Duolingo Review: Will it teach me a language in 600 days?

Duolingo has millions of users worldwide, beautiful graphics, and a powerful motivation system, but is that enough to learn a foreign language? It’s no secret that at Language Mentoring we recommend using Duolingo more as a reward after diligent learning rather than as the primary learning method. However, I personally love mobile apps, so in February 2022, I decided to test it out. With a heavy heart, I set a strict rule: I would ignore all of Lydia’s advice – no conversations, books, or workbooks, not even my beloved podcasts! My sole guide in learning the language would be Duolingo. So, how far did I get with this approach in almost two years?

Green Duolingo owl waving a Norwegian flag.

I chose Norwegian for this experiment; Scandinavia has intrigued me as a travel destination for some time now, and Norwegian looked more appealing than Swedish with all its ä’s, ö’s, and ü’s. 🙂 I downloaded Duolingo on my phone, set it to learn Norwegian through English, and dove right in.

In this Duolingo review, you’ll find out:

First impression: learning Norwegian might be a bit easier than I thought

I got a pleasant surprise right away: Norwegian is very similar to English and German, both languages I already knew at this point! (You guessed it – I hadn’t researched anything about Norwegian before starting; I just jumped right in. 🙂 ) I understood about 10-15% right away, so I suspected Norwegian would be a bit easier for me than something like Italian, for example. Well, it turned out that while I had a slight head start in some aspects, German also held me back in others. How? You’ll find out later in the article. 🙂

Every day, I spent some time with Duolingo – occasionally as much as one hour, but sometimes just a quick 5 minutes. On average, I’d say I learned for about 10-15 minutes a day.

A trip to Norway after a year and a half – lost in Oslo?

In the summer of 2023, I went to Oslo for four days to visit some friends. You can imagine how thrilled I was to be able to read the signs at the airport! I also understood the announcement on the train telling me to use the door on the left. 🙂 In the museums I visited, I could understand to a degree the texts by the exhibits, but reading them was so tiring and time-consuming that I had to make do with their English translations instead.

As for speaking, aside from “Hei” (Hello) and “Tusen takk” (Thank you very much), I didn’t manage to say anything. When a cashier in a store offered me a bag, by the time my brain had decoded the sentence, my friend had already answered for me, “Nei, takk.” (No, thank you). So, my speaking skills in Norwegian were non-existent, and I had to rely on English.

First conversation after 600 days – a rough experience and a confused tutor

600 days with Duolingo

In January 2024, Duolingo let me know that I had reached a 600-day streak. It was time to assess how far I had made it in those nearly two years. I arranged an online conversation lesson with a tutor called Irena, a polyglot who has lived in Norway for many years and teaches Norwegian.

Since I wanted to test my level of Norwegian, we agreed to start with some casual conversation and then Irena would give me a text to read, followed by a discussion about it. The text was meant to be a bit more difficult, so that my understanding of it would require more than just my background knowledge of English and German and I would actually need to rely on my Duolingo-acquired Norwegian skills.

If you’ve ever had your first conversation in a foreign language, you definitely know the feeling of nervousness combined with excitement about trying something new, something completely outside your comfort zone. I took a deep breath and joined the Zoom call, where Irena was already waiting for me.

After some small-talk in English, she switched to Norwegian. I was shocked! Is this what Norwegian sounds like? Those two voices on Duolingo certainly hadn’t prepared me for this. 😀 I needed her to repeat the question, but I was so stressed out I forgot how to ask that, so I ended up resorting to gestures.

As the conversation continued, I did gradually become used to Irena’s accent. I started to understand her quite well and was even able to respond fairly decently. Overall, the first part, where I talked about my name, where I’m from, my age, and my trip to Oslo, went well.

The article made me pour sweat

Next, it was time to read an article from a textbook. I read it and understood that it was about immigrants to Norway, posing the question of when an immigrant can consider themselves Norwegian. Is it when they receive Norwegian citizenship and a passport? Or when they can speak fluent Norwegian? Where does one draw the line? And when does it no longer matter which country the person originally comes from?

I didn’t understand everything by far, as it was quite a difficult B2-level text, but I was able to grasp the main ideas.

Irena asked me about the text and my opinion on the topic. I found formulating my thoughts in Norwegian extremely difficult. I felt myself slipping more and more into German – German words were swirling in my mind, and I was automatically putting my verbs at the end of sentences, even though Norwegian has a word order similar to English. Needless to say, by the end of the conversation, I was drenched in sweat. 😀

How did the tutor assess my level?

First of all, Irena praised me for doing very well throughout the lesson. She said I could understand a B2-level text and have a basic conversation, which was great. On the other hand, she noted I’d made some very basic A1-level mistakes, things that she would normally be explaining to absolute beginners.

