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Free language learning apps often promise the world — but don’t expect fluency from one. Here’s what to expect before you sign up.
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By Eric Ravenscraft
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.(Video) What happens after 365 days on Duolingo?
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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Why did Duolingo change 2022? ›
Overall, the changes feel like they'll make learning a language even easier and more accessible. Duolingo told me that's by design. Anton Yu, Duolingo's product manager, said the app's redesign was shaped by feedback: Users wanted more guidance and content with less complexity.How many hours of Duolingo is equal to a college course? ›
We have a team of PhDs dedicated to this. 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. You can see a full report of the study here.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.What happens when you finish 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 there a better alternative to Duolingo? ›
We have compiled a list of solutions that reviewers voted as the best overall alternatives and competitors to Duolingo, including Rosetta Stone, Lingvist, Busuu, and Mango Languages.How quickly can you become fluent with Duolingo? ›
A note from the Fluent in 3 Months team before we get started: You can chat away with a native speaker for at least 15 minutes with the "Fluent in 3 Months" method. All it takes is 90 days.What is the hardest course on Duolingo? ›
Across multiple sources, Mandarin Chinese is the number one language listed as the most challenging to learn.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.Which is better babbel or Duolingo? ›
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.Why is Duolingo not certified? ›
I received an email stating that you were unable to certify my test results. What happened? If you are suspected of violating any of the rules of the Duolingo English Test, Duolingo reserves the right to not certify your test results. In this case, please review the test rules and requirements before retaking the test.
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.Will Duolingo get you to B1? ›
Testing learners' speaking abilities
By reaching the end of Unit 5, Duolingo learners have completed all the lessons in the beginner sections of our courses, called A1 and A2, and are starting intermediate B1 material.
What the research suggests is that, using Duolingo and nothing else, you can get to as high as B2 in your target language. It's not just their stated objective; the research and the French success stories suggest that Duolingo can carry you to a conversational level, period.What is the minimum Duolingo score for university? ›
Universities happily accept students with a score of 7 or more in IELTS, 86 or more in TOEFL, and at least a B2 grade point in CEFR. So, a good Duolingo test score is 110 and above. Anything above 120 is an excellent Duolingo exam score.Is Duolingo good for your brain? ›
Studies suggest that being bilingual could delay the onset of Alzheimer's symptoms by five years on average, making free language-learning apps like Duolingo a superior alternative to pricey new medications.What happens after 365 days Duolingo? ›
You get automatically inducted into the club once you get 365 days logged.What is legendary level in Duolingo? ›
What are Legendary Levels on Duolingo? Put simply, a Legendary Level is designed to be the toughest level in a skill. To reach it, you need to complete four challenges without any hints or tips. It's the ultimate test of how well you know a particular skill.Is Rosetta Stone better then 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.Which is better Babbel or Rosetta Stone or Duolingo? ›
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.Why did Duolingo remove audio lessons? ›
We removed the Audio Lesson tab, so we can make some room for some exciting future changes when it comes to reviewing long-form listening exercises. Stay tuned! We need more hands-free ways to practice.
Does anyone actually learn a language from Duolingo? ›
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.Who has the longest 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 lessons of Duolingo should you do a day? ›
Casual is one lesson per day, Regular is two, Serious is three, and Insane is five lessons in a day. I have my daily goal set to Serious, which requires completing three lessons daily, but I'll often do more lessons if I have the time, typically around five or six.What happens if Duolingo is too easy? ›
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! NOTE: This will complete all levels up to that point.Which Duolingo course is the longest? ›
Indeed, Figure 2 shows that the longest courses (German for English speakers and Norwegian for English speakers) do have a very low proportion of users finish the course within the first few months.What is the max rank in Duolingo? ›
The contest of Leaderboards runs as follows: One league consists of one of the 10 possible gem ranks, ranked from lowest to highest: Bronze, Silver, Gold, Sapphire, Ruby, Emerald, Amethyst, Pearl, Obsidian and Diamond.Is Duolingo certificate worth? ›
And if yes, is Duolingo certificate valid? Well, it does, and the certificate is valid for two years. It takes around 48 hours to generate this certificate, and it contains the student's scores. Last but not least, the Duolingo exam can be attempted as many times as you want.Is finishing Duolingo worth it? ›
Finishing a Duolingo course might teach you how to process the written language on some basic level, but going through thousands of short and unrelated sentences doesn't really have much in common with actual reading. This is why you should develop your own reading practice.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.What is the average cost of Babbel? ›
Babbel offers four different subscription options to choose from: a month-by-month plan, which costs $14 per month, a 3-month plan which costs around $30 ($10 per month), a 6-month plan that costs around $50 ($8.50 per month), and finally a 12-month plan, which is the best value at around $7 per month.
