Three summers ago I became addicted to the language learning app DuoLingo. I was a complete beginner in Chinese having spent the previous year attending a few scattered elementary classes and, like many people in my situation, was searching for a magic app that could transport me to fluency. A friend who I had met on a trip to China and whose Chinese was more advanced than mine told me he had been using an app which helped him build vocabulary and learn sentence structures. Out of curiosity I downloaded it and was soon hooked.
For the uninitiated, DuoLingo is an app which turns language learning into a simple and addictive game. The app lets you take courses which are split by topics, starting with basic introductions and progressing to more complex themes like business and travel. Each course exposes you to words and random short sentences related to the topic covered. You are also set various challenges which you must pass in order to unlock the next course. These include placing words in the right order to form sentences and translating Chinese sentences into English. The end goal is to unlock an entire ‘tree’ of hundreds of courses.
That summer I spent so much time using the app that I actually completed the DuoLingo Chinese tree. Each day the app sent me a message reminding me that my friend had completed more courses and accumulated more points than me. On days when I neglected my studies the owl (DuoLingo’s mascot) would email me to express his disapproval and sadness, adding that his mood wouldn’t improve until I took another lesson. This emotional blackmail usually had the desired effect, spurring me into action whenever I had a spare moment. Yet by the end of the summer I not only wasn’t fluent, my spoken Chinese was no higher than a lower elementary level or A1 – the lowest rung on the European framework.
I recently reflected on this experience after a friend who is a beginner learner in Spanish and enthusiastic DuoLingo user sent me an article by the app’s producers defending it from critics. DuoLingo has been mercilessly mocked on language forums with many users posting bizarre, nonsensical sentences they have encountered while using the app. The article, titled ‘How silly sentences can help you learn’, argues that although many sentences on the app are weird this is a good thing because it helps lodge them in your memory. Sentences like “The Tuesday is similar to the Monday” might never come up in real life but they serve as a ‘grammatical anchor’ enabling you to remember key grammar concepts and communicate accurately in your target language. After all, communication, the blog’s authors remind us, is about “learning rules and flexibility.”
I disagree that communicating in Chinese has much to do with learning rules and I disagree even more that encountering isolated, unnatural sentences which native speakers would never actually say is an effective way of acquiring grammar. As I have written elsewhere, the best way to internalise target language grammar patterns is through reading and listening to lots of compelling, meaningful and comprehensible content. The degree to which a given sentence is memorable strikes me as completely irrelevant because becoming familiar with grammar has nothing to do with memorisation. Instead the task is to repeatedly encounter and comprehend thousands of sentences in a natural context, until eventually the structures become a natural part of you and no longer feel alien.
Alternative tools, such as graded readers, Du Chinese, LingQ, and the Chairman’s Bao are much more effective than DuoLingo at immersing learners in grammar patterns because they are designed to enable those with a small vocabulary to read extensively rather than translating one random, isolated sentence at a time. However wacky DuoLingo sentences might be, they will never be as compelling as good stories and meaningful articles on interesting topics. Much later I discovered Mandarin Companion graded readers starting from as few as 150 words. LingQ also has a series of mini stories aimed at beginners in Chinese. If I had known about these resources earlier I would have quit DuoLingo sooner. In the end it was these tools, not DuoLingo, that transported me from a beginner to a solid intermediate level.
In one limited sense DuoLingo has a valid claim to being useful; as an aid to vocabulary building in the initial stages of learning Chinese. Learners who know fewer than 150 words will struggle to read the simplest beginner articles and DuoLingo can help bridge the gap to meaningful content. Learning your first few dozen words in Chinese can feel like a slog and the app is at least more fun than your average textbook. But even for this DuoLingo alone is inadequate. Reading Chinese requires learning characters and learning characters requires space repetition systems (SRS) such as flashcards. Some of DuoLingo’s tasks do include characters but on its own this was nowhere near enough to make them stick in my memory. Anybody using the app as a vocabulary builder should therefore combine it with character flashcards or a gamified SRS tool like Ninchanese.
Looking back on that summer it would be excessive to say I regret using DuoLingo. But I do regret becoming as obsessed with it as I did while naively swallowing the notion – promoted by the company – that it would help me achieve anything resembling fluency. If I could go back I would adopt a more realistic mindset, using it for a shorter period alongside flashcards and other vocab building tools until I was ready to tackle meaningful texts.
Then I would run a mile.