I Completed DuoLingo Chinese. Here’s Why You Shouldn’t

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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.

*For a full guide to the apps I recommend for learning Mandarin please visit this link.

*For my full roadmap on how to acquire Mandarin tones see this blog.

*Join the I’m Learning Mandarin Facebook Community on this link

16 Thoughts

  1. Taking Duolingo’s Japanese-English courses here. I agree with you on the vocabulary building. I’d say Duolingo doesn’t actually teach you the language, but rather works like a cold-starter tool so people might get more interested in the language they’re learning.

    I once took time on the English-Chinese course and directly unlocked the final stage so it would test me against that whole course. It was just middle school to early high school English knowledge for the average Chinese students. I wouldn’t say at that phase I could claim my language ability as fluent, but merely comfortable to use.

    My plan is after finishing the JP-EN course I’ll take time to read some text books for more accurate and natural sense of the language since Duolingo has done the job for my “preschool time”.

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      1. Nice article on the graded readers! To share a bit more about me learning English, I recall that I read Harry Potter novels in Chinese when it was that popular, then I realized I could try reading it in English. It was when I was in junior high school, just getting started with my English. Having known the stories and scenes already, I picked up many of the phrases from the English version of the novel. Maybe because I love Harry Potter so much I didn’t quite feel the pain of all the other unknown words and phrases. Some I made guesses, and some I just let them slip through. I knew I would re-read them in the future, and I actually did.

        I’d like to add one point to the graded reader: if you got some articles/books/movies you love, read/watch them in your learning language would be an exciting experience. It can rush the pain while getting your goals.

        Thanks for introducing LingQ by the way. I find myself quickly addicted to it. It comes right on time when I’m getting exhausted with Duolingo! And if you got a referral link I’d love to buy premium with your link lol

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    1. I’m from the U.S., and I lived in China for seven years. Despite never formally studying the language while I was there, I picked up the spoken language simply by necessity. Now, I’m not fluent, but I can have lengthy conversations with people about things that don’t require specialized jargon. I never learned to read or write, though (although I got pretty good at reading menus). Duolingo was tremendously helpful to me with this deficit. I don’t really understand your criticism of it.
      I completed the entire Chinese course on Duolingo, and I never actually came across the nonsensical sentences that you’ve got screenshots of. My problem with it is that it only gets you to an intermediate level. I wish there were more. I learned a lot of characters I didn’t know (but often recognized from street signs and the like), and I also learned to properly construct more complicated sentences.
      Duolingo is pretty great.
      But it really sounds like you just didn’t go out into the world and use the language. Textbooks and apps can only get you so far. How you really learn the language is by using it with people, ideally native speakers. Those seven years I was in China, I was teaching English. That was always the difference with the most successful students. They went out, made friends, and spoke the language.

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      1. My problem is exactly what you state: Duolingo doesn’t make you fluent. It claims or very heavily insinuates that it can take you to intermediate B1/B2 fluency and I didn’t find that to be the case at all. I have never lived in China but after five years I am relatively fluent. One major reason is because I stopped investing so much time in DuoLingo and spent much more using apps & methods that are more effective. So it depends on your goals. And I don’t think DuoLingo is totally useless. As I wrote I think it can be useful for getting acquainted with the language and going from zero to A1.

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      1. Got it. That was my main point. Your post implied that graded readers, rather than Duolingo, were the key to fluency.

        Neither are. As I said in my original post, textbooks and apps can’t get you there. Actual communication with real people can. That’s the key. This app, that app, these books, those; doesn’t matter.

        But really, I don’t understand why you would discourage people from anything that might help them on their language learning journey. Why not write an article titled “Here are the limits of what completing duolingo’s Chinese course can do for you”? instead of being so negative?

