Welcome to my series on homeschool language learning apps!
Duolingo and Mango Languages are two of the most popular language learning apps in the homeschooling community—and for good reason. They're both free, convenient, and make impressive claims about how well they teach foreign languages. But are they really all that they're cracked up to be?
Today, I'm here to offer my honest assessment of Duolingo for homeschool foreign language learning. I'm writing as both a homeschooling mom and a foreign language educator with advanced training in language pedagogy (and a PhD in Spanish). After spending a good amount of time with the app, I'm ready to share my full opinion: what I like and what I don't like about Duolingo, along with my recommendations for how homeschooling families can use this app to learn foreign languages.
By the way, if you've been reading Language Learning At Home from the beginning, you'll realize that this post is a compilation of three earlier posts about Duolingo. Since I am frequently asked questions about this popular app, I decided to merge those posts to create what I hope will be a more convenient resource for homeschooling families interested in Duolingo. You might want to consider getting a piece of dark chocolate or another cup of coffee to carry you through this, however—it's a bit of a (worthwhile) read. If you're in a rush, you can find the highlights here.
(By the way, I’m not associated with or compensated in any way by Duolingo. This review is simply a resource that I wanted to provide to the Language Learning At Home community, since I know that so many of you are interested in using this app.)
Anyways, to get started on today’s review, I’d like to first introduce you to the app, in case you'd like to know a little bit more:
Duolingo was developed by a professor at Carnegie Mellon University as a gamified foreign language program, and it was released to the public in 2012. Just one year later, Apple named it its iPhone “App of the Year” and since then, it’s grown to over 30 million users worldwide—including many homeschooling families. It is currently available for free, although you can choose to purchase a paid upgrade that eliminates ads and provides offline access to the app.
But is Duolingo a sound educational tool for homeschoolers? That’s the question that I'm most interested in. It's important to me that the resources that I recommend are not only practical and affordable, but also pedagogically sound—I don't want to tell homeschooling parents to use tools that ultimately won't work! So, here's what I did to evaluate Duolingo as a mom and language teacher:
I signed up for Duolingo myself in TWO languages—one that I speak, and one that I don’t. First, I tested the app in Portuguese—which I speak fluently—so that I could move quickly through it and get a sense of how the lessons progress. This also gave me a sense of what Duolingo is like for advanced language learners. I wanted to test whether or not it would be engaging enough to hold the attention of proficient students, so this was important to me. In addition, I also spent time on the app learning Korean (super fun!), so that I could understand what it would be like to use Duolingo as a total beginner and as a language learner working with a (totally unfamiliar) non-Latin alphabet. Since so many homeschooling families are learning Chinese, Japanese, and Hebrew, this was something I considered essential.
Having spent a few weeks working regularly with the app, I'm now ready to share what I like—and what I don't—about Duolingo for homeschool language learners. And I have some suggestions on how you can make the most of this free language learning app in your home.
What I LOVE about Duolingo, as a language educator:
- Many world languages are available through the app. As I am writing this, there are currently 21 languages available to learn through Duolinguo, including: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, Irish, Swedish, Russian, Polish, Romanian, Greek, Esperanto, Turkish, Vietnamese, Hebrew, Norwegian, Ukrainian, Hungarian, and Welsh. Whew—just typing that out was exhausting! But here’s the thing: there truly is a language for every child included in this app. And good news for homeschoolers—Mandarin Chinese is now available, due to popular demand. I know that a lot of the families in our Language Learning At Home Facebook community are eager to learn Chinese, so if that’s you, be sure to check out this new addition to the Duolingo line-up.
- Duolingo smartly gamifies language learning. The latest education research demonstrates that gamified learning is incredibly effective. By gamifying education , we can: increase student motivation, expand student curiosity and provide real-world practice in the chosen subject. If you have kids who love video games, you really don’t need any research to tell you this—you likely already know how games capture their attention and teach through real experience! If you’d like to learn more about Duolingo’s gamificiation of language learning, you can read about it in-depth here, but suffice it to say that this is a sound educational strategy that makes Duolingo a great option for gameschoolers or anyone else who sees value in this kind of learning.
- The app’s structure allows students to progress at their own pace. While deliberate practice is essential for any language learner, some students will need more review time than others. Duolingo facilitates this by allowing your child to repeat individual lessons or entire units of study as needed. I had to do this to review the Korean alphabet and it was easy to repeat those elements that I needed to practice just once or twice more. Furthermore, Duolingo also allows students to “test out” of each level if they can demonstrate proficiency, which is great for those kids who really want to progress quickly.
- The app integrates well with other language curricula (mostly). Because it is structured thematically—and that structure is very obvious within the app—Duolingo can be used alongside whatever language classes and/or curricula you may already be using in your homeschool. If your child is memorizing the parts of the body in Vietnamese, for example, he/she can easily access that content on Duolingo and use it for review—provided that he/she has reached the level within Duolingo that includes such content.
- Students gain listening comprehension by hearing clear examples delivered by native speakers. The native speakers who narrate different portions of the app have neutral accents that are easy to understand, and being able to listen to their delivery multiple times (if desired) allows students to mimic the accent more easily. This is great for families where children are learning languages that are not spoken by the parents.
- Duolingo provides immediate feedback on mistakes, as well as corrections. This is essential to ensuring that errors don’t become permanent patterns for your language learner.
- Advanced students can practice speaking (and/or writing) skills with Duolingo’s conversation bots. This element of the app was a real novelty—I’ve never had a conversation in Portuguese with a robot before! Yet that’s exactly what I did on Duolingo, when I participated in a role-playing scenario as a customer ordering a meal in a Brazilian restaurant. I have to admit, I was very pleasantly surprised by how engaging this activity was, as well as how effective it was from a teaching point of view. While I am still a huge proponent of face-to-face interactions for language learning—since there are so many physical and cultural elements to speaking a foreign language—I have to admit that Duolingo has developed a great tool here, and I hope that they expand the options for conversation available within the app.
