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If mobile language-learning apps are to be believed, it’s never been easier to pick up another language. Just spend 20 minutes a day with a few virtual flashcards and you’ll be fluent in no time! The reality is a lot more nuanced — and arguably more disappointing — than that.
Apps like Duolingo, Memrise, and Babbel all promise to teach you how to read, write, or speak a new language, all from your phone. While they’re similar in concept, they differ a lot in the specifics:
Duolingo offers a skill tree of lessons that use listening exercises, flashcards, and multiple choice questions to drill you on new words, phrases, and sentences. Most questions have a comment thread where users can discuss a particular question in detail. The service also has community features that let you connect with other people who are learning the same language you are.
Memrise offers similar lessons to Duolingo, introducing new words and phrases with flashcards, listening exercises, and more. However, the app has a few unique features: on new words, you can write a note (called a “mem”) with anything that helps you remember the new word or phrase. These will appear later when you come across the word again. It also offers a feature called Learn With Locals, which pairs words with videos of native speakers saying the phrase out loud and demonstrating the phrase. For example, a speaker might shiver when describing cold weather. This helps connect words with their meaning. Memrise also offers more explanatory cards than Duolingo offers when introducing new or complex topics.
Babbel is different from the other two. While it uses similar multiple choice or listening exercises as the others, it uses conversational examples to demonstrate how to use new words or phrases when speaking with another person. It also offers a speech recognition feature that lets you speak words back during an exercise instead of writing them out or answering a multiple choice question. This helps you learn how to pronounce words properly, or at least properly enough for your phone to recognize what you’re saying.
Despite their differences, they have the same goal: use daily exercises on your phone to teach you an entire language. It’s an enticing promise, especially if you’re not already immersed in a culture or education system that will give you the exposure you need to pick up a second language. The question is, are they effective?
After I accumulated a Duolingo streak in excess of 500 days — a feat that, thanks to the app’s notoriously insistent reminders, has now come to define my self-worth — I found myself in a better place to judge just how much an app alone can really teach you. The short answer is that you can definitely learn some things from an app, but if you want to become fluent in a language — or even conversational — they won’t be enough.
Language apps are great for writing systems and basic phrases
The phrase “learning a language” is deceptively reductive. A language isn’t a singular monolith, but rather a complex interconnected system of components that build a way to communicate. The lexicon consists of the individual words, which speakers have to memorize. The syntax and grammar tell speakers how to properly structure those words in a sentence. Then there’s the writing system, which is the visual representation of words or sounds that allow words to be constructed (for example, in English, the writing system is the alphabet).
For languages that have a different writing system, like Japanese, Russian, or Korean, language apps can be an excellent way to learn. Duolingo and Memrise both use a combination of flash card and simple matching exercises to train you to recognize symbols in a new writing system, while Babbel goes an extra step further with in-lesson explanations for how new symbols or sounds work.
After a few weeks or months of consistently going through lessons, it’s feasible to learn every sound and symbol in a new writing system. You won’t be able to understand every word you can read, but you’ll be a lot closer than if you started from scratch. However, that’s only part of learning a language. Understanding the alphabet used in English doesn’t inherently mean you can understand French or Spanish, for example.
These apps are also better at teaching basic conversational phrases that are useful when you’re traveling. When you visit a city in a foreign country, it’s helpful to learn a few phrases like “Where is the bathroom?” or “How much does it cost?” Using a phrase book to memorize these phrases in another language is a quick and dirty way to get the job done, but that’s not really “learning” the phrases, it’s just memorizing them.
For example, consider the Italian phrase “Dov’è il bagno?” This phrase means “Where is the bathroom?” However, without speaking Italian, can you tell which part of that sentence is “bathroom?” Could you adapt the sentence to say “Where is the door?” or “Where is the hotel?” Language apps don’t just teach you whole sentences. Instead, they break down component parts of a sentence and teach you a few different variations so you understand what you’re saying and can adjust what you’re saying based on your situation. It’s a useful skill to have, especially when traveling.
Most importantly, though, these apps are powerful reminders that learning a new language isn’t a part-time job. Duolingo has infamously persistent notifications that pester you to come back and give that adorable green bird attention every single day. The downside is that it can be tempting to gamify the experience, rather than actually learn. On particularly busy days, I’ve found myself redoing the earliest lessons just to keep my all-important streak going. Which leads to another important lesson: skirting the rules on a self-improvement project hurts no one but yourself.
What language apps can’t teach you
For as useful as learning a new writing system or understanding basic phrases can be, it’s only a small part of fluency in a language. What counts as “fluent” is a tough concept to describe, but the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (or CEFR) is a widely-accepted standard for approximating fluency.
