Duolingo German: Can the Duolingos Harm Your German?

Before you start reading

When we get older, some of us become wiser and gentler 😉 Therefore I have rewritten my review about Duolingo German & Co. as quite a few readers have perceived the old version below as a bit too harsh. I and therefore sG strive for constant self-improvement and we have become much more stable and confident over the last 2.5 years. While a certain aggressive energy was and still is important to get your company to its feet and to keep it there in a highly competitive market, this aggression shouldn’t be reflected in our work. I leave this article here so that you can see my development and striving for a more peaceful communication with German learners and those who love the Duolingos for their own good reasons. You will realize though, that my conclusion of my analysis is still the same. It might now simply be a bit easier to digest.
Inspired by a few commenters, I would like to clarify a few things beforehand.

  1. As for now, I do not offer a product or service similar to Duolingo or any other language learning platform. My videos solely focus on German grammar and my tuition costs 3.500€ or more. So my videos are rather a supplement to any other German course or software out there and it is highly unlikely that a Duolingo user switches to my services. I personally don’t have any benefit from criticizing other people’s hard work. Everybody is free to evaluate my material under the same standards and I welcome any constructive criticism as it helps to improve my material and my work. And I hope that is also the attitude of other producers.
  2. Therefore it should also be clear that I do not compare my products or services to those mentioned in the article.
  3. As for the intention to raise attention, sure, I would love you to check out my material, yet I sincerely figure that those programs do more harm than good. Yet, it is still up to you to use whatever program you like. After having read this article you can make a more educated decision.
  4. All my claims follow solid reasoning. Should you have a better and proven argument, I have no problem, updating mine, as that is what improves my work. So far I have not come across better arguments. The challenge is still on.

Language Learning Softwares like Duolingo German claim to help you learn German

While in the following I will refer to Duolingo, much of the criticism applies to any other language learning software out there. I would like to call them duolingos as they all kind of have or better cause the same problem. But let me make one thing very clear at the beginning: The idea behind Duolingo is remarkable and absolute worth being further developed and supported. Watch this entertaining and impressive TED-talk by duolingo’s CEO Luis von Ahn  to find out what it actually is all about. The following article wants to show that even in 2014, learning languages via any software is not living up to its promises. Duolingo is next to Rosetta Stone one of the most popular ones and serves as an example.

In my opinion no software should be used by anyone who is serious about learning proper (i.e. least faulty) German. Not even as an add-on. If you don’t have access to better resources or simply can’t afford it, then yes, you might want to play around with duolingo, Busuu, memrise, babbel, verbling, livemocha etc. and you might even like it. But please be aware that they all suffer from similar flaws that I will describe in the following minutes. Let’s get started then, shall we?

Exercises? What am I Exercising Exactly?

Duolingo is a nicely programmed and optically well designed platform to learn a few languages. I am mostly concerned about German so I took a closer look this weekend and here is what I found:


At the very beginning, one is asked to select the translation of e.g. ‚the woman‘ and three images with a woman, a man and a girl are shown. Below these images there are the German terms for the person on the picture (I blurred these out of © reasons but you can still recognize what I am talking about).

I wondered and still do what this exercise is about. There is nothing achieved by performing this task as you could still successfully solve this task even if you wrote anything in marsian below the photos. You will come across such introductions every once in a while and they are pretty common among such programs. Rosetta Stone e.g. uses four pictures with solely the German term written below each photo so you associate the German word directly with the image. I can find some sense in that although it still lacks depth. But more about that later.

This is also a good example for the shallowness of many of the exercises that I have found in Duolingo. Often there are only three options given as a possible answer. Which then can simply be guessed. A 33% chance is far to high to let anyone be sure about her or his achievements. Even four or five possibilities wouldn’t do the job properly as besides still being pretty easy to guess, they require no thinking but are mere acts of visual recognizing. And that’s the easiest task to perform. Your mind is a recognizing machine. You can recognize a man or a woman from pretty far away solely by certain clues that you have been trained or born to see. Recognizing visual clues is necessary to understand but it is a very weak form of learning. After all you want to be able to understand and use language and not only recognize it visually, right?

