If you’ve ever looked into learning a language on your own, with no in-person classes, there are a few programs that inevitably bubble to the top: Rosetta Stone, Babble, iTalki, and many others. But by far the most popular in recent years is an app called Duolingo. It was founded in 2009 by Carnegie Mellon professor Luis von Ahn and his student Severin Hacker and rapidly grew. By 2013 it was named the App of the Year for both Apple’s App Store and the Google Play Store. At this point, it has 28 languages available to learn for English speakers, with 5 more in the Incubator. It also has SO many more available for students whose primary language ISN’T English. Seriously, I kept losing count. My personal favorite was Spanish for Chinese speakers, mainly because it’s a combination I would never in a million years have thought to put together.
So What Makes Duolingo So Popular?
Whereas programs like Rosetta Stone cost an arm and a leg, one of Duolingo’s founding principles is making education free for all. The driving force behind this is Luis von Ahn’s personal history growing up in Guatemala. He wants people around the world to be able to give themselves a leg up in society, no matter what their financial status is. But the platform’s free model also gained it intense popularity here in the United States.
So how does it make money, then?
It used to offer itself as a kind of crowdsourced translation service, having users attempt to translate phrases from real world articles, and then combining those attempts into a surprisingly accurate full translation for the article. However, in the last couple of years they have switched to a “freemium” model, which offers some extra perks for those willing and/or able to pay the (minimal) monthly membership fee.
It’s a Game.
Gamification is one of the many buzzwords of the edtech community, and Duolingo is leading the charge in keeping users coming back with achievements, medals, and other game-like characteristics. Let’s face it, we all like the feeling of accomplishment that comes with getting a medal or a badge, whether it’s for completing a lesson or for meeting your daily goal 20 days in a row.
The lessons are bite-sized, meaning that regardless of your prior experience with the language, each lesson or review session should take you no more than 5 minutes to complete. Each module has a set number of lessons, and every few modules, there’s a checkpoint to pass. It’s another aspect of the gamification, and it WORKS. When I started learning Japanese, I did module after module, completely unaware that 3 hours had passed without my even realizing. Until you finish the course, there’s always a new goal to aim for, and even when you’re done, it reminds you to keep practicing on a regular basis.
Is Duolingo for Everyone? Not Necessarily.
I love Duolingo, I really do, and I continue to use it all the time. However, there are a couple of things to watch out for, particularly if you have prior language learning experience.
Duolingo is an Immersion Program.
Once you choose the language you want to learn, only the instructions are in English. You learn the vocabulary and the grammar by reading and using them in context. Therefore, if you’re like me and you can’t get past certain grammatical concepts without knowing WHY they are that way, Duolingo may not be for you. There are other programs that will teach you more by rote and explanation, like Babbel and Memrise.
You’re Looking for a Quick Fix.
If you plan to travel to Paris in the next month, and want to learn specific phrases like “Where’s the train station”, Duolingo isn’t meant for you. With its bite-sized lessons, Duolingo aims for a slow but steady understanding of a new language, built to last for the long haul.