I was sure I’d quit at 500 days. It’s a nice, round number, and the plucky mascot performs a happy dance to mark the occasion. I’d completed the abbreviated Chinese course months ago and resorted to practicing rusty Spanish and Swedish to keep my daily playing streak. Walking away would have been the logical thing. Then came my 501st day using Duolingo, and I kept going.
Two-plus years of tapping and matching in Mandarin took me from zero to a very basic understanding of how the language works, though I understand frustratingly little of what my mother-in-law says at the speed of actual human communication, catching a 東西, 喜歡, or 紅色 while the rest whizzes by. Yet I do not leave, lest I disappoint the owl. And I’m far from alone.
A dozen years into its life, Duolingo has entered its imperial phase. Co-founded by the guy who created CAPTCHA, the app is still hooking aspiring language learners with its welcoming interface, with its unabashedly addictive features, and most importantly by being free. It has become an enormous stealth social network of more than 60 million users, including lots of people you know. It defeated rivals such as Babbel to become the dominant language-learning app, and the only way many people think about how to learn a language. The COVID-19 pandemic and the sudden cultural ubiquity of language-focused artificial intelligence only raised its profile: Time named Duolingo one of 2023’s most innovative apps, and this spring CEO Luis von Ahn revealed to the New Yorker his inevitable plan to use ChatGPT-like A.I. bots as conversation partners and instructors. Inside the app, the company crows that its courses are as good as multiple semesters of college instruction, and that more people are learning a language on Duolingo than in the entire public school system.
As long as Duolingo has been around, though, users and onlookers have asked: Does this even work? The company points to a variety of research papers to back up its efficacy as at least a basic learning tool. But language experts question how far its simple lessons can take someone, and users have posted its ridiculous turns of phrase (like “his head is too small, I am very scared”) to social media or wondered aloud whether the app’s assurances of progress translate into anything in the world beyond. Tapping practice sentences on your phone is a far cry from conversing in someone else’s language. In jokes on Saturday Night Live, Duolingo has become synonymous with casually studying Spanish or Italian before a vacation, or for the aspirational clout of telling others you’re learning a second language.
The punchlines land because users know. The reasons why we stay—even though we realize we’re not progressing much beyond asking for the bathroom—reveal something about our desire for technological ease to take the place of human connection.
“[Everybody] wants to do something extremely fast, and this is not a fast process,” says Elizabeth Bernhardt-Kamil, a professor of German and director of the Language Center at Stanford University. “Everybody is focused on the shortcut to everything, and real language learning can’t be done in a shortcut.”
It’s far from clear we’re getting anything from Duolingo’s purported speed. I’m not even sure it’s fun anymore. And there are quicker ways to not learn a language.
Begin a new course on Duolingo and you’ll see a descending path of circles meant to look like stepping stones to fluency. To complete each circle, users work through several lessons. The first might introduce a few new words, while the others reinforce your new vocabulary by repeating them in simple, perplexing, or cutting sentences. (I learned how to say “I have 1,500 cat pictures on my cellphone” in Mandarin, and frankly, I don’t appreciate the attitude.) Along the way, users translate text from the new language into their native one or vice versa by tapping on words to form a sentence in order. Sometimes it asks you to listen or speak, though you can simply skip those. Duolingo throws in a few timed challenges, partially to convince you to spend the in-app currency you’ve earned—or bought, if you’re impatient. It’s possible to push oneself a little further, especially with the app’s paid version. But the overall mechanics are simple.
The rest of it keeps players hooked. Duolingo deploys the familiar neurotransmitter triggers tech companies have perfected to increase “engaged time.” It sends nagging notifications at night if you’ve failed to extend your streak of consecutive days, some of which stalk you into the real world or create bizarre, threatening accidental notification chains. It creates arbitrary targets and goals such as lessons completed or experience points (XP) accumulated to heighten feelings of accomplishment. It encourages you to connect with real-world friends, then dials up the social pressure—to stoke competitiveness, Duo sends an email if a friend passes you in total points, and it pairs you on points “quests” with a friend you can’t bear to disappoint. Last year, I paid real money to subscribe to a more sophisticated app with better features and a far bigger vocabulary. Thanks to social anxiety and the sunk-cost fallacy, I still use Duolingo a lot more.
The brain traps are certainly good for Duo itself. Like any tech company that traffics in attention, it has every reason to keep users inside the walled garden as long as possible and little incentive to see them graduate. Users are complicit in the bargain too. We tolerate or even like these tricks because it feels as if we’re putting the best practices of smartphone addiction to work on our bucket list.
But language instruction via app isn’t just addictive. It’s comfortable. The marketing efforts of Duolingo and its competitors suggest that replacing a few minutes of social media is all it takes to pick up a new tongue. In no time, you’ll converse with foreigners who’ll be so, so proud of you for being the good kind of American. The awkwardness of screwing up in front of strangers, butchering their language and sweating while you raid the mind’s dusty corners for a verb conjugation, is not to be found here. Duolingo happens mostly on the couch, alone. Like DoorDash or Lyft, it replaces talk with tap and puts the safety of a smartphone interface between one human and another. Except this is about language, and talking to another person is the whole point.
