Why Duolingo is a bad way to learn a language (and what to do instead)

Why Duolingo is a bad way to learn a language (and what to do instead)

Prior to the digital world, we had few options for learning a foreign language – a book or a teacher. That still works well, but requires a time and discipline. Modern life is busy and fast-paced, and we are searching for quick shortcuts to achieve anything, from learning a foreign language in a month to losing 10kg a week. Language learning apps are an attractive option in a way they market themselves – learn a bit here and there, during the commute to work and back, at the coffee break, and voilá – you can freely express yourself in French, German or Spanish.

The reality could not be more different. You keep forgetting those words and phrases you were learning for weeks the same way you forgot those theorems after a math exam. While I’ve read many successful stories of learning a language with the app, I argue that you need to spend way way way (way!) more time with Duolingo (same for Quizlet, Lingvist and others) to learn the same level of language than that with a good book or a teacher.

Spoiler: such apps don’t have any narrative.
Yes, some of them are built upon a scientifically proven spaced repetition technique, but it doesn’t play nicely with random words and sentences that they throw at you.

Look, an author from the Atlantic had spent 70+ hours in Duolingo learning Italian, yet he could not produce any meaningful sentences. As the creator of Duolingo commented: “We prefer to be more on the addictive side than the fast-learning side. If someone drops out, their rate of learning is zero.”

These apps work so hard to make them as addictive as possible and hit the usage numbers, such that the learning process suffers. The faster you learn – the sooner you stop using the apps, which is their core business! Until those apps prioritize their learning process over addiction, you’re better off with a good book or a teacher. I mean, all they needed to do was to simply make a digital copy of a good teaching book, with built-in audio exercises and written exercise checking.

Now that you’ve uninstalled Duolingo, here are a few resources I can recommend that do have a reasonable narrative and a learning program.


  • https://learngerman.dw.com/en/overview – levels A1 to B1, following the story of Nico (Nico's Weg), a Spanish guy who run away to Germany from his parents, and met his love there, who is another immigrant (nice plot!). Completely free as Deutche Welle is funded by the German Government.
  • https://deutsch.info/ -- levels A1 to B2, learning process is organized around topics (opening a bank account, going to the cinema, political systems of Germany and Austria). Also completely free as funded by the EU. Less engaging than Nico's Weg, but still okay.


  • http://www.nestor.su/france.html – Le français.ru, a series of books from A1 to C1 with audio exercises tailored specifically for Russian speakers. Book chapters create small plots around a number of families living in the same neighborhood. And it's very funny to follow them!

Russian, Hebrew, Japanese

  • https://www.lingualift.com/ – learn Russian, Hebrew or Japanese. Costs 29$/month, provides a custom program with apps, worksheets and tutors.