Duolingo isn’t foolproof, but it’s amazing

When I see someone getting excited about Duolingo online, the immediate and universal response seems to be a collective pumping of the brakes. “Whoa, calm down. Sure, Duolingo’s not bad and all, but you know it doesn’t teach anyone any languages, right? You need to use other resources alongside Duolingo. Maybe instead of Duolingo. Maybe just give up now.”

The nay-sayers are half right. Duolingo doesn’t necessarily teach anyone a language. It’s not foolproof. But, it can.

It seems to me that there’s an implicit promise in the gamification that characterizes Duolingo: play the game, succeed in the game, and you will be learning languages.

This is an understandable assumption. But it is false, and to believe that misleading implication will only lead to disappointment and disillusionment.

Indeed, the more you focus on winning the game, racking up points and ascending the leaderboards in different leagues, the less likely you are to be progressing in the language. That will remain true as long as Duolingo is set up how it currently is. Buckling down and slowly learning a new language is not a good way to accumulate points in Duolingo.

To take an extreme example of how you could be doing “well” on Duolingo without learning anything, you could read the same “story” every day for ten years and do nothing else. Some of your statistics would be really impressive after that time, but your learning would be absolutely negligible.

But let’s take a couple more common mistakes. You could work through an entire language tree on the first level. You’ll reach the end after months of diligent work and have a pretty good overview of how the language fits together, but no depth of understanding.

Or you could do even better than that, take every unit of the entire language to level five or legendary or whatever, celebrate the completion of the language, and then move on to spend a couple years doing the same thing with the next language on your list. Why is this a mistake? If you abandon the language for a couple years, you’re likely to come back to with with much of it forgotten.

Duolingo is designed to be flexible enough to allow us to fail in these ways, because that same flexibility can be a great advantage in other cases. But none of these things mean that Duolingo can’t teach a language.

You can learn a language through university classes or private lessons, even though the same mistakes are possible there.

You can learn a language from studying independently with a textbook, if you have enough gumption, even though you can certainly make all the same mistakes there as well.

The real key, I think, is in allowing the gamification to support the use of some amazing language learning resources, rather than missing the language by getting too caught up in the game.

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