Lost in Translation 

But I have to say that there are much more challenging exercises in duolingo that make up for this a bit. Although these have their own flaws. Take a look at this screenshot here:


Again, the execution of the exercises is lovely. I especially like the ‚almost correct‘ and that they take it easy on the capitalization in the beginning while mentioning it. But as soon as there is more than one kind of mistake, duolingo goes down on its knees. Do you see the ‚is‘ in the German translation? This even more serious mistake is overlooked by the machine and can as easily be overlooked by the man or woman in front of the screen even though the correct transcription is given in the green field.

Don’t add More Randomness than There Already Is

Another problem I have with these translations is that they are random. There is no context at all, except maybe a grammatical one later on, that could help to make sense of things. But although the supposedly trained grammar is mentioned in the name of later exercises, it doesn’t get clear in the exercise itself. Anyhow, our mind loves context, sense, logic. It simply hates to learn random things that seem to have no deeper purpose. That’s why motivation is
one of the most important factors when it comes to fast German learning.

The duolingo team had some university execute a study about the efficiency of their program and they mainly came to the same conclusion: motivation is crucial. But more about that study later.

To give you an impression of what I am talking about here a few examples. The following sentences were taken from consecutive exercises:

  • Meine Freundin macht Internet-Seiten >> Darum sehen wir einen blauen Himmel. >> Ich spreche mit meinem Freund am Computer >> Ich habe keinen Hunger gehabt.
  • My friend creates webpages. >> That’s why we have a blue sky. >> I speak with my friend at the computer. >> I wasn’t hungry.

These are just random sentences even though the CEO claimed in his very interesting TED-talk that the examples in duolingo would be ‚real content‘. He can only have meant the exercises in which pretty advanced learners are confronted with translating real life articles into the chosen language. But until you get there you will have spent plenty of hours with the kind of information mentioned above.

Reden ist Silber…

All in all, duolingo offers all necessary kinds of exercises. There’s reading, writing, listening and even speaking. But the latter still seems to be in its beta phase as I wasn’t able to get the computer to understand what I was saying (just to remind you: I am a native German testing their German learning program) nor was I able to replay what was obviously recorded. I tried it on a fully functional 2012 Macbook Air with the newest OS, so that might be a specific issue with my machine. But I also tried it on a new iPad Air where it understood my speaking but I also could have said just anything and it would have been accepted as correct. So, when I was asked to repeat: ‚Ja‘ I would say ‚Nein‘ and get away with it, meaning the machine accepted it as ‚correct‘. I tried that several times with the same results.

And simply getting one’s utterances through the voice-recognition is not yet proof of correct speech as they usually have a quite high level of tolerance. Rosetta Stone seems to be a nice exception and also offers two modes of strictness.  Then in duolingo one just has to repeat what was spoken by the computer a few seconds ago. That’s not really thrilling nor efficient as you still are not using the language but merely copying what you hear. You don’t get corrected and that’s bad. No software is yet capable of correcting your pronunciation or sentence melody and that’s often crucial to be understood properly.

Listen Well

I am a big fan of dictations. Duolingo offers mini-dictations that also give the learner the opportunity  to slow the pace of the spoken sentence. But whyever, they have chosen to let a computer read the sentences that you are about to type. While often that sounds surprisingly good, often individual words are mispronounced and what’s worse lack a natural sentence melody. That is simply a no go. Here just one sample. Try to understand first before you read the transcription at the end of this article.

[/audio m4a="https://smartergerman.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/duolingo-sound-sample-eine-ente-frisst.m4a"][/audio]

Discuss with the Right People

Democracy is surely a nice concept but I am not a big fan of it, when it comes German teaching. Often in duolinguo you have the opportunity to discuss the translation of a sentence or even a word. You click on ‚discuss sentence‘ and there you can find users that ask questions or help others with their answers. You can rate each answer like in Reddit by voting it up or down. So far so good. This is a great idea for upper intermediate or advanced learners but for beginners that’s simply too confusing. It might simply be too overwhelming and you can not really be sure about the quality of an answer as you don’t know who has given it. Even the best German learner might have a few blind spots here and there that they then transmit to others. And this leads me to my dearest point: the lack of grammar explanations and learning aids.

