This is an updated version of my article about the language learning apps Duolingo & Co. in a much gentler tone than the original article and a few modified insights.
Inspired by a few commenters, I would like to clarify a few things beforehand.
- 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 4.000€ or more. 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 private tuition. I personally don’t have any benefit nor do I take pleasure 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.
- Therefore it should also be clear that I do not compare my products or services to those mentioned in the article.
- As for the intention to raise attention, sure, I would love you to check out my material, yet I sincerely figure that those programs and platforms that I discuss here do have significant flaws that you should be very aware of. But it is still up to you to use whatever program you like. After having read this article you can make a more educated decision.
- All my claims follow solid reasoning. Should you have a better and proven argument or find a mistake in mine, I have no problem, updating it, as that is what improves my work. So far I unfortunately have not come across better arguments than mine.
Language learning apps like Duolingo 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. They are called Busuu, Babbel, Rosetta Stone, Tell Me More, Talk to Me, BliuBliu, Rocket Languages’ German just to name the most known language learning programs respectively language learning platforms.
I will simply call them „Duolingos“ as that sounds the catchiest but they all suffer from the same problems. Just let me make one thing very clear at the beginning: The idea and the efforts behind Duolingo and it’s competitors is remarkable and absolute worth being further developed and acknowledged. 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 also wants to show that even in 2015 it is still a challenge to learn languages online or via software.
In my opinion you shouldn’t use any of the above softwares exclusively if you are serious about learning proper German in the shortest time possible. Some of them might prove as worthwhile add-ons to your regular learning as they seem to push ones motivation. Also if you don’t have access to any better resource or simply can’t afford standard tuition, then yes, you might want to play around with those.
In the following I would just like to raise your attention regarding relevant flaws so that you are aware of them and can find workarounds for them.
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 wonder 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 & Co. 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 certain about his achievements. They also don’t require any thinking but are mere acts of visual recognition. And that’s one of the easiest task to perform for your mind as it is a recognizing machine. You can recognize a man or a woman (or many other things and beings) from pretty far away solely by certain clues that you have been trained in or were 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
There are much more challenging exercises in Duolingo that make up for this a bit. But one still has to remain attentive. 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.
Randomness Kills Interest
Another issue I see is that these translations are random. There is very little context as the sentence you have to translate are ripped out of their context. While that is still better than learning isolated words, our brain prefers greater context. Not for nothing do we love good stories and we wouldn’t read a bunch of isolated sentences to our children at bedtime.
Although Duolingo mentions the grammar, it doesn’t get clear in the exercise itself. But more about German grammar later.
If you provide information in its greater context, you don’t have to motivate the learner by adding fancy jingles or highscores. The motivation will come from understanding something intelligent in a foreign language.
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 geha
• My friend creates webpages. >> That’s why we have a blue sky. >> I speak with my friend at the computer. >> I wasn’t hungry.
Those 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 those later 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 2011 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 (RS) and Rocket Languages (RL) seem to be exceptions. They also show the sound waves and compare yours to the original ones. That would be pretty neat feedback if it worked. I’m not sure anymore regarding the precision of that feature in RS but in RL it simply seems useless to me. Take a look at this screenshot of my try to pronounce a German sentence to understand my harsh conclusion:
The problem in Rosetta Stone as well as in Rocket Languages and Duolingo is that one just has to repeat what was spoken by the computer a few seconds ago. That’s not really a substitute for a conversation partner as you are not really using the language but merely copying what you hear. But this could be used to train your listening comprehension and auditive memory. It would be nice though if you had the possibility to deactivate the writing. But of course you can always close your eyes.
Another issue I have with this feature is that you don’t really get corrected (except visually by being shown the sound waves in RS or RL).
It seems that no software is capable yet of correcting your pronunciation or sentence melody and that’s often crucial to be understood properly.
It would suffice for now to have the option to be able to record your speech and then have the opportunity to play that back right after the original sentence so that you can compare your speaking to the original. I’m not certain whether RS is not offering such a function at this time (04/2015) and will take another look. RL offers this function and uses dialogues as context. That’s a huge plus.
