Have You Played… Duolingo?


Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day, perhaps for all time.

Get a bucket ready, friends, I’m about to use a disgusting word. Duolingo is the only successful example of “gamification” I’ve ever encountered. It’s a – okay there it is. Yup. That’s it. Let it all out. You’ll feel better afterwards. Better out than in, they always say. Or, in Spanish: mejor afuera que adentro.

For those still vomiting, Duolingo is a language-learning app that gives you bitesize tests and grants XP for completing them. You might do a little module titled “Basics” in Dutch and learn the word for “bread”. There are achievements for keeping your lessons up for 7 days in a row, or earning over 200 XP in a single day, or finally completing a whole course. You also earn a currency called “Lingots” to spend on silly cosmetic gear for the game’s owl mascot, or on bonus modules, like “Flirting”. It also asks you to speak the words aloud at points. So fellow commuters might see you saying “You have beautiful eyes” into your phone in a foreign language. It’s a rollercoaster.

Most users play on phone, but you can do it on PC via web browser too. It isn’t a perfect teacher. You’ll learn a lot of vocab, and be confronted with grammar, but the reasons or rules behind the grammar are never explained. You just have to power through with trial and error, sometimes diving into the comments section for help from fellow lingo learners. It also has a ridiculous idea of “fluency”, and proudly tells you you’re 20% or 55% or 71% fluent, as if this is something that can be calculated by a program that listens you you shout “JAY VOO-DRAY OON CWASSONT” into its machine ear. It also has annoying ads on phone that’ll put people off.

Despite those things, I still recommend it to anyone taking up a language. Not as a single magic wordbullet that’ll teach you Swedish, but as an excellent supplement to whatever other classes or language exchange groups you’re attending. It won’t teach you a language, no matter how many achievements it offers. But it will help a lot.


  1. SigmaCAT says:

    This has nothing to do with gamification. This is, at best, a (eurh) serious game. Please refrain from writing about things you don’t know.

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      subdog says:


      • Ghostwise says:

        I think he’s telling us something about the size of his male reproductive organ.

        Or something about his hovercraft being full of eels ? One of the two.

    • Lumière says:

      Not only Duolingo uses gamification, as it uses most elements of it, being the best example I can think. All the rewards are delivered by gamification fundamentals. The simple fact of having rewards is an element of gamification

      • Ginsoakedboy21 says:

        Agreed, I am using Duolingo to take some very tentative steps in learning a new language, and whilst it is brilliant, it is gamified to all hell.

        But you know what, if that is what keeps me learning every night (I am on a 40 day streak) instead of taking a break when I feel tired or have some other half-baked excuse, that’s great.

    • Brendan Caldwell says:

      Sorry, SigmaCAT.

  2. Hammers says:

    Yup used Duolingo a lot, and as you say, it’s no magic bullet and certainly has its flaws but for a free language learning tool it’s an impressive effort and I’m very glad it exists.

    Other examples of this sort of thing that I’ve found personally successful are Rocksmith (again, as a supplement to other guitar teaching resources it is a lovely way to learn and play some ace tunes) and on mobile, “Zombies, Run!” which managed to get me from zero exercise to being able to run a 20k race

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      subdog says:

      And Khan Academy for dusting off your math skills.

      • jgf1123 says:

        For drilling basic operations, Khan Academy is great. In a video, Khan explains what steps to do to solve a particular problem, then the system changes the numbers and makes you run through those steps several times. Congratulations, you can follow directions, just much slower than a computer. For anything that requires higher-order critical thinking skills, like figuring out how to approach a problem you’ve not been explicitly told how to solve, Khan is not good.

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    subdog says:

    It was pretty fun building vocabulary as I maxed out the Spanish tree, but I definitely didn’t learn as much as I felt like I learned. The early exercises come with lots of explanation, so you can easily reference the things you get wrong.

    Then it turns into pure vocabulary for a while, then back to grammar and sentence structure- only without the accompanying explanation. You can work it out on your own, but it feels more like I was exercising basic pattern recognition and memorization skills instead of real language acquisition.

    There is not nearly enough ear training and not nearly enough composition. I know they leave composition up to their “website translation” side of the site, but that is totally separate from the fun core game and its little, regular dopamine rewards.

