A Week with Duolingo

I’ve spent the last week using the most popular computer-assisted language learning application, Duolingo.  It is a free app that currently has more than 100M downloads on the Google Play store and a 4.7-star rating with more than 7M reviews.  Since I was about to spend a week of vacation in Ireland, I decided to see what all the fuss was about in an attempt to see if learning some Irish could help me through my travels.

I scoured social media to try to learn more about Duolingo from users themselves, and there definitely seems to be mixed feelings about the effectiveness of its teachings:

But at the same time, with the overwhelming popularity of Duolingo, surely it must be doing something right, so I was really glad to finally get a chance to check it out.  Below is a short photo essay that describes my experience with the various features and strategies of the early stages of learning Irish with Duolingo:

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OK, so it was pretty fun and it had me engaged.  It only required a short time commitment to get through the first lesson.  I seemed to get a lot of answers correct, which had me feeling confident, and I got “rewarded” for my time and effort.  Those are all pretty good features of the principles of adult learning.  If I taught a class and a student gave me that feedback about the lesson, I’d be a pretty happy instructor.  So there was definitely something there.  That said, while I was out for dinner in Dublin that evening, I wasn’t able to apply anything I learned.

Fast forward to the second day of learning:

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This next lesson was a bit more frustrating.  It started throwing words at me that I hadn’t learned on the first day and I began confirming what others have posted online: what’s the deal with some of these phrases?  Would I ever really need to say, “Hello Hello to you too” or “I am and he is“?

Would I ever really need to say, “Hello Hello to you too” or “I am and he is“? 

I noticed that if I got any questions wrong, they would be automatically thrown at me again at the end of the question string.  By the end of the second lesson, I felt like I was just playing a guessing game that was testing my memory.  I was definitely questioning whether I was actually learning Irish.  But I also realized that I was still at the very early stages of the “game”.  

That said, I’ve long been a proponent for gamification in learning.  Games seem to provide users with the autonomy, mastery, and purpose required to be intrinsically motivated to carry out a task.  Games can be highly engaging for players.  This is no surprise considering engagement is at the intersection of motivation and active learning.


Another way to look at motivation is the expectancy-value model.  Expectancy is the belief that you can accomplish the challenge at hand, whereas value relates to whether or not you believe the challenge is worth it.  Duolingo seems to be addressing this equation.  Going through the first few lessons, I did believe that I could get a long string of questions correct (expectancy) and I was getting rewarded with experience points and lingots (value).  Gamification has been very successful in learning because of this equation.

This principle in gamification and computer-assisted learning is also summarized by Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory.  He proposes that “flow” is a deep intrinsic motivation where action and awareness merge.  In learning, this is a big part of focusing students on the value of what you want them to learn.  It’s achieved when the challenge of the task at hand matches the current skill level of the students – a very delicate balance indeed.  Well, as it turns out, this is exactly what game design excels at and Duolingo is no exception.


As you build your skills, the challenges presented are increasingly difficult which keeps you engaged.  If the challenge doesn’t match your skill, you become either anxious or bored.  Have you ever wondered why you or your friends or your children are able to play games for hours and hours on end?  The answers are flow theory and engagement through motivation and active learning. This amazing TedTalk helps illustrate these theories:

By the end of the week, I hadn’t really learned any Irish that helped me through my travels.  Granted, there is still a long list of lessons that I haven’t challenged yet and perhaps going through those will help me turn a corner.  But I did start to discover additional options in Duolingo to add and challenge friends and even public leaderboards to benchmark your progress.  More features that help with motivation and flow.

So to sum it up, there is little doubt that Duolingo masterfully uses the principles of game design to teach language and that the app can be highly engaging through its use of active learning and motivation.  But I still have questions about how effective this learning can be – if I could actually become fluent in Irish or any other language by simply using the app.  It seems to me that practice speaking and writing and perhaps even being immersed for an extended period of time are necessary factors in learning and understanding a language.



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