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Free language learning apps often promise the world — but don’t expect fluency from one. Here’s what to expect before you sign up.
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By Eric Ravenscraft
If mobile language-learning apps are to be believed, it’s never been easier to pick up another language. Just spend 20 minutes a day with a few virtual flashcards and you’ll be fluent in no time! The reality is a lot more nuanced — and arguably more disappointing — than that.
Apps like Duolingo, Memrise, and Babbel all promise to teach you how to read, write, or speak a new language, all from your phone. While they’re similar in concept, they differ a lot in the specifics:
Duolingo offers a skill tree of lessons that use listening exercises, flashcards, and multiple choice questions to drill you on new words, phrases, and sentences. Most questions have a comment thread where users can discuss a particular question in detail. The service also has community features that let you connect with other people who are learning the same language you are.
Memrise offers similar lessons to Duolingo, introducing new words and phrases with flashcards, listening exercises, and more. However, the app has a few unique features: on new words, you can write a note (called a “mem”) with anything that helps you remember the new word or phrase. These will appear later when you come across the word again. It also offers a feature called Learn With Locals, which pairs words with videos of native speakers saying the phrase out loud and demonstrating the phrase. For example, a speaker might shiver when describing cold weather. This helps connect words with their meaning. Memrise also offers more explanatory cards than Duolingo offers when introducing new or complex topics.
Babbel is different from the other two. While it uses similar multiple choice or listening exercises as the others, it uses conversational examples to demonstrate how to use new words or phrases when speaking with another person. It also offers a speech recognition feature that lets you speak words back during an exercise instead of writing them out or answering a multiple choice question. This helps you learn how to pronounce words properly, or at least properly enough for your phone to recognize what you’re saying.
Despite their differences, they have the same goal: use daily exercises on your phone to teach you an entire language. It’s an enticing promise, especially if you’re not already immersed in a culture or education system that will give you the exposure you need to pick up a second language. The question is, are they effective?
After I accumulated a Duolingo streak in excess of 500 days — a feat that, thanks to the app’s notoriously insistent reminders, has now come to define my self-worth — I found myself in a better place to judge just how much an app alone can really teach you. The short answer is that you can definitely learn some things from an app, but if you want to become fluent in a language — or even conversational — they won’t be enough.
Language apps are great for writing systems and basic phrases
The phrase “learning a language” is deceptively reductive. A language isn’t a singular monolith, but rather a complex interconnected system of components that build a way to communicate. The lexicon consists of the individual words, which speakers have to memorize. The syntax and grammar tell speakers how to properly structure those words in a sentence. Then there’s the writing system, which is the visual representation of words or sounds that allow words to be constructed (for example, in English, the writing system is the alphabet).
For languages that have a different writing system, like Japanese, Russian, or Korean, language apps can be an excellent way to learn. Duolingo and Memrise both use a combination of flash card and simple matching exercises to train you to recognize symbols in a new writing system, while Babbel goes an extra step further with in-lesson explanations for how new symbols or sounds work.
After a few weeks or months of consistently going through lessons, it’s feasible to learn every sound and symbol in a new writing system. You won’t be able to understand every word you can read, but you’ll be a lot closer than if you started from scratch. However, that’s only part of learning a language. Understanding the alphabet used in English doesn’t inherently mean you can understand French or Spanish, for example.
These apps are also better at teaching basic conversational phrases that are useful when you’re traveling. When you visit a city in a foreign country, it’s helpful to learn a few phrases like “Where is the bathroom?” or “How much does it cost?” Using a phrase book to memorize these phrases in another language is a quick and dirty way to get the job done, but that’s not really “learning” the phrases, it’s just memorizing them.
For example, consider the Italian phrase “Dov’è il bagno?” This phrase means “Where is the bathroom?” However, without speaking Italian, can you tell which part of that sentence is “bathroom?” Could you adapt the sentence to say “Where is the door?” or “Where is the hotel?” Language apps don’t just teach you whole sentences. Instead, they break down component parts of a sentence and teach you a few different variations so you understand what you’re saying and can adjust what you’re saying based on your situation. It’s a useful skill to have, especially when traveling.
Most importantly, though, these apps are powerful reminders that learning a new language isn’t a part-time job. Duolingo has infamously persistent notifications that pester you to come back and give that adorable green bird attention every single day. The downside is that it can be tempting to gamify the experience, rather than actually learn. On particularly busy days, I’ve found myself redoing the earliest lessons just to keep my all-important streak going. Which leads to another important lesson: skirting the rules on a self-improvement project hurts no one but yourself.