    • Zamn10210 says:

      I strongly agree that it needs more emphasis on listening exercises. After several months of learning French on Duolingo I can decipher written French reasonably well but absolutely cannot keep up with spoken French at regular conversation speed.

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        Ninja Dodo says:

        Internet radio and television are here to help:

        link to franceinter.fr
        link to france24.com
        link to tv5monde.com

        Also cinema with subtitles.

      • April March says:

        That’s because French is a jerk of a language in which verb forms are written differently but pronounced nearly the same, and the plural S is usually mute.

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          Ninja Dodo says:

          It helps if you just skip half the conjugations by saying “on” instead of “nous”, drop the double negatives (just “pas” is fine) and say “bon”, “baah” and “euh” a lot. Like that’s half the battle right there.

          • Dewal says:

            And when in doubt, just say “putain”.

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            Ninja Dodo says:

            It’s sort of lost the original meaning but I find it amusing how like half of french swearing is somehow fixated on prostitution. Like calling a thing or situation a “shitty brothel” (bordel de merde) is a common exclamation of disapproval. Language is funny.

  4. Addie says:

    On the plus side, Duolingo does encourage you to do a little bit every day, and it is certainly one of the best, if not the very best, free-but-ad-supported apps for language learning on your phone. On the other hand:

    – the computer generated voice is not terribly great; in English, it doesn’t correctly differentiate ‘live’ in ‘I live’ / ‘live music’; ‘read’ in ‘I will read’ / ‘I have read’ and so on. The liaison (in French) / enlace (in Spanish) is also kind of dodgy. None of the listening exercises are all that good for this reason.

    – the guy that programmed Duolingo is Guatemalan, so it’s Guatemalan Spanish and USA English that it teaches. Suspect idioms ahoy. Also, no vosotros / vos conjugated forms, although it does accept them.

    – guesswork only, as above. Have fun trying to guess what the Polish conjugated verb forms are by choosing letters at random.

    – plenty of mistakes. A lot of the things it tries to teach you are just wrong. There’s user-submitted feedback, but it doesn’t seem to have caught everything.

    – can’t customise anything. If you wanted to spend an hour just doing vocabulary exercises, for instance, use another app.

    Like I say, it’s pretty good for what it does, and you can’t argue with the price, but you need to consider it as something to assist with your language studies, rather than being all you need to do to learn a language.

    • Zamn10210 says:

      I only recently discovered that the desktop version of Duolingo does actually have grammar explainers that are quite helpful. But (and I know this is a bit silly) I prefer not to use the desktop version because it’s harder and doles out XP more slowly. So the gamification systems are rather too effective in that case.

  5. mashkeyboardgetusername says:

    Weirdly, the “gamification” on Duolingo was why I stopped using it. I know it’s supposed to encourage you, but I don’t like feeling like I’ve got an obligation to do these things, and so often end up bouncing off games with daily rewards (for logging in/playing x multiplayer matches/whatever) and ended up resenting Duolingo for the same reason. If I could use it without it bloody guilt-tripping me for one missed day or not having as much XP as last week I would, but as it is it just kind of annoys me so I’d rather not bother.

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      Ninja Dodo says:

      It’s really easy to ignore the gamification if you block notifications and turn off emails and just do the exercises on your own time. Requires more discipline/persistence but is less annoying.

  6. DEspresso says:

    Can’t help but wondering.. who’s the Endboss?

  7. criskywalker says:

    It is pretty amazing! I am learning German on it right now. The most important thing is to complement it with taking notes and checking videos to improve pronunciation.

    But for vocabulary and phrases learning it is great!

  8. Vodka, Crisps, Plutonium says:

    I always thought Achievments were a very successful example of gamification. Of gaming.

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      Ninja Dodo says:

      If by successful you mean ubiquitous, then yes. Very much debatable whether those were a good idea.

      • Vodka, Crisps, Plutonium says:

        That’s exactly the point – they are cheap, effort-less tools (of Satan) to pad out time spent with the game without the need of designing any meaningful reward for the player.

