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Against Duolingo as a language learning platform

790 words (approximately 4 minutes reading)

Up until last week, I would still have recommended Duolingo for language learners for beginner’s material, but now I can no longer do so.

It is undeniable that Duolingo is a great source if you want to learn a language (well, great in terms of quantity at least). If you want to start learning a language and don’t know where to start, just select a Duolingo course and you will learn from greeting and introduction to political and scientific vocabulary, from alphabet to relative clauses or conditional phrases.

People often criticize Duolingo for having nonsensical sentences you would never use in real life or having only one sentence rather than a conversation, or doesn’t have grammar notes. I would even defend Duolingo here, and say they are using it wrongly. Whatever common phrases you would expect to say, “hello”, “sorry”, “thank you”,… are all taught just fine, and the silly ones are actually only a few to let the learners have some fun. Grammar notes are were provided for each lesson, and the silly sentences help you remember the grammar very well. Monologous sentences… well, they solved that, I suppose, with a side effect, but let’s leave that for later. The claim that you can’t learn a language from solely Duolingo is moot, since you’re not supposed to do that; you can’t learn from your textbook alone even; you should use it in conjunction with other resources.

Duolingo added ads and ad-free premium tier. It’s business as usual; I didn’t bat an eye.

Duolingo gamifies the thing further with a leaderboard and ranks? Another silly decision I could ignore.

Duolingo removed discussions. Okay, that’s a rather backwards move. Maybe they didn’t have enough moderators to handle it, which I doubt since they’re expanding their business, but discussion was a very nice feature that allow learners and native speakers to discuss and ask questions on their grammar mistakes or ask for extra learning materials. This was a serious downgrade.

Duolingo made a huge redesign and you can’t say no to it. They said you wouldn’t lose your progress, but this is a lie: my French and German course progresses which was completed 100% returned to zero (not that I use it for those anymore, but those are on the contrary to what they claimed). Questions now are often dialogues (if you could call 2 sentences so), which probably caused it. Grammar notes are removed, and in their place are these “guide books”, which consists of nothing but mere “phrases you will learn in this unit”. This is not only an immense downgrade for the learners, but also a huge disrespect to the contributors. They spent time to write those grammar notes, but now they’re all gone.

It’s not like this happened before. One or two years ago, they added some kind of changes to this, which lost me some progress also, but they didn’t go this far. Either way, I should have known better that you cannot trust proprietary platforms to respect you (see: a similar story from someone whose Twitter account is deleted without clear reason). If you don’t own it, it will fall out of your hands in one way or another.

So in short, I advises against Duolingo for learning languages because:

Of course, this extends to online services run on free software as well. Let’s say, my Mastodon or Akkoma instance admin can just stop running that server at any moment, intentionally or not, and my data will be lost. The developers can decide to add a new feature that will breaks old data, and I will also lost access to old data. The only solution to this is run the server yourself or back up your data regularly1. However, with a free platform, that data backup can be useful, as it can be used for an another instance of the software. With a proprietary platform, that data will probably just be a big JSON that’s very hard to read without a piece of software that no longer exists.

So, my advices to language learners (and to myself as well):

Basically: own your software, own your data.

  1. I don’t do this, though, as I consider social network ephemeral interactions, but for this website it is the case. ↩︎


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