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      2. I’m not discouraging anyone from using DuoLingo. I say it can be useful as a tool in the very initial stages but I’d advise learners to move on fairly quickly assuming their goal is to reach a reasonable level of fluency or communicative ability. I think for people who have similar goals to me, spending as much time on DuoLingo as I did is excessive. I want to point people in the direction of apps which I wish I’d discovered earlier because I think they’re more effective for learners who are already minimally acquainted with the language. But I never said don’t use it at all. And I also accept not everybody shares my goals, in which case my advice is less relevant. I agree that speaking and communication is important and that’s why in my other post covering the best apps for learning Chinese I include language exchange apps like Tandem and Hello Talk.

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  2. You apparently didn’t read your headline, which specifically discourages the completion of Duolingo for Chinese.

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    1. I stand by the headline. My position remains that (assuming people’s goals are the same as mine) spending the amount of time required to complete the tree is excessive. I think there are other, better apps which are less well known but, beyond a certain level, are more effective. That’s not the same as discouraging people from using DuoLingo, which is what you accused me of. I never did that.

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  3. Despite the fact that I’m *currently* in the throws of a *full-on* Duolingo addiction (Japanese & Latin), I *wholeheartedly* agree with *all* of your assertions. I will note that the dreaded owl is *much* less of a “motivator” for me than are *other* Duolingo users, who, unlike myself, are UNDERHANDEDLY competitive.. (if that makes any sense?)…ie.: I enthusiastically studied each & every day, focused on LEARNING/RETAINING my new languages and THEN realized I’d INADVERTENTLY/UNKNOWINGLY placed “#1” in my “league”. I’ve always been competitive in “real life” – sports, classroom, even in my career – but NEVER imagined I’d catch the competition bug when TRYING to learn new languages via Duolingo. I went from caring ONLY about learning to becoming obsessed with holding onto my place at the top, and was OUTRAGED when someone who hadn’t practiced in DAYS logged on within the last few hours (right before the league advancement occurred) and accumulated enough points (“XP”) to knock me down to #2. I was about to go to sleep when I received a notification from that FECKING owl, saying, (I’m paraphrasing as I can’t recall the EXACT words, but this is fairly accurate) “JOHN DOE has *just* TAKEN *YOUR* Number 1 spot in the league!! You *better* login *NOW* and earn more XP to regain YOUR position!”. I was SO TIRED that I could BARELY keep my eyes open, but I did *precisely* that: I logged onto Duolingo and “studied” (“studied” is in quotations bc I did NOT study in the *true* sense of the word. I DIDN’T RETAIN *SHITE*) … ANYway – I studied until I was: 1) POSITIVE the league advancement had occurred, AND 2) SURE that I’d RE-TAKEN “my” #1 place from that little shite John Doe, who, bc he overtook me in a calculatingly rude manner, accumulated one more enemy (me) along with the additional XP he earned while attempting to snipe me when I LITERALLY wasn’t looking.

    I’m in a new league now, and bc of my unsavory experiences during my FIRST WEEK as a Duolingo user, I immediately wanted to see if Duolingo’s leagues are compiled *completely randomly* OR if they use an algorithm that places the more competitive users (which obviously includes me) together in the hopes that they’ll essentially “bully” one another into logging in more frequently, etc. The LATTER is true. I’ve been “lumped-in” with users who aren’t simply competitive, but who are *clones* of the former “John Doe”.

    You may wonder, “HOW can one tell if another Duolingo user is a sniper/bully??”
    EASY: Each user’s profile contains a simple graph detailing *which days* he/she practiced and *how many XP he/she earned* in the previous week. If a user’s practice time and XP are unusually high on SATURDAY – RIGHT BEFORE *league advancement takes place* on Sunday – then that user is PROBABLY going to snipe you (or whomever places high) during the final hours of the “tournament”. (The fact that I have learned this *completely USELESS* “knowledge” is unsettling enough to make me want to delete the Duolingo app from my device and never speak of it again.
    I’m shopping around for another language app, which I’ll download /begin using BEFORE my free 2 weeks with Duolingo expire.
    I’m PLENTY stressed in REAL LIFE. I don’t need *additional* stress from a LANGUAGE LEARNING APP!

    💜HAPPY LEARNING to all the DECENT, FUN-LOVING people out there!💜
    (To the “OTHERS” – May you ENJOY serving your time on Duolingo!) ☺️

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