The six CEFR levels are necessarily broad and can overlap a bit, but here’s a (very) brief overview of what each means:
At level A1, learners should know basic phrases, be able to introduce themselves and ask simple personal questions, and understand basic interactions if their conversation partner speaks slowly. Level A2 includes understanding common expressions, communicating about routine tasks, and describing simple aspects of the speaker’s background. Together, these two levels make up the Basic stage.
Level B1 starts to introduce more complex ideas like explaining their opinions, dreams, and ambitions, or handling complex tasks while traveling. Level B2 expects speakers to be able to speak with native speakers of a language without straining, and have complex technical discussions related to their field of expertise. These two levels make up the Independent stage.
Finally, a level C1 speaker should be able to communicate flexibly in social, professional, and academic settings, understand a wide variety of topics, and recognize implicit meaning. C2, the highest level, expects the learner to “understand with ease virtually everything heard or read,” and summarize information from different sources. Levels C1 and C2 make up the Proficient stage.
If it’s not already obvious, language apps simply can’t get someone to level C2 — or anywhere close — on their own. There simply aren’t lessons to teach you, for example, how to have a complex conversation about banking regulations or astrophysics or whatever your field of expertise. It also means that if you stick solely to the lesson plans in each app, you won’t communicate with another person. By definition, these two limitations would rule out reaching even level B2.
Some apps also have a hard time teaching complex grammar. In Japanese, for one small example, “particles” are core parts of a sentence that indicate how words relate to each other in a sentence. They’re usually written with the same symbols used to spell words — sort of like how “a” is both a letter, but also a word on its own — which can get confusing since Japanese doesn’t use spaces between words and symbols.
Duolingo often just drops a new particle on you without much explanation of what it does or even that it’s a particle at all. Memrise handles this a bit better, with lessons dedicated to how certain particles and grammar work, but it helps to have external lessons, an instructor, or best of all a native speaker to help explain some of the finer points of nuance in a language’s grammar.
Language apps also struggle with some of the unspoken aspects of communicating in a language. To focus on Japanese again, there are distinct levels of formality and politeness which dictate what form a word should take based on your relationship with the person you’re speaking to. So, for example, you may use one form of a sentence when speaking to a friend, but a more formal version when speaking to a boss.
Furthermore, body language and posture can have a dramatic impact on how your speech is perceived, and language apps tend not to cover this at all. While understanding body language is not strictly a requirement of any CEFR level, it’s hard to navigate a conversation fluently without a general understanding of what certain gestures mean, or what actions are impolite.
Most importantly, though, language apps are not other humans. It sounds like an obvious observation, but the entire point of learning a language is to communicate with other people. You can learn as many words or sentences as you want, but until you’re able to have a conversation with another person, you’ll never be fluent. Or, according to the CEFR model, you won’t even be halfway there.
For that reason alone, learning a language with an app should be a starting point, not the end. If you make it through an entire Duolingo skill tree or a Memrise lesson plan, it might be time to upgrade to an in-person class, or you might want to find a native speaker to practice with.
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Research shows that Duolingo is an effective way to learn a language! But the truth is that no single course, app, method, or book can help you reach all your language goals.How many days does it take to learn a language on Duolingo? ›
Most of the Duolingo marketing touts “Spending 15 minutes a day learning a new language.” So, if you have 387.5 hours of material to get through – and you practice for 15 minutes a day – that's 1,550 days. (387.5 hours is 23,250 minutes. Divide that by 15 minutes per day, and you get 1,550 days to finish a language.)Why does Duolingo send threatening messages? ›
We're taking notifications out of your phone and into the real world. Yup: Duo the Owl will literally show up to remind you to practice so you never miss a lesson.What happens when you finish all of Duolingo? ›
Once you complete all the levels in a unit, you'll complete a challenge to earn your unit trophy. You'll also have the option to earn the Legendary trophy for each unit.
Is Babbel better than Duolingo? After thoroughly testing out and reviewing each language learning program, we feel that Babbel is better than Duolingo for multiple reasons. Based on the strength of their curriculum, teaching style and delivery, we rate Babbel as the superior app over Duolingo.What is the hardest course on Duolingo? ›
Across multiple sources, Mandarin Chinese is the number one language listed as the most challenging to learn. The Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center puts Mandarin in Category IV, which is the list of the most difficult languages to learn for English speakers.Which is better Duolingo or Rosetta Stone? ›
Yes. After thoroughly testing out and reviewing each language learning app, we found Rosetta Stone to be a superior program to Duolingo. While we like Duolingo's gamification of learning, Rosetta Stone is simply more comprehensive and effective.How advanced can Duolingo get you? ›
The levels are labeled A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, and C2, and they cover increasingly complex language needs. Most people don't need to master all, or even most, of the levels. It's all about what you want to do with the language.Is Duolingo a slow way to learn? ›
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.What is the longest Duolingo course? ›
As of February 3rd 2023, the longest Duolingo streak is 3676 days, held by user christi3. This means that the longest Duolingo streak is over 10 years old!
