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The lights and shadows of Duolingo as the most popular language-learning app

Once again we go back to experts’ reflections and conclusions in order to develop a critical opinion about a controversial issue, in this case the advantages and disadvantages of using a language-learning app.


As a foreign language student, and before reading the present article, we would like you to think about the following aspects: Do you believe using a language-learning app is enough for learning a foreign language? And, do you think using an app in combination of your traditional foreign language lessons with a teacher is beneficial for achieving the goals?


If your answer is “no” to the previous two questions, you will probably find it more difficult to answer in the same way this next one: Have you ever downloaded and tried a language-learning app?



The easy access to mobile devices with internet and the massive development of apps make obvious the success of many foreign language-learning apps, and among them the overwhelming and extensive use of Duolingo. According to the company’s official data, 500 million total users have downloaded the app, and around 40 million of them are regular active users.


Facts are facts, but we can also say that, given the increase in the accessibility to mobile devices and internet all around the world, those numbers should not be compared to the amount of students attending regular foreign language lessons with a teacher.


But apart from figures, we want to go more in depth into interesting issues for us as an enthusiastic team of qualified teachers. And that is because our main goal is developing the communicative skills of our students, as well as sharing with them the Spanish-speaking countries rich and varied culture. So the question is: Does necessarily a mobile device app like Duolingo innovate with its foreign language teaching method? Or, can we suspect that this innovation is sometimes assumed by default given the intrinsic use of a mobile device and a digital platform?


Before answering these questions we can analyse the keys underneath the success of Duolingo around the globe. And base on the works of two experts, Fernández Merino (2017) and Fumeng Liu (2020), we can summarize them in three main points.


The first key of success of Duolingo is the simplicity. The learning process is organized in small units that gather specific vocabulary in combination of a particular grammar aspect. This allows the user to complete those units in a small amount of time and pause the process when needed according to personal or professional needs.

Secondly, the user can decide it’s own pace for learning, involving him/herself only in the grade and time that is feasible for him or her. This way, the app pays attention to the user’s needs and takes into account his/her expectations.


And finally and more importantly, Duoling gamifies the foreign language-learning process. Thus, the app transforms what the student can see as a difficult and arduous goal into a fun an entertaining hobby. Even users not particularly interested in learning a foreign language opt –sometimes- for apps like Duolingo instead of downloading Candy Crash for example. Their opinion is that this way the time spent killing time is also worth it. Among a group of Chinese students of Spanish, up to 46,7% of them declared the gamification as the main feature they like about Duolingo.


In line with this, the students of this group also emphasised the work of the vocabulary as one of the focus points of the app. And this makes sense taking into account the organization of the contents that the app provides, subdued ultimately to vocabulary and grammar instead of considering communicative situations or contexts and communication needs.


But, talking about teaching methods, how does Duolingo teach vocabulary to its users? As analysed by Fernández Merino, the app follows the Wilkins’ taxonomy (1971) that gathers vocabulary around specific topics, and introduces it by using the direct or natural method developed in England around 1900. Later on, the app provides the practice of vocabulary through activities that exemplify the structuralist methods for teaching foreign languages, developed between the twenties and thirties of last century. It does not sound a particular state-of-the-art approach altogether, right?


Then Duolingo, on a first step into the foreign language, uses the direct or natural method to promote the association of objects and images with the foreign language words. And afterwards the students practice the vocabulary learnt by exercises that, according to the structuralist method, are once again subdued to the grammar, but forget real life situations to include and contextualize the language learnt.


The limitations of this methods are not difficult to glimpse, the first one being the support of limited vocabulary given that not all words can be directly associated with objects and images. Neither to say about abstract concepts that cannot be explained isolated if we don’t take into account the communicative context. We will discover later how Duolingo “solves” this issue.


Other consequence of applying the direct method -for presenting and developing the vocabulary- is the limitation to work single and unambiguous relations between a word and its meaning, leaving behind multi-word expressions with only one meaning like collocations (i.e. café cortado or prensa rosa). This method also disregards information the user needs to categorized the words and properly use them, like its frequency of use, its registry –formal or informal-, important cultural information related, and others.


So as we pointed out before, how does Duolingo address the limitations of the direct method in the absence of a teacher? The answer to this is easy: recurring to the grammar-translation method, originally developed for teaching Latin as soon as the early 16th century. It does not recall a contemporary method either :/


With this we don’t mean that translation is not a useful tool during a foreign language class, and we do not neglect we use it. But yes we assume that a foreign language learning process cannot be based in translation. Training skilful and communicative users of a foreign language has nothing to do with developing translators, and the context for the usage of the foreign language is totally different in each of these cases.


Apart from these key aspects, excessive usage of translation while teaching a foreign language can derive in a bias towards written skills –reading comprehension and written expression-. This will end up developing students not prepared for facing real oral exchanges with native speakers, but happy to use the foreign language in their comfort zone: reading and writing.


Finally, as we have also highlighted, the “Duolingo method” relies on activities and exercises designed following the basis of the structuralists methods (1920-1930). That means that, apart from organizing the contents in accordance to the Wilkins taxonomy (1971), this vocabulary is practiced in association with the Spanish grammar. And this makes a lot of sense! However, we have also to recall that these structuralists methods have classified the grammar rules just under a “easy-complex” axis, but not under a usefulness criteria, frequency of usage and/or profitability of the grammar learnt.


Neither to say that, as we wrote before, these grammar rules are not related to real communication situations and/or contexts, what we now name language functions. Therefore, the units arisen by the combination of vocabulary and a particular grammar rule are sometimes not very useful for getting ready for facing real communication situations while travelling, starting to live on a Spanish speaking country, or even interacting in Spanish through the internet.


As a conclusion we can state that the main limitation of Duolingo is the separation or kidnaping of the foreign language from the real situations and contexts where we want to use it. And this is the main contribution done by the functional approaches to foreign language teaching and learning, that reached it highest point with the communicative approach developed at the end of the 20th century.


We can also state that Duolingo, like other foreign language learning apps, innovates in the way it is able to gamify the learning process and this way attracts and entertains millions of new users every year. And Duolingo, according to the statements released by the company in the last years, is also conscious about it. While at the beginning of its success Duolingo claimed to be able to become a platform for self-sufficient learning foreign languages, now the new slogans just try to catch the users’ attention by focusing on the entertaining profile of the learning app: “aprende un idioma y diviértete (learn a language and have fun)and “la nueva forma de aprender un idioma (the new way of learning a language)”.


Finally, we have to say that the new trends of teaching and learning foreign languages do not exclude at all the use of new apps and other digital platforms. New approaches such the principled eclecticism by Mellow (2002) or the postmethod condition by Kumaravadivelu (2012) embrace any practice that has shown to be effective when learning a foreign language, but at the same time they do not accept any method as the only option possible.


Learning apps can be good student companions when revising and/or trying not to forget much vocabulary during periods of learning inactivity, but definitely it would be unfair to expect users to learn a foreign language by themselves just using a mobile app. As a final advice to students: use the learning apps properly and enjoy them, but don’t wait from them more than they can give!



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香港西班牙文化會 - The Spanish Cultural Association of Hong Kong

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