Homeschool Language Learning Apps: Duolingo (The Not-So-Good)

Welcome back to my series on language learning apps for homeschoolers!

Today, I’ll be returning to my discussion of Duolingo, focusing on its more problematic features. If you haven’t had a chance to read my previous post in this series—which details everything that I do like about Duolingo—you can find it right here

Just to review: in order to understand how Duolingo would work for homeschooling families, I’ve spent the last few weeks using the app myself. I signed up for Duolingo in TWO languages—one that I speak, and one that I don’t. First, I went through the app in Portuguese—which I speak fluently—so that I could get a sense of how the lessons progress. This also helped me understand the appeal of the app for students who already have some language proficiency. In addition, I also spent time on the app learning Korean, which gave me the perspective of what its like to use Duolingo as a total beginner and as a language learner working with a (totally unfamiliar) non-Latin alphabet. 

And again, it’s worth repeating: I’m not compensated by or associated with Duolingo in any way. This series is just a resource I’ve developed for the Language Learning At Home community. 

If you've read my earlier post, you saw that overall, my experience with Duolingo was very positive. However, there are a few things that I disliked about the app. I’ll review these briefly here, so that you can consider the downsides yourself before choosing to use Duolingo for foreign language learning in your homeschool. 

Here’s what I didn’t like about Duolingo, from a language educator’s point of view:

  • The lack of writing practice. By this, I mean the physical tracing of characters. This was a serious issue for me in learning Korean, as the characters of the Korean alphabet were totally unfamiliar to me. While the app provided plenty of activities that taught me to recognize the characters, if you asked me to write them out on paper, I wouldn’t be able to do so—and therefore, my writing skills in that language would be woefully underdeveloped. I also think that I would have been able to learn the letters more quickly had I had the opportunity to practice writing them out. This is less of an issue for languages that use the Latin alphabet (like Spanish, French, and Portuguese), but for homeschool students studying Russian, Chinese, or Japanese, this could be a real stumbling block. Considering that the technology exists to have students practice writing on touch screens, I would imagine that Duolingo could develop this capacity in the future, but for now, it's just not there. 
  • No background/overview of content to orient language learners. When you begin a language with Duolingo, the app immediately starts teaching individual letters of the target language's alphabet—without necessarily providing information on how that alphabet functions, overall. Since the Korean alphabet was totally unfamiliar to me, it would have been helpful to know, for example, that the alphabet has 24 letters and that each letter is formed by a combination of 1-3 basic shapes: straight lines, circles, or squares. If Duolingo had provided a quick summary of that information at the beginning of the Korean exercises, it would have helped me set my expectations of what I was learning and how I would use it in the future. That’s just a basic best practice in education: students should have a sense of the road ahead of them and how the information that they’re learning fits into a larger goal. (Classical and Charlotte Mason homeschoolers, I know that you hear me on thisit's all about that synthetic learning). Yet because of Duolingo’s lack in this area, I ended up having to leave my Korean studies to search for articles like this one, so that I could contextualize for myself what I was doing. And that’s all well and fine for a motivated adult learner like myself, but it would be problematic for a homeschool student—especially a young teenager. Not all children would want to expend the extra time and effort to find information like I did, and could therefore experience significant (unnecessary) frustration trying to figure out why the app is progressing in a certain way. 
  • No opportunities to self-correct (on certain activities). When language learners make mistakes (which are normal and even good!), it is important for them to correct those mistakes in order to set correct patterns of speech and writing. Yet many of Duolingo’s activities did not allow for self-correction—if I responded incorrectly, the app simply displayed the correct answer and then moved on to the next activity. 
  • Some activities are designed to be solved by guesswork (not application of learning). Check out my screenshot below. This activity came up in the middle of my Korean alphabet review. There was literally no build-up to it—the app jumped from teaching individual letters to asking me to translate a word. And again, as I mentioned above, Duolingo offered no explanation of how Korean letters combine to form words. So I was left just randomly picking word after word to see what fit—and that’s not learning, it’s guessing. I have no idea why these characters form this word. 
duolingo homeschool korean.png
  • There are still some software bugs that leave language learners in the lurch. In my Portuguese program, I came across one matching activity that had errors, and there were also some bugs related to the drag-and-drop writing activities—the swiping feature was too sensitive and would order my response incorrectly. While there’s nothing to be done about the former, the latter is just something to be aware of. Simply remind your child to review his/her final answers before submitting these kinds of activities if you want to spare them undue frustration.  

Furthermore, there were a number of features of Duolingo that gave me pause as a mom. These include the following: 

  • According to Duolingo’s own policies, account holders for the app must be 13+ years of age. If you have a younger child who wants to use the app, I suggest that you set up an account with your name and e-mail and then—this is important—use the app alongside your child in order to abide by the terms of use. This will also protect your child from potentially dangerous communication with other users (see point #3 below). 
  • There is no functional "family sharing" feature. There is no way to have one "umbrella" account for your family, like there is on Netflix. Your options are either: to create separate accounts for every child (and sign them in and out as they use the app) or assign a different language to each child. If the Duolingo message boards are any indication, many parents have complained about this to the company, but there has been no fix for it yet. 
  • The social features of the app require parental vigilance.  Duolingo offers language learners the opportunity to join clubs with other students (of any age) studying the same language—but there is absolutely no filtering or moderating of these groups. While I didn’t see any objectionable content on the groups that I joined, I would be wary of your child’s participation in such groups. If your child has access to the app with his/her own e-mail account, I would suggest reviewing basic safety rules for social media before use and doing random checks to ensure that they are not communicating inappropriately with other language learners. If you need some ideas to start the discussion with your children on social media etiquette and safety rules, I highly recommend Leah Nieman’s resources—she’s a homeschooling veteran who now educates families on how to be tech-savvy at home. 

In sum, each of these things is something to consider when deciding whether or not Duolingo is a good fit for your family. No app is perfect, and none of these would necessarily be deal breakers in and of themselves. But it is good to be aware of these potential issues, so that you can plan accordingly and protect your children. 

If your family is using Duolingo, have you faced any challenges with it? Were you able to resolve them? 

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