Super Duolingo is a premium addition to the Duolingo experience. With Super Duolingo, your benefits include: No ads: Learn without interruptions. Unlimited Hearts: Enable unlimited hearts so mistakes won't slow you down. Mistakes Review: Make a mistake?Can I trust Duolingo? ›
Duolingo is the best free app for learning a language. Unique features and a clear structure make it a reliable place to learn new languages or sharpen your skills. PCMag editors select and review products independently. If you buy through affiliate links, we may earn commissions, which help support our testing.Is Duolingo monitored? ›
The Duolingo English Test team detects coordinated test taking by monitoring for anomalous test taking patterns, scanning the internet for item repositories, and fielding whistleblower reports.What percentage of people finish a Duolingo course? ›
An informal study estimates that course completion rates fall as low as 0.01% for Spanish learners (second most popular language on Duolingo), and peak at 0.24% for Ukrainian learners.What happens when you get a 100 day streak on Duolingo? ›
Reaching certain milestones (such as 100 day streak) can earn the user 3 days of free of SUPER Duolingo.How far can Duolingo take you? ›
Can you become fluent at a language through Duolingo? No. Duolingo is a useful way to practice and learn a few things but it is not a method for gaining fluency. It is very translation-based and encouraged quite a phrase book-y approach to learning.Has anyone become fluent using Babbel? ›
You will most likely not become fluent with Babbel. It's a solid language app and can give you a strong foundation in your target language, but to achieve fluency, you'll need to use other resources. While it won't help you become fluent, Babbel can help you improve your language skills.What language learning program does the government use? ›
The DLIFLC is under the Department of Defense. It is regarded as one of the finest foreign language learning institutions in America. Located in Monterey, California, this premier language provider considers its mission deadly serious. Exactly how serious?Is anything better than Duolingo? ›
We have compiled a list of solutions that reviewers voted as the best overall alternatives and competitors to Duolingo, including Rosetta Stone, Busuu, Lingvist, and Mango Languages.What is the most practiced language on Duolingo? ›
- Spanish – 33.4m learners.
- French – 20m learners.
- Japanese – 13.8m learners.
- German – 11.9m learners.
- Korean – 11.8m learners.
- Hindi – 8.35m learners.
- Italian – 8.16m learners.
- Chinese – 6.28m learners.
If you have previous experience with a language and feel that lessons are too easy, you can scroll to the next locked unit and tap the circle that says “Jump here?”. If you pass the test, you'll unlock that unit!What is the easiest language to learn? ›
- Norwegian. This may come as a surprise, but we have ranked Norwegian as the easiest language to learn for English speakers. ...
- Swedish. ...
- Spanish. ...
- Dutch. ...
- Portuguese. ...
- Indonesian. ...
- Italian. ...
After using each program for more than a month, it was clear to us that Babbel is more comprehensive and engaging than the language apps from Rosetta Stone and Duolingo. While there are elements of the Rosetta Stone and Duolingo programs that we like, Babbel clearly has a more effective learning framework.Who is Duolingo owned by? ›
By the time Duolingo founder Luis von Ahn turned 24, he was already a millionaire several times over. Now 43, he may not be a household name — but you're probably one of the hundreds of millions of people who use his technology every day.What is one unit of Duolingo equivalent to? ›
A unit on the Duolingo tree is just a block of content. Each course is broken down into logical chunks, each one cranking up the difficulty as you progress through the course.What is the fastest growing language on Duolingo? ›
Countries with the largest growth in people studying Ukrainian in 2022.
You are promoted to the next league. There is no league higher than Diamond. If you reach the top 3 of Diamond, you will remain in that league. NOTE: We no longer offer gem rewards for those in the top 3.Can you become fluent in a language in a year? ›
They've suggested that a person can become fluent in language for social contexts in six months to two years. However, it can take 5-7 years to become fluent in academic language. So within one year, it's absolutely possible to get fluent in a language for social uses, although probably not for academic purposes.Does Duolingo teach fluency? ›
So, can Duolingo make you fluent? By itself, no. But when used in the right way, I would say it can — but this will depend entirely on your definition of fluency, the quality of your language course, and whether you actually use the language away from Duolingo.How well can you speak a language after Duolingo? ›
If you try reading a random text after finishing a Duolingo course, you shouldn't have much trouble understanding some basic structures, and perhaps even entire sentences. However, if you try listening to native speakers speaking the language at a normal pace, you'll be lucky to distinguish a single word.