Ultimately, Duolingo is a double fantasy. It pulls people in on the promise of speaking effortless French in a Parisian bakery, on being a sophisticate with the drive to learn another language. (See also the movie cliché in which the American protagonist speaks a little of a foreign language, cinematic shorthand for how cool and worldly they are.) It also implies you can learn a language without the vulnerability that accompanies being bad at something before you can be good.
The solo sales pitch sells, though. My wife speaks Mandarin to her parents, and, after years of dithering, I started Duolingo in 2021 to do something, anything, before the onset of middle-aged brain atrophy. I knew night classes with real people were better. But with the pandemic in full swing, I could assure myself class was not only expensive but unsafe—better stick to the apps. I learned basic sentence structure, simple words and phrases. Eventually, I knew I needed something more—real people to talk to, or at least a better app. Real people, though, don’t hand out a golden badge or 50 bonus points at conversation’s end.
The ladies with their fashion tops and European cigarettes bask in the afternoon sun as I walk up to Coucou, a French-language learning space in Silver Lake for cool Angelenos. Totems of Frenchness fill the modern interior, where the liqueurs are on display and the French press coffee is ready.
Marianne Perret, its founder and chief operating officer, says the milieu is the method. Language is a part of culture, and as language teachers like Bernhardt-Kamil have been saying for years, the best way to learn it is through cultural immersion. If a monthslong sabbatical in the 6th arrondissement isn’t feasible, then a trip to Coucou’s little Paris in Los Angeles or its original Manhattan home may be the next best thing.
The French instructors have dabbled with app learning. They recommend Duolingo to their students for home practice between classes and have collaborated with the app to help it design live workshops for learners who want to leap out of the smartphone and speak in person. But when trying to learn a new language, they met with the same results as the rest of us.
“I’ve been doing Spanish Duolingo for a while,” chief marketing officer Margaux Clermontel says. “I used to speak pretty good Spanish, [but] suddenly I ended up with some Argentinian people, and I was so bad. It was terrible. I was trying so hard, but it didn’t, you know, come naturally.”
Apps teach stiff, textbook vocabulary—either that, Perret says, or they spit out alien verbiage worthy of the Shit Duolingo Says Twitter account. Learning “The bear gave birth to a duck” in Norwegian doesn’t adequately prepare someone for conversation, unless that conversation is with a mad scientist from Trondheim. Duolingo will ask users to speak, and its algorithm tries to understand whether they uttered the correct syllables, but this crude solution pales in comparison to hearing a flesh-and-blood French woman explain that you sound like a robot and your pronunciation stinks.
Instructors like Bernhardt-Kamil think in terms of a student’s level of proficiency. Simple ideas, like saying thank-you or asking for the bathroom, are the reach of basic Duolingo or a first-semester course. A true back-and-forth conversation is far beyond. She remembers a simple interaction she had in Berlin, when her husband mistakenly ordered the wrong dish in German. She had to call the waiter over to apologize, use the correct polite tone, and fix the order. Simple for a native speaker, possible for the truly dedicated learner, vexing for the user who learned how to say only “Dog food is better than no food” on an app.
There is a place for phone learning. It is practice made fun. The basic instruction can make a major difference for people who need language learning to live and work in a new culture. It gets people interested in studying a language or reconnecting with one they left behind.
The problem is that Duolingo is a single piece that sells itself as the whole puzzle. We need more than this—despite our hesitance to try anything less cushy and reassuring than Duolingo or that doesn’t reward our hard work with fake points. I know that an app isn’t the path to truly speaking and understanding Mandarin. But every morning, I sell myself on the daydream that tapping away in the darkness is productive. Or I can’t stand the thought of losing my precious streak, so I push through one more day.
Is this so bad? Not everyone believes in the fantasy or aspires to fluency, after all. Duolingo can be a preparation for a trip abroad, a Wordle-esque source of group-chat intrigue, or a hobby—and it’s perfectly fine to suck at a hobby that makes you happy. But language is ultimately about people, Perret says. That’s true whether or not you plan to read Les Misérables in the original French. Plenty of Coucou’s comers don’t complete the course but continue showing up to group events like the Bastille Day party to remain part of a little Francophile community. Even if they don’t reach conversational français, they’ve cracked the possibly tougher problem of making new friends as an adult.
Compare that with the future of app learning and its promise of talking to a machine—a technocratic solution to the all-time analog problem of connection across cultures. Chitchat with ChatGPT or its successors may push learners a little further, encouraging them to active pursuits such as writing or speaking sentences rather than doing repetitive exercises. Even so, they’re learning the Machine’s English.
“It’s a sanitized version of how people interact,” Bernhardt-Kamil says. “The really positive part of language learning is interacting with other people. I think that’s the point.”
Another plus about learning language the old way? You can take a few days off.