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    Duolingo – A Waste of Your Time?

    Duolingo – A Waste of Your Time?
    April 9, 2018
    Brent Van Arsdell
    Duo owl

    This is the friendly Duo owl from Duolingo.

    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 [1] 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.

    This is 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’m 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.

    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 and are looking for something more efficient, I’d suggest reading this review of Language101.com.

    If you are intermediate or advanced, then Yabla has great lessons for you.

    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?

    Duolingo's English speaking duck.

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

    Duolingo is a language learning website and app. They claim that “you can learn a language in five minutes a day.”[2] They also claim that they have 25 million of monthly users.[3]

    The first claim is clearly a lie and the second one might be too for all I know.

    Doulingo 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[4] was founded in 2009 by a serial entrepreneur, named Luis von Ahn, and 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 would 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”.[5]

    bad-christians-captcha

    An example of Re-Captcha from von Ahn’s TED talk. This didn’t stop spam, it just made it more expensive.

    Cashing In on the Labor of Others

    Von Ahn later made his first millions by selling reCAPTCHA to Google for 26 million dollars. In 2015, a Massachusetts woman sued Google for using free labor to scan books and newspapers.[6]

    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.[7] However, what was the price that those people paid? Certainly, they were subjected to a huge amount of unnecessary stress and 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.

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

    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? It was 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?

    learning-gamefied Duolingo graphic

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

    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 they pull you in with the lie that you can learn a language in only five minutes a day. They keep 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 Real Estate Location

    Let me explain that by comparing the internet to real estate. In real estate, commercial locations that have more people going by, or have richer people going by are more valuable to businesses.

    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 it 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?

    The first time I heard about Duolingo was 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”.[8] 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.

    Free language education for the world

    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, like CNN, for translation services[9].

    It turns out that companies weren’t interested in having their documents translated by millions of language learners so that business plan was abandoned.[10]

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

    Revenue Sources

    Language learning is still free on the Duolingo site, 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.[11]

    They also are now selling ads and they offer premium products where you can pay to get rid of the ads and have extra features.

     

    At the moment, Duolingo is selling ads. They also now offer Duolingo Plus, a paid version of their platform.

    Still in the Red

    Duolingo has yet to show a profit, but they have raised a cool $83 million[12] 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”,[13] 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.[13.5]

    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.”[14]

    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.[15]

    Also remember that in the 1970s in Cambodia, everyone who was educated was murdered.[16]

    And of course, the Soviet Union had several pogroms against the intelligentsia.[17]

    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?

    Have you read their “Terms of Use?”

    You decide.

    How Many People Have Used Duolingo?

    As of November of 2017, Duolingo claimed to have more than 200 million total users.[18] (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.

    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 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. So it shouldn’t surprise you that the program will have you do a lot of writing and translating.[19] 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.[20]

    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!

    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.

    A great phrase to learn for talking to your cat!

    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.[21] 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.

    It’s also good to say the foreign language phrases out loud at the same time as the teacher.

    The Best Feature of Duolingo

    The best feature of 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 studies like Anki, Memrise or Language101.com.

    You won’t learn quickly from Duolingo, but it’s useful if it pulls you back to daily language study. Use the following alternative programs to make better use of your study time and will help you form long-term memory storage

    Pimsleur[22] has a much longer list of languages they offer, and Yabla is good for intermediate to advanced learners of languages that they offer.

     Thank you for reading this. Please share it on social media and leave a question or comment at to bottom of this page.

    References:

    [1] “Learn Portuguese in just 5 minutes per day. For Free”. Duolingo. Retrieved March 9, 2018.

    [2] Ibid.

    [3] “By the Numbers: 16 Amazing Duolingo Stats and Facts”. (2017, October). DMR. Retrieved March 18, 2018.

    [4] Duolingo website is available here: https://www.duolingo.com/

    [5] Ahn, L. von. (2011, April). Massive-scale online collaboration. Retrieved March 23, 2018.

    [6] Harris, D. (2015, January). Massachusetts woman’s lawsuit accuses Google of using free labor to transcribe books, newspapers. Retrieved March 20, 2018.

    [7] Ahn, L. von. (2011, April). Massive-scale online collaboration. Retrieved March 23, 2018.