You don't need to spend hours on Duolingo each day. However, you must put a reasonable amount of time into learning. If you log in to complete one lesson and sign out as soon as you've reached 10XP, you won't get very far. To optimize your learning, aim to spend between 15 and 30 minutes on the app each day.What happens when you get a 365 day streak on Duolingo? ›
Once you hit the 365, your streak counter would go dark with a couple of spotlights in the background. But nowadays it's all glam and golden. You really can't miss it! You can also tap the streak counter for a little pop-up that gives you some more details about your membership.Who has highest streak on Duolingo? ›
Congrats to John Arnold, who has the highest-ever Duolingo streak of over 2000 days! He's a horse farmer and chemist.How many hours of Duolingo is equal to a college course? ›
According to an independent study conducted by the City University of New York and the University of South Carolina, an average of 34 hours of Duolingo are equivalent to a full university semester of language education.Is Duolingo good for your brain? ›
The purpose of Duolingo courses is to teach you to use and understand a new language—so this improvement in executive functioning is an added bonus! Duolingo learners transferred benefits from one realm (language learning) to another (executive functioning).What is legendary in Duolingo? ›
Back in 2021, Duolingo introduced legendary levels — the ultimate test of how well you know a skill. They proved to be pretty popular (despite non-premium members having to part with their hard-earned gems to attempt them) with Duolingo trees across the world going from gold to purple.How does Duolingo get paid? ›
Duolingo makes money through paid subscriptions, ad revenue, and selling translation data. Duolingo started as a way to help websites translate their content into other languages while giving app users free language learning lessons. Duolingo offers more languages and has more users than both Rosetta Stone and Babbel.Is Duolingo losing customers? ›
Duolingo had 37 million monthly active users in 2021, a slight decrease on the 42 million users it had in 2020.Is Duolingo accepted in USA? ›
Duolingo English Test is widely accepted in USA universities as proof of language proficiency for international students. DET is being accepted in top universities in USA for 2023 intakes as well. As for now, there are 100+ Duolingo accepted universities in the USA for international students.Does Duolingo take your family? ›
A Family Plan is where the primary account holder/ family manager can share a Super Duolingo annual subscription and all of its amazing features with up to five (5) other Duolingo users, totaling six (6) members per Family Plan.
Duolingo does not offer much “authentic input” or “true output” Humans acquire languages when they get tons of meaningful, comprehensible, context-rich exposure to a language, and lots of practice communicating with others in real-time, real-life contexts.Does Duolingo delete your progress? ›
If you remove a language, you can always add it back later, but all your progress will be lost and you'll have to start the course from the beginning. If you have courses for other base languages, you will have to switch to those and repeat the steps for deleting the course.Do teachers get Duolingo for free? ›
This post is sponsored by Duolingo for Schools. All opinions are my own. Did you know that Duolingo for Schools is free for educators? To be honest with you, I assumed that just like the super popular language learning app, using Duolingo with students would come with a price tag.Do colleges use Duolingo? ›
A growing number of US colleges and universities have started accepting Duolingo in order to admit students to various Bachelor's, Master's and doctoral courses. Does Harvard accept Duolingo scores? Yes, Harvard University accepts scores on the Duolingo English Test.Does Duolingo use your microphone? ›
The pronunciation practice system uses the mobile device microphone to work. However, some users are facing issues with that option. What is this? More specifically, Android 12 users are unable to practice pronunciation in Duolingo since the mic is not working or does not recognize speech.Should I trust Duolingo? ›
Duolingo is the best free app for learning a language. Unique features and a clear structure make it a reliable place to learn new languages or sharpen your skills. PCMag editors select and review products independently. If you buy through affiliate links, we may earn commissions, which help support our testing.Is Duolingo proven to work? ›
Duolingo generally does a good job of balancing the four essential skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing. It doesn't remedy the fact that we might not be pronouncing the words correctly, but the ability to make and speak our own sentences is a great step toward really learning to use the language.Is Duolingo worth trying? ›
Super Duolingo is worth it. The paid subscription removes the ads and allows users to make unlimited mistakes. This is best for people who want to learn a language fast. At $80.00 a year in the US, it is also a relatively inexpensive way to learn a new language.Is Rosetta Stone better than Duolingo? ›
Yes. After thoroughly testing out and reviewing each language learning app, we found Rosetta Stone to be a superior program to Duolingo. While we like Duolingo's gamification of learning, Rosetta Stone is simply more comprehensive and effective.Can Duolingo get you to B2? ›
At Duolingo, we're developing our courses to get you to a level called B2, at which you can get a job in the language you're studying. Reaching that kind of proficiency requires dedication, varied practice opportunities, and a lot of time.