Duolingo and me

Duolingo has always been an interesting one among education startups. It didn’t embroil itself in any debate about pedagogy; it didn’t say it was going to revolutionize education. All it was was a website, and later an iPhone app, and after that a cross-platform app that promised to help you a learn a language for free.

The original model was to let language learners translate documents and texts that could not be machine-translated (after first learning with structured practice exercises), providing for hopefully better and more coherent translation. I’ve always questioned the effectiveness and long-term value of this, and it appears that it’s not working great because it’s been pulled from the normal learning sequence; it’s now a separate page on the site as opposed to a built-in part of the learning structure. From first-hand evaluation, I would also say the quality of translation isn’t too impressive. At the same time, it has promised “no ads” and “completely free now and forever,” which I say is bold and a lot to promise. I want to say I admire the idea though; this was after all the same founder who made reCAPTCHA and sold it to Google.

That’s not a point I want to emphasize, however, because Duolingo has consistently been one of the most high-quality experiences I use in my daily life. As an iOS app, it’s one of the smoothest I’ve seen and the experience just FEELS premium (don’t even talk to me about that app icon). In terms of the learning, I have other options to learn Spanish, but Duolingo was simply the friendliest, simplest route (perhaps also a testament to user retention done right).

I was also pleasantly surprised with Duolingo’s way of teaching. I took 4 years of German in high school. In real life foreign language classes you get tables of vocabs that you need to look up and memorize. You have quizzes on them. You learn grammar rules. You get mnemonics to try to remember conjugations. In Duolingo, there’s none of that. You simply see words and when you don’t already know them you can hover or tap (on mobile) to see a definition and hear the pronunciation. Even when you’re learning a word for the first time, it’s simply presented in context. When you think about it, it’s one detail that digital does massively better. In my classroom, we relied on good, old paper dictionaries to look up any word we didn’t know. Compare that to having a definition and pronunciation for any word and phrase on-demand at a second’s notice. It is incomparable. (I am also a huge fan of this official Chrome extension and install it everywhere I set up a new instance of Chrome.)

That, of course, is only one detail where Duolingo differs from in-classroom foreign language. However, it more or less sums up how Duolingo works. No overhead, just progression.

Simply turn on Duolingo everyday, and do the next short lesson (about 5 minutes tops) or two or three or four or you can practice something you’ve already learned. You leave your learning to Duolingo and trust that it will get you somewhere as long as you engage with it every day or with some regularity. It tracks every, single, word you’ve ever learned, every single time you encounter a word, every time you use it correctly or incorrectly, how long it’s been since you last saw it. You don’t see all of that data, and it’s not quite adaptive learning, but you can tell there’s some careful tracking going on behind the scenes. It, not you, tells you how well you know a word and when you need to brush up on something. It’s refreshing to a data hog like myself, but also fascinating.

Duolingo is about learning through use, learning by repetition, learning by habit. I was highly skeptical at first that this was the right way to learn a language. After all, I had slaved through 4 years of high school German and still don’t feel too confident in my Deutsch sprechende abilities. However, Duolingo worked for me, and to a much better extent than I would’ve expected.

Among my other self-improvements after dropping out of college in January of this year, I decided to finally tackle my goal of learning Spanish and to really make it into a habit. Basing it on the Duolingo model and how much time I can realistically take in my daily life, I’ve established and maintained a habit of doing language learning for 10-20 minutes every day. I’ve been tracking my language learning and other habits independently (with Lift, if you’re curious) and as of today, I have actively been learning Spanish for 155 days. It’s not actually every day, of course (that would be 263 days), but it is still one of my most successful habits taking into account missing habits when I’m traveling. I have been complementing Duolingo with immersion (reading labels and signs everywhere, I mean that’s one of the joys of learning Spanish in America, isn’t it?) and Spanish podcasts that give me a conversational and cultural dimension.

Duolingo today told me that I can now understand 30% of a news article (based on its tracking), and from my own experience that is true. At this point I can say that I can read most Spanish articles and have decent comprehension.

I also finally “get” Taco Bell’s slogan!

This week, Duolingo introduced a few new interesting concepts: a virtual currency, a virtual store, and certification.

The virtual currency, called Lingots, is perhaps surprisingly not an attempt at monetization. It is an addition to the gamification already present in Duolingo, like coins or rings you’d collect in Sonic or Donkey Kong. The store, perhaps also surprisingly, does not have a way for you to spend real money; it’s a place for you to spend Lingots on power-ups such as extra lives. The final significant addition, the certificate, is hidden at the bottom of the store. It has a big red Beta stamp, and unlike certificates some MOOC providers are trying as monetization, costs only 25 Lingots (I already have 33, for context). It is given with a 20-minute test, and a sample can be seen here.

Duolingo is also announcing that in the 15 months it has been open it has amassed 10 million students, which is impressive when you note that much-hyped Coursera is showing 4.83 million users on its homepage user count as of today. For some past landmarks: Duolingo boasted 300,000 active users in November 2012 before it first launched its iPhone app; had 1 million active users when TechCrunch reported on it mid-January; 3 million users at the end of May, when it launched its Android app and said it expected to double its user base to over 6 million; passed 5 million “active users” in early July when it updated its iOS app to be iPad-optimized, and is now celebrating 10 million users in late September.

Everything leads to everything else.