    [8] Duolingo. “Episode 8: El Secuestro.” Duolingo Podcast, February 1, 2018.

    [9] Ahn, L., von. (2014, December).What is the business model of Duolingo? Retrieved March 23, 2018.

    [10] Duolingo Raises $45 Million Series D Round Led By Google Capital, Now Valued At $470M. (2015, June). Retrieved March 23, 2018.

    [11] For International Language Testing go to http://www.languagetesting.com/ and for ALTA go to    https://www.altalang.com/

    [12] State of Monetization at Duolingo – Duolingo. (n.d.). Retrieved March 20, 2018, from

    [13] Ahn, L., von. (2014, December).What is the business model of Duolingo? Retrieved March 23, 2018.

    [13.5] Hsu, J. (March, 2011). Fluent in Another Language? The CIA Wants You. Retrieved March 31, 2018.

    [13.6] Hsu, J. (March, 2011). A significant CIA hiring bonus for your excellent language skills. Retrieved March 31, 2018.

    [14] There is a number of resources that indicate the use of the Social Insurance number or another governmental identifier for ETS (provider of TOEFL testing) (“ETS Legal: Privacy and Security: Test Takers.” ETS. Retrieved March 9, 2018. ) And some indication about the use of language in national security (“FAQ: Linguistics and National Security | Linguistic Society of America.” Linguistic Society of America. Retrieved March 9, 2018 and Koning, Patti. Using languages in National Security. Retrieved March 9, 2018).

    [15] Enemy Aliens: Japanese Americans in World War II. (1999). In American Journey. The Asian-American Experience. Woodbridge, CT: Primary Source Media. 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” (Charny, I., ed. Encyclopedia of Genocide: Vol. 1, A-H. ABC-CLIO, 1999. p. 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”(Stanton, G. (1989). Blue Scarves and Yellow Stars: Classification and Symbolization in the Cambodian Genocide).

    Also see: Genocide Watch (n.d.) Cambodian Genocide Project. and Sandro Krkljes. (2017). “Cambodian Genocide World Without Genocide.

    [17] For more information see:

    Library of Congress . (2016). “Internal Workings of the Soviet Union: Revelations from the Russian Archives”. Soviet Archives Online Exhibit.

    Finkel, Stuart. (2008). On the Ideological Front: The Russian Intelligentsia and the Making of the Soviet Public Sphere. Yale University Press.

    Dubrovskiy, Dmitry. (2017). “Escape from Freedom? The Russian Academic Community and the Problem of Academic Rights and Freedoms.” Interdisciplinary Political Studies 3 (1). pp. 171–99.

    David-Fox, M. (2017). “Communism and Intellectuals” in Pons, Silvio, and Stephen Anthony Smith. The Cambridge History of Communism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Gracheva, E. (n.d.) Of Russian Origin: Stalin’s Purges. Retrieved March 23, 2018.

    [18] “By the Numbers: 16 Amazing Duolingo Stats and Facts”. (2017, October). DMR. Retrieved March 18, 2018.

    [19] Olson, P. (n.d.). Crowdsourcing Capitalists: How Duolingo’s Founders Offered Free Education To Millions.  Retrieved March 18, 2018.

    [20] Sanatullova-Allison (2014). Memory Retention in Second Language Acquisition and Instruction: Insights from Literature and Research. The IAFOR Journal of Language Learning 1 (1).

    [21] Graham, Suzanne (2017). Effective Language Learning: Positive Strategies for Advanced Level Language Learning. Multilingual Matters, p. 14.

    [22] For my review of Pimsleur go to https://language101.com/reviews/pimsleur/ and for my review of Yabla go to https://language101.com/reviews/yabla/

    Leave a comment to Ernest Rodgers

    16 Comments to “ Duolingo – A Waste of Your Time?”

    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.

       
      Reply
      • 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 – support101@language101.com

        Thomas Wyse

         
        Reply
    2. David Shoup

      I investigated Duolingo to see if I could learn some Ukrainian with it. After being compelled to type the equivalent of “mother” and “father” and being forced to select photos of the same, I decided very quickly that Duolingo was going to waste my time and not teach me enough Ukrainian to find a Slavic girlfriend. No more free Duolingo courses for me. You get what you pay for.