Grammar: The Ugly Stepchild 

I won’t discuss the necessity and usefulness of solid knowledge about German grammar here. I told you, Democracy… But joking aside: I found some grammatical explanations while browsing through my learning tree but wouldn’t be able to find them again nor were there too many of them.  Duolingo introduces tiny bits in little speech bubbles as you can see in the second screenshot ‚all nouns are capitalized‘ which is a very nice idea but I can nowhere search for grammatical explanations except in the Discussion-forums which besides being rather risky also is exhausting and time-consuming as I would have to search through whole threads until I find what I am looking for although the search function is very nice.

No Instruction on how to Learn Anything Whatsoever

None. I haven’t come across any instruction on how to learn things quicker except of course in the main forum and even there rather not too precise which is easy to understand as those are not too wide spread which in the end is to my advantage but to any learner’s disadvantage. In German such a behavior is called ‘Unterlassene Hilfeleistung’ and is punishable.

How to (not) proof Efficiency 

I understand that Duolingo heavily relies on a numerous user base and the money of VCs. Providing both interest groups with an official study that ‚proofs‘ that the program is helping people to learn languages is surely beneficial. But when it comes to numbers I am always skeptical. I have read through the description of the study and don’t want to go too deep into detail here. Just a few questions to the Duolingo team or better the researchers that haven’t been answered but are crucial to derive any (!) worthwhile information from that oeuvre.

If ~100 out of ~200 participants bailed out of the study, doesn’t that also say something about the quality of Duolingo or simply about the clientele that believes to be able to learn a language with its help?

Which elements of Duolingo are actually relevant and how are they relevant for the progress that was measured?

What does the result actually say? I mean, what do I do with that information that after working 34 hours in average with Duolingo the average of participants showed progress that is comparable of one semester in a language course at any college. How many hours of language instruction does a college student get? How important are those classes for his or her success at the college? Where do I find the control study/group that was instructed to work the same amount of time with their own or even without any (if such a thing is possible) method or help?

Isn’t the goal of most language learners to be able to speak that language? Why wasn’t the oral skill tested as well?

There were many other questions that came up while working it through but without the above questions answered any conclusion drawn from that study is merely baloney. If you claim to have scientific proof, better make sure it is scientific.


I am sorry to have taken apart such a good idea and also technically well executed product (with the exception of the audio/speaking part on my machines). But it is not Duolingo alone that doesn’t hold up to its claim to teach us the German language. All other softwares are suffering from the same basic flaws: under- or overcharging exercises, lack of greater context, lack of instruction (i.e. grammar and techniques) and an impersonal approach. These programs are made for millions of learners so they are earning their makers money  which is not wrong per se but doesn’t provide the individual with what she or he needs.

And I have nothing against any of
these platforms by nature. I am looking forward to a future when we have our translator-implants and can communicate freely with any person on this planet (or others). I simply would like to make German learners aware of the fact that they can easily harm their German skills if they are not aware of the flaws of these softwares, especially by their speaking/pronunciation training.

Also, I feel as if thousands, if not millions are seduced to ‚learn‘ a language in a specific way that doesn’t even pay toll to established knowledge in learning psychology and neurology and in the end fail (‚best‘ case scenario) or -worse- get stuck with crappy German. Please forgive my lack of euphemism here.

Conclusion: Anyone serious about learning German should stay away from any software-course designed to help users learn German. Only if there’s no other alternative -as little as a good book like those of the Assimil-German with Ease series with audio, of course, would do- one might benefit from such a tool but still would need a very strong motivation to make it through all the senseless exercises that they all provide. Developers are still decades from successfully translating the process of learning a complex thing like the German language into code that will satisfy the need for proper language acquisition.

If you are serious about learning correct German, there’s no way around grammar. Have you already experienced how nice and sweet German grammar can be? But be aware: it might be addictive.

Transcription from audio above: Eine Ente frisst. A duck is feeding.

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