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.Can I trust Duolingo? ›
The Bottom Line. 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.How many times can I retake Duolingo test if it is not certified? ›
Once you complete and submit a test, you will need to wait for your results before taking a new test. You may purchase three tests in any 30 day period.Does Duolingo record your screen? ›
There's no video or voice recording of the test being administered—which means there's no evidence of test taker behavior other than the proctor's narrative, based on their memory. Because proctors and test takers are in the same room, they cannot be anonymous. This is risky for a few reasons.Does Harvard accept Duolingo? ›
Meeting the Requirement.
|Test||Minimum Approved Score|
|Pearson Test of English Academic (PTEA)||70|
|Duolingo English Test (DET)||125|
- Stanford University.
- Washington University.
- University of Illinois's Urbana Campaign's College of Business.
- NYU Stern School of Business.
- Cornell University's Johnson School of Management.
- Yale University.
Whether you're a total beginner or you're looking to brush up, Duolingo's German course is definitely one of the best options currently available. The course is now hitting the same heights as the French and Spanish courses — which Duolingo reckon can get you to a B2 level on the CEFR.Does Duolingo let you skip levels? ›
Skipping levels on Duolingo's new learning path is really easy. Well, so long as you know enough of your target language! If you're finding the levels and units too easy, then you can easily jump forward to a position further along the path. To do this, simply scroll down to your desired unit, then tap the first level.Why has Duolingo changed 2022? ›
Anton Yu, Duolingo's product manager, said the app's redesign was shaped by feedback: Users wanted more guidance and content with less complexity. All new features except the Practice Hub, unlimited hearts, legendary status and no ads will be available to both free users and Super subscribers.What is the average Duolingo score? ›
115 is considered a good Duolingo score. A score above 110 is considered good, and that above 120 is considered excellent in Duolingo. Is 120 a good Duolingo score? Yes, 120 is considered to be an excellent Duolingo score.
Do Duolingo scores expire? ›
Duolingo scores are valid for two years. Once you receive your scores you can send them to the educational institutions straight from the results page and there is no limit to sending the score reports.How many times Duolingo test is valid? ›
Results for the Duolingo English Test are valid for two years.Did Duolingo change 2022? ›
Over the course of 2022, Duolingo rolled out a complete redesign of their home screen, switching from a "tree" to a "path" learning model. Public user feedback following this app redesign has been very negative, with many users threatening to cancel their Duolingo subscription.Can I go back to old version of Duolingo? ›
If you need a rollback of Duolingo, check out the app's version history on Uptodown. It includes all the file versions available to download off Uptodown for that app. Download rollbacks of Duolingo for Android. Any version of Duolingo distributed on Uptodown is completely virus-free and free to download at no cost.Why do they keep changing Duolingo? ›
Why are courses updated? There is no such thing as a “finished” language course. So at Duolingo, we're always working to make our courses better! If you've gotten an update, it's because we're excited to share the latest changes to the existing course.Did Duolingo change August 2022? ›
The lessons, exercises and courses are exactly the same as before. The new learning path simply organises them in a different way, providing a step-by-step experience that is intended to make it easier to reach your language learning goals. As of September 2022, the new learning path is still being rolled out.Does Duolingo have a lifetime subscription? ›
You can also get 1-month and 6-month subscriptions that will cost a bit more per month. There is currently no lifetime plan for Duolingo Plus.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.How can I get Duolingo for free forever? ›
How is Duolingo Free? By using ads to monetize their app (like I use ads to monetize this website and make it possible to continue to write articles!) they can keep Duolingo free forever. Plus, many users choose to upgrade to Duolingo Plus to avoid ads, which also keeps Duolingo free.Does Duolingo listen to your conversations? ›
Since Audio Lessons focus on listening and speaking skills, you can study hands-free without even looking at your phone. The lessons automatically listen for your voice when it's your turn to speak, so you can make the most of your morning walk, doing laundry, or just some down time on the couch after a long day!
Can Duolingo be trusted? ›
The Bottom Line. 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.What is the success rate of Duolingo? ›
The 95% Confidence Interval for the effectiveness is from 5.6 points to 10.7 points gained per one hour of study.What is the most popular language on Duolingo 2022? ›
However, in 2022, we saw learners gravitate back towards the largest languages, with English, French, and Spanish holding strong as the most popular languages studied globally.What language will Duolingo add next? ›
Māori had been due to launch on February 21, 2021, and Luis von Ahn announced at Duocon 2021 that it would be one of Duolingo's next 5 languages.