What language apps can’t teach you
For as useful as learning a new writing system or understanding basic phrases can be, it’s only a small part of fluency in a language. What counts as “fluent” is a tough concept to describe, but the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (or CEFR) is a widely-accepted standard for approximating fluency.
The six CEFR levels are necessarily broad and can overlap a bit, but here’s a (very) brief overview of what each means:
At level A1, learners should know basic phrases, be able to introduce themselves and ask simple personal questions, and understand basic interactions if their conversation partner speaks slowly. Level A2 includes understanding common expressions, communicating about routine tasks, and describing simple aspects of the speaker’s background. Together, these two levels make up the Basic stage.
Level B1 starts to introduce more complex ideas like explaining their opinions, dreams, and ambitions, or handling complex tasks while traveling. Level B2 expects speakers to be able to speak with native speakers of a language without straining, and have complex technical discussions related to their field of expertise. These two levels make up the Independent stage.
Finally, a level C1 speaker should be able to communicate flexibly in social, professional, and academic settings, understand a wide variety of topics, and recognize implicit meaning. C2, the highest level, expects the learner to “understand with ease virtually everything heard or read,” and summarize information from different sources. Levels C1 and C2 make up the Proficient stage.(Video) Language Learning Sites & Apps
If it’s not already obvious, language apps simply can’t get someone to level C2 — or anywhere close — on their own. There simply aren’t lessons to teach you, for example, how to have a complex conversation about banking regulations or astrophysics or whatever your field of expertise. It also means that if you stick solely to the lesson plans in each app, you won’t communicate with another person. By definition, these two limitations would rule out reaching even level B2.
Some apps also have a hard time teaching complex grammar. In Japanese, for one small example, “particles” are core parts of a sentence that indicate how words relate to each other in a sentence. They’re usually written with the same symbols used to spell words — sort of like how “a” is both a letter, but also a word on its own — which can get confusing since Japanese doesn’t use spaces between words and symbols.
Duolingo often just drops a new particle on you without much explanation of what it does or even that it’s a particle at all. Memrise handles this a bit better, with lessons dedicated to how certain particles and grammar work, but it helps to have external lessons, an instructor, or best of all a native speaker to help explain some of the finer points of nuance in a language’s grammar.
Language apps also struggle with some of the unspoken aspects of communicating in a language. To focus on Japanese again, there are distinct levels of formality and politeness which dictate what form a word should take based on your relationship with the person you’re speaking to. So, for example, you may use one form of a sentence when speaking to a friend, but a more formal version when speaking to a boss.
Furthermore, body language and posture can have a dramatic impact on how your speech is perceived, and language apps tend not to cover this at all. While understanding body language is not strictly a requirement of any CEFR level, it’s hard to navigate a conversation fluently without a general understanding of what certain gestures mean, or what actions are impolite.
Most importantly, though, language apps are not other humans. It sounds like an obvious observation, but the entire point of learning a language is to communicate with other people. You can learn as many words or sentences as you want, but until you’re able to have a conversation with another person, you’ll never be fluent. Or, according to the CEFR model, you won’t even be halfway there.
For that reason alone, learning a language with an app should be a starting point, not the end. If you make it through an entire Duolingo skill tree or a Memrise lesson plan, it might be time to upgrade to an in-person class, or you might want to find a native speaker to practice with.
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Can you actually learn a language from Duolingo? ›
Duolingo is not a stand-alone language course, but it's an excellent addition to a language learner's toolbox. It's easy to use, it's fun and it works. Don't forget to do the homework, though. If your aim is to achieve real fluency, remember to read, speak, and truly live the language that you're learning!Can you become fluent with just Duolingo? ›
Duolingo can't make you fluent by itself
The other way in which the research is misleading is that learning a language requires more than just an app, in the same way learning just about anything requires more than just a textbook.
The Bottom Line. Duolingo is the best free app for learning a language. Unique features and a clear structure make it a reliable place to learn new languages or sharpen your skills. PCMag editors select and review products independently.How long does it take to become fluent with Duolingo? ›
A note from the Fluent in 3 Months team before we get started: You can chat away with a native speaker for at least 15 minutes with the "Fluent in 3 Months" method. All it takes is 90 days.Can you reach B2 with Duolingo? ›
At Duolingo, we're developing our courses to get you to a level called B2, at which you can get a job in the language you're studying. Reaching that kind of proficiency requires dedication, varied practice opportunities, and a lot of time.Which is better Babbel or Duolingo? ›
Is Babbel better than Duolingo? After thoroughly testing out and reviewing each language learning program, we feel that Babbel is better than Duolingo for multiple reasons. Based on the strength of their curriculum, teaching style and delivery, we rate Babbel as the superior app over Duolingo.Is Level B2 fluent? ›
Level B2: Basic Fluency
Reaching B2 is generally considered by most people as having basic fluency. You'll have a working vocabulary of around 4000 words.