- Duolingo offers supplemental materials to aid students with language practice and cultural learning. The app has recently launched a complementary flashcard program called Tinycards, where students can create their own flashcards or use sets created by other Duolingo users to review geography, vocabulary, and cultural facts. Tinycards is not exclusively for language learning—there are also flashcard reviews of the periodic table, for example—but it’s a nice complement to Duolingo itself.
- Duolingo accounts for glitches within its own software. Sometimes, the transcription part of the app wouldn’t pick up my spoken response correctly, but Duolingo provided a way for me to edit my response in writing so that I wouldn’t be penalized for a wrong answer. I really appreciated this, as it saved a lot of frustration and helped me to maintain my momentum through each activity.
- Students can study more than one language on Duolingo (as my experience shows). This is a fun perk for those families who just can’t get enough of language learning—which, as I suspect, includes many of you!
What I love about Duolingo, as a mom:
- It’s free AND high quality. Win win. As we all know, homeschooling is not cheap, and when you’re spending money on other curricula, it’s nice to be able to save on language learning materials. (If you’re struggling with homeschooling on a budget, here’s some specific encouragement for you). I’m happy to say, however, that with Duolingo, what you get is not what you pay for. The app is excellent for a free resource.
- It has an extremely intuitive design that you and your children will pick up immediately. The app is just plain cute, aside from being easy to navigate. Since it’s gamified, the progression of curriculum is already decided for you. There’s no wondering what to study next, since Duolingo funnels learners directly into the next unit based on their skills. That’s a relief for homeschooling families!
- Duolingo provides students with regular, encouraging reminders to practice their language skills. For families with older children, this means that you don’t have to remind your kids to practice daily—Duolingo will send an e-mail directly to their personal e-mail account.
- The app can be used by families with limited Internet access. If Internet access is hard to come by—as is a concern for some rural homeschoolers—you can pay a nominal fee to download Duolingo lessons directly onto your device. This is also a great idea for families who want to use Duolingo when worldschooling, roadschooling, or just during the drive to swim practice. You can avoid using up your data on Duolingo by choosing this option.
So that, in short, is a summary of all the positives that I found with Duolingo. I really was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the app—especially since I never used any language learning apps when I was a student myself!
Of course, no app (or curricula) is perfect, so there are a few things that I considered less than ideal in Duolingo. Here they are:
What I didn’t like about Duolingo, as a language educator:
- The lack of writing practice. By this, I mean the physical tracing of characters. This was a serious issue for me while I was trying to learn 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. This is 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 this—it'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). There were a few activities in my Korean alphabet review that caught me off-guard, as the app jumped from teaching individual letters to asking me to translate a word (a skill I was totally unprepared for). 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. Not good.
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—mainly, 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. If you remind your child to review his final answers before submitting these kinds of activities, you will spare him undue frustration.
What I didn't like, as a mom:
It is extremely difficult to work Duolingo’s “family sharing” feature. Unless every child in your family has his/her own device, you will have to either assign a different language to everyone (not practical) or sign your children in and out of the app as they use it, since each account needs its own e-mail address (annoying). 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 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 or teen’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 with other language learners. If you need some ideas to start the discussion with your children on social media etiquette and rules, I highly recommend Leah Nieman’s resources—she’s a homeschooling veteran who now works to help families manage technology wisely.
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.
How to Use Duolingo for Homeschool Language Learning:
If you've decided that Duolingo will be a good fit for your family, here's how you can make the most out of this app for homeschool language learning:
- Since Duolingo is structured by short, daily practice sessions, think about where those might fit into your typical schedule. Of course, you can make this part of your morning basket, or before lunch routine, but given its portability, Duolingo can also be used effectively during your childs downtime. Got a twenty minute drive to sports practice? Duolingo time! Does your teen need to decompress with some screen time at the end of the day? Duolingo time—it’s so fun, I promise that it won’t feel like studying.
Consider which additional resources you might be able to provide to your language learner. Duolingo is great, but to really learn a language, your child needs more than what an app can offer. Audiobooks are an excellent way to boost your child’s listening comprehension, but there are other ways to do this as well. Could you pool resources with other homeschooling parents to organize a small conversation class? Could your child volunteer at a community center where he/she might have an opportunity to practice the language? If you have extra money for a language curriculum, I highly recommend doing that alongside your Duolingo practice.
Up the ante. If you have a number of children learning languages (or even better, the same language), enhance the Duolingo experience by making it into a competition. While I don’t recommend speeding through each activity—your child’s brain needs some time to process and retain new language skills—you could create some friendly rivalry by encouraging your children to see who can keep up the longest Duolingo streak. Whoever wins gets a Twinkie (or whatever your reward of choice might be).
- Use cultural education to give your child’s Duolingo use a real-world meaning. Language learning without culture is like studying math without ever using money—there has to be a real-world connection, or the subject will quickly lose its appeal. If your child wants to travel abroad in college, use Duolingo as a way to prepare and stoke that passion for travel and cultures. If he/she has a favorite author who writes in another language, use Duolingo to help your child be able to read that author in the original. Above all, contextualize what your child is doing on the app within a larger goal—this will give your child a real motivation, which actually helps students to learn languages better.
And that’s it, folks! I hope that this review has given you the confidence and tools that you need to use Duolingo in your homeschool. And in case you've decided from this that it's not a good fit, I encourage you to come back next week, since I'll be providing another in-deth review of Mango Languages for homeschool language learning.
If you’re already using Duolingo in your homeschool, I’d love to hear about your experience—please share how it’s worked for you in the comments!