Make the most of duolingo

12 tips from an experienced teacher and polyglot


We all love duolingo. It’s colourful and entertaining — and free. However I didn’t include it in my article about the best tools to study a language online. I thought it deserved an article of its own.

Duolingo so successful that most students who come to me for French lessons have been using duolingo before. However, it is quite common for those students to be somewhat frustrated with their duolingo experience. Some report that they “can’t speak at all”, sometimes even after finishing the tree. Some feel that duolingo is addictive and may lead to a suboptimal use of their studying time.

Let’s face it, our relationship with duolingo can sometimes be a Hassliebe (that’s a German word for “Love-hate relationship”)

The main problem with duolingo is that it doesn’t come with a user manual. So here you go.

Duolingo is not a stand alone language learning method.

It is a great tool but it will not teach you a language on its own, except maybe if you are exceptionally skilled. By the way, the same applies to literally every existing language learning method. The promise to learn with a computer is very alluring, but you will only get to speak if you actually, well, speak. To people.

👍 What duolingo is good for (and why you should keep using it). 

1. Motivation

Motivation is the most important resource in language learning — and the most difficult to find. After a while, you tend to lose interest, which is very detrimental to your progress. Not with duolingo. Its gamified style is perfect to keep your motivation up. You’ve been keeping that streak, right?

2. Regularity

If motivation is the best resource, the best practice is regularity. Study often, at best everyday. How long you study doesn’t matter nearly as much as how often. 10 minutes each day is so much better than an hour per week.

Duolingo is awesome for that. It keeps you studying. Every. Single. Day.

3. Memorization

Duolingo is good to help you remember vocabulary (or at least the vocabulary included in it). It is based on the spaced repetition system, and will prompt you to review words as they fade from your memory. This is great to maintain a general vocabulary base in your target language.

4. Also, it’s free.

This is always good, considering how much money language learners can spend on expensive resources, which prove to be not as efficient as they hoped.

However, free resources are only good when you know how to use them or you might end up wasting your time (more on this topic later). Time is money. In this specific case, your time is their money.

If, like many people in the western world, your time is as precious as your money, use those resources responsibly.

👎 What duolingo is not so good at (and how to make up for it)

1. Speaking.

The main concern of the student who come to me after a using duolingo is that they can’t speak. When it comes to learning how to speak a language, no technology can replace speaking to a person. Go to a language school. Book an online teacher. Find language partners or even a study buddy. You can pay for it or find a free alternative, but find real humans.

2. Immediate memory.

When you speak a language, you don’t have time to look for your words in your brain, not even a second or two. You always have at least a spare second on duolingo, even in the timed practice. But not in real life. You need to remember your words faster than that. Training your immediate memory is best trained by speaking to humans.

3. It doesn’t adapt to your needs.

Duolingo will teach you only the “general” language. It presents the most frequently used words and grammar points of the language, but these may not always be perfect for what you need in your personal situation. If you need to learn a language for your work, or even if you only intend on traveling in a country where your target language is spoken, duolingo will be very ill-adapted to your case.

Instead, I suggest you find an experienced teacher (me! ;) ), or resources which are specific to your field (if they exist).

4. Long writing/ long reading/ high level listening.

In case you need/want to read or write long texts, or to understand more than isolated sentences in speech, duolingo will not provide you with an efficient solution for that. Listening to relatively long documents in a foreign language requires specific skills such as a long span of very focused attention, ability to extract information from the context and to retrieve meaning when you are not familiar with all the words. The same goes for reading full texts. Writing in a foreign language requires, for example, to know how to connect sentences, build a coherent text, and respect social rules (such as politeness) which may be different in your target language.

You will need to specifically train those skills outside of duolingo. It could be with a teacher, or other apps or websites.

5. Exams

If you are training for an exam, for example the French DELF/DALF, I strongly recommend you use resources which are created specifically by and for the institution responsible for the exam, and request the services of a trained teacher or coach (training students for the DELF/DALF is one of my specialities). Language exams are very specific and duolingo is not intended to help you prepare them.

6. Dealing with frustration

A great thing about duolingo is that it is generally not too difficult. If you use duolingo everyday, in the way it is intended, you most likely won’t be presented with a difficulty which is too hard to overcome. This is very gratifying, and just challenging enough so you won’t get bored.

But learning a language is not a calm and smooth journey. Sooner or later, some aspects of the language will be difficult for you. Maybe it will be the grammar, maybe some vocabulary or pronunciation. You will have to overcome them or find a way around them. Duolingo is very good at presenting languages as easy and fun, but a successful learner cannot avoid difficulties forever.

7. Culture

Learning a language also means learning about the culture of the country/countries where the target language is spoken. For example, speaking to natives in a way that they deem polite can be very tricky. Cultural facts and tips are totally absent from duolingo, and you will have to find them elsewhere. Native speakers, a trip or a book about the country’s culture can help you with that.

👇 Conclusion 👇

Duolingo is a great language learning game, which you should totally keep using, in combination with other language learning tools. I hope those tips will help you make an efficient use of its features.

Here is a last tip for you:

All you want is to keep that streak, right? Oh wait, you also want to learn the language efficiently. So, why not postpone your daily duolingo until after you have done your other language learning task which you should be doing today? Just finish this grammar exercise, or this short essay and then you get to do your duolingo and add a day to your streak. Fun and efficient!