We see this question a lot and the answer is: yes. Duolingo is a free language-learning platform, and every language and lesson is totally free!What happens when you finish Duolingo? ›
When you finish a language (also called finishing a tree) nothing special will happen. You can level up individual skills up to level 5 however to keep practicing and get increasingly more difficult lessons.What happens if you ignore Duolingo? ›
There's no risk of failing a midterm, or lowering your GPA, or losing credits and repeating a required class. You won't miss out on walking at graduation if you skip a few nights of Duolingo practice. At the same time, you're the only person holding yourself back if you don't keep going.
What level are you when you finish Duolingo? ›
On Duolingo, the highest level you can reach in each language is level 25, which is equal to 30,000 XP. Duolingo used to show levels in the app, but took that ability away and replaced it with just a display of how many XP you have gained total.How many lessons of Duolingo should you do a day? ›
Casual is one lesson per day, Regular is two, Serious is three, and Insane is five lessons in a day. I have my daily goal set to Serious, which requires completing three lessons daily, but I'll often do more lessons if I have the time, typically around five or six.How long should I use Duolingo per day? ›
You don't need to spend hours on Duolingo each day. However, you must put a reasonable amount of time into learning. If you log in to complete one lesson and sign out as soon as you've reached 10XP, you won't get very far. To optimize your learning, aim to spend between 15 and 30 minutes on the app each day.What is the longest Duolingo streak? ›
The longest streak for a Duolingo employee right now is more than 3,000 days strong! We know our learners have extended their streaks in some wild and funny places – like the club, music festivals, and even on their wedding day!Is B2 French fluent? ›
B2 – Upper Intermediate or Vantage: At this stage of French learning a user can: Understand the fundamental idea of a complex text, or technical piece related to his field. Can communicate with a degree of fluency and spontaneity without too much strain for either the learner or the native speaker.What is Duolingo legendary level? ›
What are Legendary Levels on Duolingo? Put simply, a Legendary Level is designed to be the toughest level in a skill. To reach it, you need to complete four challenges without any hints or tips. It's the ultimate test of how well you know a particular skill.What level of Duolingo is B2? ›
|Duolingo English Test Scores||CEFR Levels||Language Proficiency Description|
|60 – 85||B1||Intermediate Level/User of the Language|
|90 – 115||B2||Upper-Intermediate Level/User of the Language|
|120 – 140||C1||Advanced Proficient Level/User of the Language|
|145 – 160||C2||Proficient Level/User of the Langauge|
Duolingo's CEO, Luis von Ahn, has seen those concerns, and he has no plans to undo any of the changes. “This is why we decided to do this: to simplify Duolingo and also to make it so that new users understood how to best use Duolingo,” von Ahn said in a video interview.Is there anything better than Duolingo? ›
Busuu offers a language learning experience that compares to Duolingo. They have a structured curriculum that you can progress through involving audio, vocabulary, and other gamified experiences. However, unlike Duolingo, Busuu has a more limited free version as they have a premium subscription-based business model.Which language app makes you fluent? ›
Duolingo tests you on your vocabulary, on your grammar, and even uses voice recognition to try to test your pronunciation. All of the learning through Duolingo is undertaken through small games.
Is C2 native level? ›
A C2 level of English is essentially a native level. It allows for reading and writing of any type on any subject, nuanced expression of emotions and opinions, and active participation in any academic or professional setting.How long does it take to get from B2 to C1? ›
There are six levels (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2) on the CEFR, with A1 as the lowest level. Write & Improve offers free writing practice covering all levels including beginner (A1, A2), intermediate (B1, B2) and advanced (C1, C2).Can you become fluent in a language in a year? ›
They've suggested that a person can become fluent in language for social contexts in six months to two years. However, it can take 5-7 years to become fluent in academic language. So within one year, it's absolutely possible to get fluent in a language for social uses, although probably not for academic purposes.What is the most learned language on Duolingo? ›
- According to Duolingo, the most popular and most studied languages on the app around the world are:
- According to the Duolingo 2021 Language Report, there are over 500 million learners on Duolingo.
- The language that has the most learners on Duolingo is English.
