Pros / It’s free.
Cons / This service doesn’t offer live tutoring.
Verdict / Duolingo is a fun way to learn Spanish, and if you don’t like it, the only lost investment is time.
Duolingo is free Spanish learning software with teaching tools and lesson plans that rival those in the best for-pay programs we reviewed. The trade-off is that advertisements display next to the lessons.
Duolingo also offers a for-pay service called Duolingo Plus that doesn’t have ads and allows you to download lessons to a mobile device. That way, you can learn without connecting to Wi-Fi or using cellular data. This is a handy feature on long flights to Spanish-speaking countries and when you want to brush up on your conversation skills. The subscription costs less than $10 per month and contributes to Duolingo’s mission of providing free language lessons.
The online application looks almost identical to the mobile app and includes reading, writing, speaking and listening lessons. You can sign up with your email address or use your Facebook or Google account to authenticate your login. The mobile and online applications sync together to track your progress through the lesson plan – you can start a lesson at home on your computer and finish on your phone during the train ride to work. Duolingo breaks its learning path into small, manageable chunks, so the lessons don’t take long to complete.
Before you start, you identify your learning goals. For instance, you set how many minutes per day you plan to dedicate to learning Spanish. Duolingo thinks spending 20 minutes or more per day is “insane,” which provides further insight into the service’s approach to teaching. For comparison, some programs we tested, like Fluenz and Rosetta Stone, have single exercises that last more than 30 minutes. Once you reach or exceed your goals, you’re rewarded with lingots, a virtual currency you exchange for additional learning content and features.
In Duolingo, you follow a prescribed, linear learning path. You can jump off that path a bit within each lesson unit to do the exercises you want to complete, but you can’t move on to harder levels without completing beginner courses. However, you can test out of skills you’ve previously learned. Also, when you finish the course, you can go back and review all the material.
Once you complete or test out of the beginner lessons, we suggest checking out the Duolingo stories. These short stories test your reading comprehension, but they are best for intermediate and advanced students. The stories cover a variety of topics, and you answer questions and build sentences about each tale after you read it. If you struggle with a word in a story, you can hover over it to see a translation. However, our testers found they learned better when they immersed themselves in Spanish versus when they relied on hints in their native language.
You can discuss lesson topics and share your experiences with other students on Duolingo’s discussion board. Most of the programs we tested have a discussion board of some sort, but Duolingo’s is the most frequented. You can talk about current events on the board, as well as get quick answers to questions about cultural and conversational topics from native speakers. You see each user’s language level and daily streak next to their username when they comment on a thread. Duolingo doesn’t offer live tutoring, but the discussion board is a good resource if you want to talk to another student about a concept you struggle with.
Duolingo is the best free Spanish learning software available. It has most of the tools and content found in the best for-pay software we tested, and its friendly, daily reminders provide a little extra motivation. Because Duolingo is free it’s a good way to supplement face-to-face instruction or other Spanish learning software.