       
      Reply
      • Brent Van Arsdell

        My Ukrainian girlfriend also speaks Russian and we talk Russian at home.

        I recommend learning Russian and then going to Belarus to find a Slavic Russian speaking girlfriend.

         
        Reply
    3. Anna

      I’ve been using DuoLingo for almost 2 years and I’m very happy with it. I’m not delusional enough to think that I can learn a language using any program in 5 minutes a day, but I devote between 10 and 45 minutes a day, and I feel like I have a good foundation so that when I complete all the lessons I can continue learning on my own. Also, since neither this website nor any that it recommends have Irish lessons (except Pimsleur, which has only 10×1/2 hour lessons) It’s pretty much my only option. I will say one thing, though: don’t use the phone app. It’s worthless.

       
      Reply
      • Brent Van Arsdell

        Thanks for the tip about the Duo-Lingo Phone App.

        Have you been able to find any native speakers of Irish to test your Irish skills with?

         
        Reply
        • Anna

          I have done some google searches trying to find live Irish lessons, but I only found one woman who teaches it, and she charges about $75/hour, which is not in my budget.

           
          Reply
          • Brent Van Arsdell

            We have a few Irish lessons which our customer service person will let you use for free if you ask. I need to write an article on how to learn a language that you can’t find good lessons for.

             
            Reply
    4. Ernest Rodgers

      I started out with Memrise and Rosetta Stone. I dumped Rosetta Stone in favor of Babbel and friends at a 4-week introduction to German Class recommended Duolingo. So I use those three apps plus about four YouTube channels and I listen to GermanPod101 podcast using Stitcher. In addition to at-home study, I joined a English-German meetup group where there are regular weekly meetings at a local restaurant. Although I’ve looked into a language schools, at the moment it’s very expensive so I opted to book a native speaking tutor through iTalki instead. I have only taken one lesson through iTalki but I like it so far. The bottom line for me is apps are good for vocabulary building and review but they don’t help you become conversant in hearing and speaking a language to others. The only thing that can do that is listening to and speaking the language with others and remain receptive to positive feedback and correction.

       
      Reply
      • Brent Van Arsdell

        Hi Ernest,

        You are certainly right that study is no substitute for practice. Both are essential. Keep up the good work!

         
        Reply
    5. Ana Paula

      Seriously? Learning an extra language will get you killed?

       
      Reply
      • Brent Van Arsdell

        Fortunately usually not, unfortunately occasionally yes.

        Read the footnotes about the Soviet or Cambodian genocide.

         
        Reply
    6. Ron Smith

      Hey Duolingo is great. It is fun and free. I went through the program before going to Brazil and was able to get along O.K. Certainly could not understand conversations of locals but definitely could converse with one if they spoke “devagar”.
      I know it has goofy sentences but it has great grammatical explanations with each section.
      I am doing Danish now and enjoy it too. Chau

       
      Reply
      • Brent Van Arsdell

        I’m glad you had a good experience. Did you use Duolingo and nothing else and only study for five minutes per day like they claimed?
        I doubt it.

         
        Reply
    7. Jeff Robbins

      Duolingo is Not for free anymore. Mandatory break times of FOUR HOURS ( unless you pay them not free money) is not conducive to learning anything. Blatant false advertising

       
      Reply
    8. Annamarie

      I started Duolingo almost a year ago, at the recommendation of my daughter. I have “finished” German once and am working on Polish. My streak is 198 days plus another 50+ days of efforts. I have plenty of gripes about the old and “new” updated Duolingo. The new app is especially discouraging. As already pointed out by another reviewer, one must take breaks of four or five (yes FIVE) hours or else watch ads to regain the privilege of working on it. It is increasingly unnecessarily harder to “pass” one skill or even a lesson. Practicing has become harder to do because there are so many maneuvers demanded by the software. I am put off by the uselessness of many of the sentences (a waste of time) and the bias against western religions. In spite of all that I keep up daily practice. It helps me to keep thinking about language and seeking the fascinating similarities between languages. That’s what kept me going. Now I want to try Language101 and am glad there is an alternative.

       
      Reply
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