        I remember first time encountering them on PC when playing Condemned: Criminal Origins. Each unlocked achievement would open up entire album of concept art for levels, enemies. Sometimes it would even unlock a video with some interesting production footage (alpha versions of the game, motion capture for the last in-game boss).
        Thought to myself “Yeah, I’m totally invested into collecting all those pigeon carcasses”

        Next time I noticed the “Achievements” section in Half-Life 2 menu, I was pointlessly trying to click on any of the unlocked ones to see what I got for unlocking them. For a few seconds my mind couldn’t comprehend that the unlocked achievement in itself was supposed to be considered a reward.

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          Ninja Dodo says:

          They also turn games into mundane checklists (do X of this, collect all the MacGuffins), ruin any sense of discovery because you can just tell what’s in the game from the Achievements and rudely interrupt both atmosphere and narrative by loudly announcing that “You have made incremental progress!” destroying any immersion that you may have been experiencing.

  9. AmazingPotato says:

    It’s terrible – it doesn’t even have controller support! Ah hahaaaaa.

    I started using it when I moved to Colombia, but I’ve been here over a year now and stopped using it months and months ago, as I soon found it was useless for teaching vocab relevant to actually living/existing here, so…ciao, Duolingo. I would still recommend it as a starting tool, though.

  10. Banks says:

    I think that Duolingo is one of the worst learning tools available. It may seem like a good idea if you have absolutely zero knowledge, but it’s so much better to learn at your own pace instead of following a vocabulary chain that leads nowhere.

    I would recommend a mixture of apps consisting of vocabulary and grammar, text or news readers with explanations and voice and certain games. To me, the “put all the words in order to make a phrase” works best, as it is fast and makes you practice the grammar and put all the vocabulary in context. But keep the games to a minimum.

    Duolingo can teach you some words but not to really learn a new language.

    • April March says:

      I don’t know. I didn’t know anything about French before Duolingo; now, I look at a sentence in French and can figure out what is the subject, the verb and the object, at the very least. Granted, my first language is Portuguese and I also speak English, so French sentence structure isn’t too strange to me; I’d need to try to learn Korean or something before I could say it’s really good. But it’s taken me from nothing to something, and while I’m not under the illusion that it’ll teach me to truly speak French (or that it’s given me the 45% fluency in the language it claims) it’s a good and fun first step. If you’re learning a new language just for the hell of it it’s an excellent choice.

  11. edwardoka says:

    Le singe mange une orange.

    The mobile app became useless when it replaced text entry with pair matching and multiple choice. It feels far more rewarding to remember something by yourself than it is to tap “ils”/”they”, and “mangent”/”eat” (and the knowledge is IMO likelier to stick.)

    There’s nothing quite like being sent multiple passive aggressive notifications every day to turn you off a concept.

  12. BaronKreight says:

    I have actually. It was german for me. Good practice.

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    Ninja Dodo says:

    Yeah I use it a lot. Completed French to improve my grammar and vocab (which I am fluent-adjacent in, but lacking range) and brushed up on my Swedish spelling (of which I am a native but infrequent speaker). Have also attempted to improve my basic German and tried to expand on the few words of Spanish and Italian I know. I’ve also dabbled in the Russian, Greek and Mandarin Chinese courses for fun but not so much serious attempts at learning.

    (add me if you want to compare notes: link to duolingo.com)

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      Ninja Dodo says:

      btw some of their lines are pretty amusing: link to twitter.com

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      Ninja Dodo says:

      Anyway, it’s super good. Don’t expect to learn a language from scratch in a vacuum but if you combine it with listening, speaking, writing and immersing yourself in the language in context it’s an *excellent* tool for getting a handle on grammar and vocabulary.

  14. Gomer_Pyle says:

    link to imgur.com

    Yeah, I’ve played it before.

  15. GDorn says:

    Once you have ‘mastered’ a language in Duolingo, a good next step is to move on to Cloze Master (link to clozemaster.com) which is also a highly gamified language teacher. Memorizing words via cloze tests has worked a lot better for me than flashcard apps that lack context.

  16. JeepBarnett says:

    For anyone learning Chinese, Japanese, or Korean try LingoDeer instead. It’s great at teaching those languages, but unfortunately is only on mobile.