• Millie Liao

A Needlessly Thorough Review of Duolingo

It’s been more almost a year now that I’ve been a Duolingo plus user, or in other words, I pay for a little green bird to send me threatening and emotionally manipulative reminders to learn my languages.


I do it all for you, fiery streak owl!

OK, all jokes aside, Duolingo Plus is a lot more than just the little notifications that the Duolingo owl sent me. It also means no ads, and infinite hearts during lessons, or in other words, you can keep going in a lesson no matter how many times you mess up. That part of Duolingo (the normal version) always confused me: if Duolingo wanted people to spend more time on their app, why was it that they would put a penalty for how many mistakes someone made in the lesson, and therefore force the person to wait for their hearts to reload, and probably leave the app while waiting? While that doesn’t make sense to me as a marketing strategy, I’m sure there’s a reason, however, for Duolingo Plus we have the fortune of not having to worry about hearts when doing lessons.


I will say that the reason why I purchased Duolingo Plus was actually because I lost my streak when I was nearing the one year mark, due to a particularly terrible and tumultuous day, where I just totally forgot to do Duolingo. Don’t get me wrong, even on the worst of days I’ll make time for Duolingo, but that day just stands out as one of the worst days in Millie history. Therefore, in order to preserve my streak, I needed to pay for Duolingo Plus to get the monthly streak repair. I imagined I would just use my free trial and then cancel the plan afterwards, but I ended up really liking some of the aspects of Duolingo Plus.


Specifically, I loved the fact that we had unlimited hearts. It always annoyed me before that when I made too many mistakes, I couldn’t finish the lesson that I was on. If I was particularly frustrated, I would just leave the app, and not come back for the rest of the day. But with the infinite hearts, I’m able to manage my anger, and even if I do get a lot of mistakes wrong, I can always correct them, which is so nice. I would really encourage Duolingo, if they ever do read this, to get rid of their hearts limitations on even the normal Duolingo app, Because it really stressed me out when I had to worry about getting 100% accuracy in order to not lose a heart and have to get stopped in the middle of my lesson. Language is something that needs to be built upon, and certain vocabulary or concepts just have to be learned as a set altogether. If you are just starting out and continue to make mistakes while learning a new language, which is entirely normal, but then get stopped by the limitations of the hearts on Duolingo, you might be discouraged to give up altogether. I would argue that this could greatly hinder someone’s ability to make significant and steady progress in understanding a language beyond just the surface level.


Another thing that I thought made Duolingo Plus really stand out to me was the customized mistake help that they offer. Basically, based off of the mistakes that you made in lessons, Duolingo Plus has a function where they’ll create a customized lesson for you based off of those mistakes so that you can review it and get better. This is super important to me, because, after all, learning a language fully comes in part from specifically practicing the parts that you’re not so familiar with or good at. For me, that’s definitely conjugation in Spanish, which is why my the content that my mistake lessons customize for me is basically all conjugation. I really appreciate this function, because it allows me to isolate what I’m not doing so well, and focus specifically on getting better at that concept. I wish that these types of functions would also be allowed for normal Duolingo, and it’s a little bit ridiculous that customized mistake help isn’t offered for free. But either way, if that’s something that would really help you to on your language learning journey, I would suggest that maybe you could try out Duolingo Plus and see if you like it!


Finally, I wanted to share a hot take of mine about the Duolingo leaderboard. As a senior veteran in Duolingo leaderboards, as I’ve (not to brag but) been competing for almost 700 days now, and have stayed in the Diamond League (for those of you who don’t know, this is the highest league) for 53 weeks in a row (ok, I'm definitely bragging a little bit), I think that the leaderboard has both good and bad sides to it. First of all, it’s obviously a motivator that helps everyone including me to stay on it, and continue practicing daily so that you won’t lose your ranking. I think it’s also just fun to compete against other people and see if you can do the most lessons to get the highest XP and win a spot on the leaderboard.


However, I think it’s a double edged sword, as there are many functions on Duolingo making it possible to earn combination XP or extra XP, that aren't actually helping you to learn the language. For example, there’s a timed challenge that Duolingo offers, which I've found myself frequently doing, and it's just reviewing the same basic beginner level exercises in vocabulary. I feel like I’m not making any progress in many of the languages that I’m studying on Duolingo because of this feature, but it also allows me to quickly rise up on the leaderboard and appease my competitive spirit. As you probably know, language learning is not at all about efficiency, or finding the quickest possible route. It’s definitely one of those journeys where you have to take the longer, harder route in order to learn it well. Therefore, tools like these make me feel like I’m not actually learning what I should be learning, and I’m just taking the easy way out. But unfortunately, when things like this are offered, it’s really hard for me to resist not doing them, and instead actually do a full, long, difficult lesson, when the easier, faster alternative is just very much available and right there.


Duolingo also has a blog, where people can post opinions or thoughts and reviews on certain Duolingo tools. I posted something along the lines of "we should revise the leaderboard so that it’s less focused on XP and more focused on actual retention of the language," and believe it or not, I actually faced a lot of backlash. People were bashing me, telling me to quit Duolingo, and basically canceling me. I didn’t really know that was possible on a language learning app, but I guess it is possible anywhere nowadays. Either way, the responses did enlighten me as to how many Duolingo users really enjoy the competitive aspect of the leagues and the leaderboards, and getting to move up through the rankings depending on how many XP you do each week. I definitely don’t disagree, I think it’s a great way to keep people engaged with learning a language, I just wish that there was some other alternative that would help people who are struggling to actually challenge themselves when they reach that sort of middle point or obstacle in the road with language learning, where we're not fully fluent yet, but also we've gotten past the easy beginner stuff.


Either way, I know that Duolingo does get a lot of backlash online from people who don’t think it’s a very good platform to learn languages on. However, I admire that it’s one of the very few free AND extremely comprehensible and inclusive language learning tools, and I think it’s definitely helped me to at least master communication capabilities in new languages. What I will say, is that I think Duolingo is a great platform for people who aren’t necessarily beginners in a language, i.e. they have some background and experience, or maybe spoke it when they were really little, or hear in the house often.


For example, although I would consider myself fluent in Mandarin Chinese, I have used Duolingo to continue honing my skills and getting a better understanding of the language as it is used in daily life in China. It’s definitely one of those versatile languages with so many different characters, words, descriptors, and in general just vocabulary that you could never truly finish learning it. I really appreciate Duolingo in this aspect, as it sort of approaches language learning from the perspective of someone who is trying to travel to that country and needs the basic words in order to communicate with the people of that place. Therefore, it teaches you the everyday language usage, and how you’re going to hear it in real life. But if you do want to get a more comprehensible and deeper understanding of the language itself, or perhaps you want to delve into its usage in literature or the history behind it, I would definitely say that Duolingo isn’t the platform for that.


All in all, Duolingo has its pros and cons, as does Duolingo Plus. It’s really up to what you as a language learner want to get out of your experience learning this language, that will determine whether Duolingo is a good fit for you. And if you’re not willing to make it 100% dedication to paying a ton of money for Duolingo just yet, don’t fret! You can always try the free version first for a couple of months, and just see how you like it before you make the decision.


If any of you are Duolingo users, or have any opinions on language learning tools or platforms, feel free to shoot me a message, or leave a comment down below about how you feel! And as always, I write this


With love,


Millie