Since I had never spoken Norwegian before, my pronunciation was not great. Additionally, since Irena also speaks German, she was able to point out all the instances where it influenced my Norwegian (and there were quite a few). So, overall, she was a bit confused about my level. 🙂

How would I assess my level?

When Irena praised me, saying she would estimate my level at B1, I was initially pleased. But then I realized that achieving B1 in 600 days isn’t a particularly remarkable result, especially considering the slight head start I’d had thanks to English and German. As a tourist, I could get by to some extent, but if I had dedicated those 10-15 minutes a day to proper learning materials – podcasts, grammar exercises, weekly conversation lessons – I would be fluent within a year, and today I would be able to discuss just about anything in Norwegian. I’d probably even understand several Norwegian dialects (which change gradually from village to village).

How much did my knowledge of German and English help me in learning Norwegian?

As I mentioned, German turned out to be an obstacle in speaking, but at the same time, I felt it helped me in passive understanding. To what extent, you might ask. Well, I decided to find out through another experiment. I gave the article from the lesson to my colleague Daška to read. She is also fluent in English and German but has never learned Norwegian. Would that be enough for her to understand the article?

The answer is – partially. Daška managed to grasp the general topics of the text – immigration, nationality, citizenship, “something about Pakistanis”. However, what she didn’t catch, were the relationships between these topics – when an immigrant (for example, a Pakistani) becomes Norwegian and what impact our nationality has on our acceptance in society.

I concluded that German helped Daška to some extent, as many content words (words with a concrete meaning) in Norwegian are similar to German: “Innvandrer” vs. “Einwanderer” (immigrant) or “Statsborgerskap” vs. “Staatsbürgerschaft” (citizenship). However, the key to understanding the ideas in a text lies in the function words (grammatical words), most of which are different in Norwegian and German. Without words like “when” (når vs. wenn) or negation (ikke vs. nicht), it’s difficult to comprehend the relationships between the words you understand, so the main idea is likely to escape you. Unlike Daška, I knew these little words from Duolingo, and they helped me a lot.

Cards on the table: What’s my honest opinion of Duolingo?

4 pillar of learning a language

Let me first evaluate Duolingo based on the four pillars of learning that we teach in Language Mentoring:

1. Is Duolingo fun? Absolutely! Personally, I enjoy playing with apps on my phone, and Duolingo has an incredibly sophisticated gamification system – you earn points for learning, compete with other users, and each week, you receive a shared task with one of your friends and both of you get a reward if you complete it. Duolingo has a million features designed to keep you engaged and encourage you to dedicate as much time to it as possible every day. This brings us to the next pillar…

2. Can you spend a lot of time with Duolingo? Definitely. On the other hand, the app claims that just 5 minutes a day is enough. It doesn’t encourage you to study for at least half an hour or an hour, which is the amount of time where you start to see results. With my 10-15 minutes a day, I ranked among the top 2% of the most active users in the first year, so it seems that 98% of users probably learned even less than I did. And that’s saying something.

Top 2% learners with Duolingo

3. Is Duolingo effective? Does the time spent with the app pay off? Unfortunately, I have to say no. Proficiency in a language is typically measured by your ability to speak it, and that’s not something Duolingo can teach you. If you’re okay with being somewhat able to struggle through texts in a foreign language after two years of effort, then so be it. But if you really want to know the language, there are plenty of more effective methods – even among language learning apps.

4. Is Duolingo systematic? Basically, yes. By keeping track of how many days you’ve been learning without a break, it encourages you to dedicate time to your language every day. After all, you don’t want to lose your hard-earned streak.

So, from the perspective of the Language Mentoring pillars, Duolingo seems quite good, right? A score of 2.5 out of 4 isn’t that bad. However, the pillars aren’t the only criteria used in evaluating a learning method.

Do you want to be able to speak a foreign language? Then avoid Duolingo.

When I looked at the recording of my conversation with Irena, I noticed something very interesting. Earlier, I mentioned that knowing function words like “når” (when) in Norwegian helped me understand ideas in the article. But during the conversation, the word “når” never came to my mind, and I repeatedly used the German “wenn”.

This means that my knowledge of Norwegian is only passive, not active – I cannot draw on it spontaneously. I couldn’t comfortably hold a fluent conversation with someone even after almost two years of learning. And that’s what you can expect from Duolingo – it can help you gain passive understanding of written texts, but it won’t teach you to actually speak the language.

Quantity over quality?

Earlier, I wrote that Duolingo’s gamification system is extremely strong and motivating. But it also pushes learners toward quantity over quality. I wanted to get as many points as possible, so I rushed through lessons quickly and mechanically, often without properly thinking about what I was doing.

This is a major drawback of the app: any form of learning should include what I call the “backside method” – sitting down and focusing. When we reflect on things, we learn them. This doesn’t mean rote memorization, but rather actually thinking and discovering links between things.

