
Does It Work to Learn Spanish?
Duolingo claims to have more than 120 million total users. Does anyone audit such a claim, or did Duolingo simply put a number into 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. 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.
With Duolingo, you will form memories that are inefficient and will fade faster than, for example, with these learning programs: Pimsleur and Language101.com.
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. 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 study. You won’t learn much from Duolingo, but it’s useful if it pulls you back to daily language study.
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. You need to say the foreign language phrases OUT LOUD immediately after the teacher says them. Typing them doesn’t help much. It’s also good to say the foreign language phrases out loud at the same time as the teacher.
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 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.
A Link to The 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.