Duolingo's key tactic for successfully gamifying their product and making it addictive was simply running lots and lots of tests. By using data to understand exactly what their users responded to, they were able to tap into user psychology and create the right rewards and incentives.Where do I go after Duolingo? ›
Try Babbel to Focus More on Learning Grammar Rules
If you liked Duolingo but are looking for something a bit more challenging, then consider trying Babbel. Duolingo has mainly just exercises and you have to teach yourself the grammar, but with Babbel, they teach you along the way while also using exercises.
An advanced speaker of a language is also categorized as fluent. Fluency means you've reached 10,000+ words and have reached the highest level of mastering a language without being a native speaker.What is the fastest way to finish a Duolingo tree? ›
Another way you can finish your Duolingo tree faster or shortcut the tree is by clicking on the Checkpoints and testing out of multiple skills at once. These tests are quite difficult and you will have to use gems to do them as well.How far can Duolingo take you? ›
Where you stand after finishing a Duolingo course. An average Duolingo tree introduces you to about 2,000 words. It should be more than enough to get a good sense of how the language works and hold most everyday conversations. Not bad for a free online course.
Which is better Duolingo or Rosetta Stone? ›
Yes. After thoroughly testing out and reviewing each language learning app, we found Rosetta Stone to be a superior program to Duolingo. While we like Duolingo's gamification of learning, Rosetta Stone is simply more comprehensive and effective.Can you actually become fluent with Duolingo Reddit? ›
Why are so many people using fluency as the stick to measure the effectiveness of Duo? Duo has never claimed to get anyone to fluency. They claim to get you to a solid A2 (in their fully fleshed-out courses).Are Duolingo leagues real? ›
What are Duolingo Leagues? Simply put, Duolingo Leagues are competitive groups of 30 different users that Duolingo places you in so that you can compete for who can earn the most amount of XP in one week. You can find the Leagues under the shield icon on the Duolingo app.What happens when you finish Duolingo? ›
When you finish a language (also called finishing a tree) nothing special will happen. You can level up individual skills up to level 5 however to keep practicing and get increasingly more difficult lessons.What is Duolingo legendary level? ›
What are Legendary Levels on Duolingo? Put simply, a Legendary Level is designed to be the toughest level in a skill. To reach it, you need to complete four challenges without any hints or tips. It's the ultimate test of how well you know a particular skill.What happens at the end of Duolingo? ›
When you get to the end, you'll get a cute little trophy wearing a flag that represents the language you're learning. Each node in the tree consists of several lessons.What is better than Duolingo? ›
We have compiled a list of solutions that reviewers voted as the best overall alternatives and competitors to Duolingo, including Rosetta Stone, Lingvist, Busuu, and Mango Languages.Who is Duolingo owned by? ›
By the time Duolingo founder Luis von Ahn turned 24, he was already a millionaire several times over. Now 43, he may not be a household name — but you're probably one of the hundreds of millions of people who use his technology every day.Can Duolingo get you to B1? ›
By reaching the end of Unit 5, Duolingo learners have completed all the lessons in the beginner sections of our courses, called A1 and A2, and are starting intermediate B1 material.What is the easiest language to learn? ›
- Frisian. Frisian is thought to be one of the languages most closely related to English, and therefore also the easiest for English-speakers to pick up. ...
- Dutch. ...
- Norwegian. ...
- Spanish. ...
- Portuguese. ...
- Italian. ...
- French. ...
How long does it take to complete a unit in Duolingo? ›
Each module is made of up 6 levels, and within each level, there are 3 to 4 lessons. That may sound like a lot, and it is, but know that each lesson is very short, taking only about 5 to 10 minutes to complete.Can I become fluent in Spanish with Duolingo? ›
No. However, Duolingo does deliver what it promises. With dedication and consistent practice, you can definitely get a solid foundation in your language of choice. Overall, Duolingo is a great free resource to get you started learning a new language, but it can only take you so far on its own.What's the longest streak on Duolingo? ›
The longest streak for a Duolingo employee right now is more than 3,000 days strong! We know our learners have extended their streaks in some wild and funny places – like the club, music festivals, and even on their wedding day!How does Duolingo decide who is in your league? ›
Each user is assigned to a league that consists of 30 random participants of a common rank who earned their first XP of the week at a similar time. There is always one open league per rank, that doesn't have 30 participants yet, where people can join.Are there bots in Duolingo? ›
Duolingo says that their bots “are powered by artificial intelligence and react differently to thousands of possible answers.”. The bots feature is currently available for Duolingo's Spanish, French and German courses.