I found it challenging to engage in deep thinking with Duolingo. The gamification elements pushed me forward at a fast pace, which affected my ability to remember words and phrases. The main goal was to extend my “streak” before midnight and not lose it – after all, I was already on 200 days! I think it’s obvious what my learning looked like at 11:45 PM – rushed and done while half-asleep. 🙈

Is the Premium subscription worth it?

And now, let’s take a look at the business side of things. Duolingo is, above all, a very successful company that knows how to monetize its users effectively. It makes money by showing users an INCREDIBLE AMOUNT OF ADS. Of course, their effort to generate profit is understandable – they need to earn their daily bread somehow.

However, from a user’s perspective, if I studied for 15 minutes a day, about 2 to 3 of those minutes were spent watching ads. It may not seem like much, but over a few weeks, those minutes really add up and further reduce the effectiveness of your learning time. I eventually decided to buy a one-year Premium subscription when it was on sale for 37 euros, and I have to say it was a huge relief.

If you really want to learn with Duolingo and you don’t mind the questionable results even after a long period of learning, consider upgrading to Premium. It’s worth it for sparing yourself the frustration of having to watch constant ads, and it also unlocks several additional features.

What do I consider a better investment than Duolingo Premium?

While Duolingo Premium is nice, I believe that the $59.99 (current yearly price) could be spent more wisely. I asked our mentors, Daša and Michala, how they would spend that money on language learning, and they gave me a whole list of great options:

  • You can get 4 – 5 conversation lessons with a tutor on Italki.com. (Italki is amazing; we have written an entire article about it!)
  • A quality textbook costs around 30 dollars, so even after getting one, you can still fit a bilingual book into your budget.
  • 5 months of Netflix or Disney+ subscription, where you can watch series in a foreign language to improve your listening comprehension. Similarly, a YouTube subscription will enable you to watch videos without ads.
  • You could spend the money at a stationery store and stock up on Goldlist notebooks and pens for several years. 🙂
  • You can buy wireless headphones, so you can listen to podcasts in a foreign language anytime and anywhere.
  • If you want to practice English grammar but don’t feel like using a workbook, opt for the “English Grammar in Use” app, which contains exercises from the highly acclaimed textbook of the same name. It only costs $16.99 and is definitely worth it.

In the end, our mentors came up with quite a lot of alternatives, didn’t they? And that’s not even mentioning the numerous free options, apps, and materials available for language learning! Explore our blog; many of these resources are detailed in our articles, which are also available for free.

Different ways and methods to learn a language

Summary: pros and cons of Duolingo

Pros:

  • Duolingo is fun and has beautiful graphics.
  • The well-designed gamification system keeps you motivated.
  • It uses the Spaced Repetition System (SRS), a great tool for memorization (find out more about SRS in this article).
  • The Duolingo Premium version comes with useful features.
  • You gain passive language comprehension and basic communication skills.

Cons:

  • The abundance of ads will likely push you to purchase Premium.
  • The free version doesn’t allow you to review sentences in which you have previously made a mistake.
  • The individual sentences lack context or explanation of the grammar and vocabulary used.
  • Over time, you’ll get used to the accents of the voices you hear on Duolingo, and when you later listen to a podcast or have a conversation with a native speaker, you’ll be very surprised by not understanding a thing.
  • While Duolingo is a good secondary app that you can use as a reward after “diligent “proper” learning, the app won’t help you gain active language knowledge. Even after a long time spent learning, you’ll only be able to communicate at a level suitable for a vacation at most.

You can expect to gain some understanding of the language from it, but say goodbye to the idea of the app helping you become a fluent and confident speaker. The only way you can learn to speak is by speaking – through regular conversations with native speakers, a friend, or even yourself.

Speaking is the most important thing in language learning – nothing will propel you forward as quickly as actively using learned vocabulary and grammar. However, there are countless other ways to learn a language that will help you become fluent much more reliably than Duolingo.

HAND ON HEART, WHAT’S THE LEVEL OF YOUR FOREIGN LANGUAGE?

If you’ve spent a lot of years/energy/money to learn a language and still can’t use it with confidence and ease in real life… you’re probably thinking that you simply don’t have “talent for languages''. There’s no other explanation, right?!

Well, there actually is a reason why you haven’t seen the desired results. Do you want to know what it is? Register for my FREE WEBINAR and find out:

  • How to go from hating the process of learning to absolutely loving it!
  • How ANYONE can successfully learn a language at home.
  • Why “talent for languages” is NOT necessary to succeed.
  • What the biggest mistakes are that people make when trying to learn a language.

The author of this blog post is Katarína Kontrišová, member of the Language Mentoring team.

Language Mentoring provides a complete guide for learning any language using simple and often free resources on the internet and in bookshops. It was founded by polyglot, language mentor and author of this website, Lýdia Machová, PhD., in 2016. She's learned 9 languages by herself and she adds another one every other year. Her philosophy is that everybody can learn a language regardless talent, age or other qualities – if they know how to do it.