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Duolingo review

Duolingo is by far and away the biggest free language teaching tool in the world, how does it work, and is it effective?

Duolingo review
(Image: © Duolingo)

Our Verdict

Duolingo is a fun way to learn languages, and it's free. It breaks learning down into manageable chunks, which makes the process less daunting. The learning process isn't as effective as some apps, but the price is very compelling.

For

  • It's free
  • Game-style learning
  • App and laptop options

Against

  • No live tutoring
  • You need to view ads

Duolingo is free and easy to use. For some, that's enough, and we'd definitely recommend Duolingo for anyone curious about learning a language, but don't want to fully commit. Its teaching tools and lesson plans rival those in the best for-pay programs we reviewed. The trade-off is that advertisements display next to the lessons. You can learn via an app or on desktop, and the Duolingo owl is a fun mascot which motivates your learning. Duolingo boasts 31 languages - one of the biggest lists in all the software we've considered - and it sits near the top of our guides to the best learn Spanish software and the best learn French software.

Duolingo review: Method

After registering you’ll take a placement test to evaluate your knowledge of the language you’re studying and you’ll be guided to the first lesson, Basics, the first category of the Duolingo ‘tree’. Think of the ‘tree’ as Duolingo’s signature course structure, you start at the top and work your way down through all 25 levels. 

All the lessons work in much the same way: take Basics, as an example, you’ll be asked a question with multiple-choice answers underneath, or provided with spoken words or phrases (this isn’t always too easy to understand, but there is an option to slow it down) with a choice of words or phrases from which to choose from. Once you’ve chosen your answer, you’ll be instantly informed if it’s correct or not and you’ll move onto the next question, but you’ll return to the questions that incurred mistakes until corrected. Subsequent lessons will pick up where you left off. 

(Image credit: Duolingo)

Each lesson has a ‘tips’ button which gives an overview of what’s to come, this is handy because it helps to answer the questions correctly, great for confidence and getting you moving along. The idea is that you’re taught approximately eight new words per lesson (points are rewarded for each successfully completed lesson) and, after four lessons, you’ll be given a test before you can progress to the next stage. There is a competitive element to Duolingo too, points will be rewarded with badges and stickers that you’re free to use as an incentive to carry on learning as you move up the leader board… But these can just as easily be ignored.  

Aspects of the course can be fortified with ‘Duolingo Stories’, unlocked at specific checkpoints, and there is a podcast on hand, a free dictionary and a list of learned words and their free Tinycards App, which works in much the same way as flashcards but boasts higher word retention.

Duolingo keeps things quick. 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 virtual currency you exchange for additional learning content and features.

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.

(Image credit: Duolingo)

Duolingo Spanish review: App

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.

The website interface is much better than the App, it’s also slightly harder too so you’re maximizing your potential to learn more, and (so long as you don’t mind being constantly harassed by Duolingo to upgrade) the free version is enough for a good overview of Spanish and French. 

Duolingo Spanish review: Price

Although it's free, 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.

Should you try Duolingo? 

As far as free Spanish and French learning languages resources go, this is the best you can get (for free) but that doesn’t mean to say that it’s fully comprehensive, even enough to make the user a fluent Spanish or French speaker. However, you might want to look at learning Spanish or French with Duolingo in conjunction with studying it on Memrise; both programmes operate in different ways and each focus on different aspects of the language: as a basic rule of thumb, Memrise is better for learning and remembering individual words or phrases, whereas Duolingo is better for constructing conversational sentences. Either way, Duolingo is a good place to start learning Spanish and French and, if you’re not interested in learning offline (and you can get on with the adverts) it’s all yours for free.