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 they have chosen to let a computer read the sentences that you are about to type. And while quite often that sounds surprisingly good, individual words are often mispronounced and deprived of their natural melody. Just one sample. Try to understand first before you read the transcription at the end of this article.
Duolingo sound sample (opens in new window)
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. We have a saying in German: „Zu viele Köche verderben den Brei“, meaning „Too many cooks spoil the broth“. In Duolingo you often have the opportunity to discuss the translation of a sentence or even a single word. If you click on ‚discuss sentence‘ you can find users that ask questions or help others with their answers. You can rate each answer by voting it up or down. So far so good. This is a great idea for upper intermediate or advanced learners but for beginners I find that too confusing. It might 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. This leads me to my dearest point: the lack of grammar explanations and learning aids.
Grammar: The Ugly Stepchild
This is not the place to discuss the necessity and usefulness of solid knowledge about German grammar. You might find my point of view in many of my other articles on my blog here. While browsing through my learning tree I found some grammatical explanations in Duolingo but wasn’t be able to find them again once I was done with a certain chapter. There were also not too many of them.
Duolingo introduces tiny bits of German grammar 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. Luckily those have a search function which on the other hand requires me to know the grammatical term for what I’m looking for.
No Instruction on how to Learn German
I haven’t come across any instruction on how to learn things quicker or with less effort except in the main forum. And the advice that I had found was not really precise. The German language is often perceived as a difficult language but I honestly think that it is completely unnecessary as the basics are very quickly understood if explained the right way.
Another problem is that very often we make use of what we already know when learning a new language. That means we apply those techniques that we have acquired in school. Unless you had an outstanding German or other language teacher, your techniques are most likely self-tought and might be far from efficient. They probably did the job but you might already know how little is required to „just to the job“, right?
Language learning apps and 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 ‚proves‘ that the program is helping people to learn languages is surely beneficial for this purpose.
Yet, when it comes to numbers I am always skeptical. Although I have thoroughly read through the description of the study, I am left with quite a few significant questions:
- 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 for the found results and
- how are they relevant for the progress that was measured?
- What does the result actually say? I mean, what do I do with the 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 im
portant 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 worthless. And I apologize for being a bit harsh here but if you claim to have scientific proof, better make sure it is scientific. This study is far from it.
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 also suffering from the same basic flaws: under- or overchallenging exercises, lack of greater context and lack of instruction (i.e. German grammar and language learning techniques). These programs are made for millions of learners and using software to individualize and optimize the language learning process is certainly the right approach. But until today the programs that I have discussed in this article are far from being more beneficial than a solidly thought through self-learner book like e.g. those from Assimil (German with Ease). I find them harmful in the sense that they take away valuable time and in my evaluation prolong the learning process unnecessarily. They also approach German learning in a very unnatural way, mainly monolingual teaching, isolated exercises often far from reality, no specific vocabulary training, bad speaking training.
I simply would like to make German learners aware of the fact that they could do much better if they hired a professional private tutor. I understand that flexibility, a great UX (DL) and low cost are factors that are tempting and might let one overlook the problems that I have mentioned. And as my last article seemed a bit hostile towards these softwares, let me assure you that I am the first to adapt good language learning software for my clients as soon as it exists. So far I am working with memrise and yabla.com. I also recommend learners to get their writing corrected at lang-8.com. Those are excellent pieces of work that solve a very concrete problem efficiently. But the software that solves all problems is yet possibly ten years away.
I have no problem with you using any of the programs that I have mentioned in this article. After all it is your lifetime and you are free to waste it on whatever you like. I wouldn’t use them at this point in time and that is my very personal conclusion that I have given you a few solid reasons for.
If you are looking for a well-designed German language course for self-learners, I can recommend the Assimil-German with Ease series with audio. The dialogues are boring though yet the concept is efficient and offline.
Should you like any of the Duolingos, that’s totally fine with me. I see no need to criticize or discuss your personal experience or preferences. Maybe I have been able to make you aware of a few traps on your path to learn German and you can now enjoy it even more.
Either way I wish you success with your German.
Transcription from audio (DL) above: Wir haben Jacken. We have jackets.