Duolingo is probably the most talked-about language app currently around. I myself have tried it in the past hoping to shore up the languages in which I have some degree of familiarity, and also maybe even pick up new ones. Having studied and used Japanese for over twenty years, I’m well aware that attaining fluency in a foreign tongue is a lot of work, so I don’t expect miracles from an app that’s built primarily around accessibility. But Duolingo itself claims to be able to help people learn languages, so I wanted to see how others felt about the app.
A recurring criticism of Duolingo I found, especially when it comes to older versions of the app, is that it often provides example sentences that lean towards the impractical—less “Where is the bathroom?” and more “Who let the dogs out?” However, I think this is what I initially liked about Duolingo. In my experience learning languages, I feel like I make the best progress when I’m given the tools to be silly. I find that having language learning come down to utility—teaching useful phrases to be used in everyday situations or when traveling—tends to de-emphasize thinking more deeply about the language.
The silly sentences highlight the idea that languages are made of “building blocks” that can be rearranged and recombined. A firm foundation is still important, of course, but the focus on silliness encourages thinking of languages as flexible concepts. Ask yourself, how would any given language translate something like “Who let the dogs out?” Would the word for “let out” be more like “make go out?” Or “let go out?” Or perhaps even “release?” It’s not impossible by any means to get this with the more practical approach, but going at it from a more lighthearted angle takes some of the tension and pressure of learning a language away, at least in my opinion.
I never really used Duolingo for Japanese, and I left a Dutch course largely unfinished back in 2018 that I’m only returning to now. However, during this COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve found myself returning to the app more or less for the hell of it. This time, my goal has been Mandarin Chinese, and I’ve slowly plugged away at it while purposely taking a more casual approach. I do one lesson a day, and now I’ve completed the entire Mandarin course up to Level 1. What I noticed is that Duolingo can have a tendency to throw you in the deep end and not really explain grammar rules and the like, but much like the presence of silly sentences, I think it encouraged me to be a detective of sorts and try to figure out how the sentences work. That said, the fact that I know Japanese (and can speak another form of Chinese decently well) might have given me an unfair advantage over someone who has no experience in East Asian languages and tries out Duolingo.
Am I fluent in Mandarin now? Certainly not. Given the fact that Duolingo doesn’t even teach nearly all the Chinese characters needed to be considered “fluent,” that’s an aspirational goal that has to go beyond one lone app with an owl mascot. But I was actually listening to a VTuber stream recently that included some Mandarin Chinese, and I found myself catching things I never would have been able to even a year ago. I’d consider that progress.