Bilingualish? My climb through the Duolingo Spanish Skill Tree

ImageLike pretty much everybody else on the planet, I’ve wanted to eventually learn another language. It got to the point that I was on the verge of finding a way to pirate pricing out Rosetta Stone to try my hand at seriously doing some Spanish. (I picked Spanish because it shows up a lot in the clinic – I figure it’ll give me the edge later on in my medical career.) Fortunately, before I took the dive, I found out about Duolingo, which promised to provide language learning for free. I figured I’d give it a shot. Without trying to sound like too much of a shill, I’ll give you a rundown of my experiences and the pros and cons as I see them. First, for all of you skeptics wondering if they’re going to go for-pay when you’re in the middle of learning to conjugate the future sub-perfect-junctive tense, let me assure you that this is highly unlikely. I’ll quote a saying that’s been floating around the internet (I’ve traced it to the user blue_beetle on metafilter, let me know if that’s not the original usage: “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” Because Duolingo offers the “opportunity” to translate sites on the web, you’re essentially giving them your labor in exchange for your training. Because there’s no requirement to participate in the translating – you can just do the lessons if you prefer – I’m willing to buy into their cunning plan if it means yo puedo hablar espanol. 

With that in mind, I fired up their service back in March and set off down their skill tree, finally finishing it earlier today. Here are my impressions:


  • The game-like elements are extremely addictive. I found myself swallowed up by the program and kept coming back to get a few more points whenever I had some free time. 
  • The word knowledge mechanic features a spaced-forgetting algorithm. This concept, developed by neuroscientists, causes your “word strength” to deteriorate over time. This means that the skill ratings more accurately reflect reality – you can’t master a concept once and then come back two years later expecting it to be rock solid. 
  • The skill tree offers at least the illusion of a self-contained teaching path. It shares this feature with Khan Academy and Codecademy, both of which are similarly great examples of gamified learning that I’ll cover at some point if there’s interest. 
  • The visual interface is really appealing. The owl mascot, colorful visuals, and cheerful sound effects do a pretty good job of making it feel like fun, even if it is just a dressed up language quiz at its core.
  • Through its use of hover-hints, you can get right into the meat of most lessons without having to do a lot of preliminary reading. This makes the process rewarding and hands-on, but it has its pitfalls (see below). 


  • Perhaps in part because of the need to train you as a translator, there is more emphasis on being able to recognize and interpret the language compared to being able to speak it. At the end of the lessons I feel capable of extracting a meaning from a large fraction of spanish texts, but I’d be pretty hopeless to carry out a conversation or convey an original thought. 
  • It’s quite possible and tempting to lean heavily on the hover hints. I think it’ll be really important to review periodically using the timed practice to improve retrieval skills and get things into long term storage. 
  • The emphasis on diving into exercises means that precious little time is spent on concepts. I don’t claim to have any real expertise in identifying one tense over the other, and I’m far from capable of being able to discuss the language with any scholarly authority. I’m not so bothered by this because I only really care about using the language in real world situations, but it’s probably worth considering. 
  • I was not as impressed with the later sections as I was with the earlier ones. It seems like the programmers are adapting the lessons based on feedback, and I’m guessing that there’s just not as much feedback toward the end due to user dropout. There were a few lessons there where it would reject answers that were virtually identical to the correct ones, and I had to redo the lesson a half dozen times until I was passing most of the phrases by rote memorization rather than any kind of understanding. 


Where am I after taking all the lessons? I’m definitely going to need more practice on Duolingo and using some other resources before I would dare call myself fluent, but I would be much more comfortable surviving if I was airdropped into Latin America or Spain. I’ve taken 4 years of French in high school and I would bet my Spanish skills rival my French ones, especially accounting for all the atrophy to the latter skill set. All in all, I think it’s a great resource, and it’s really fed my interest in gamified learning methods. I don’t think it should be used in isolation, but it has the potential to be a central pillar in a self-taught language learning system.

If you’ve tried Duolingo or have other language learning tools that you’ve found useful, drop me a comment and let’s talk!

Some related links:

Study Spanish – one of the better “online textbook” sorts of pages

Forvo – users can upload the correct pronunciation of words in their native language

A Research Study Evaluating Duolingo – might admittedly be biased since it’s now hosted at the Duolingo site, but it claims that Duolingo is comparable to college coursework and in some cases more effective than a lot of the tools out there. 

Babbel  – an alternative language learning software (not free)

Mango Languages – another alternative language learning software. I haven’t used it in a long time but their mandarin lessons were pretty solid on the trial version. This is also not free but they appear to be trying to bill libraries to foster free access for patrons. 

Rosetta Stone – the 800 lb gorilla of language learning. If you have the money, or someone else is paying for it, this might be worth looking into. I’ve not tried it myself but it seems to be the gold standard in the field. 


20 thoughts on “Bilingualish? My climb through the Duolingo Spanish Skill Tree

  1. After seeing many friends drop their efforts of learning languages after doing Rosetta Stone, I got on the wagon with duolingo claiming to be /similar/. It is very similar, it is very free. I was really happy to do as many levels as I possibly could. Except that translating languages isn’t really what I wanted to achieve. Sure, it feels nice to be able to provide good English translations where there are none, but I am not learning anything of the source language. I think Duolingo HAS the potential to be a great grammar learning tool in overall acquisition of a language, but at the current state it misses the mark quite intensely. It familiarises the user with the language, and a lot of words, but it’s not at all efficient. I think if duolingo was partnered up with a really valuable course so the lessons and translations gravitated around core concepts of the French language, it would be of a lot greater use to the majority of people.

    Personally, what it did for me was motivate me to find more efficient ways to learn the language, which left me functionally fluent in both conversational abilities and writing abilities in about 8-10 months.

    • I can definitely see how the approach has limitations. From the discussions on duolingo itself, it seems like people really benefitted from supplementing with that studyspanish website and some other sources. I think it’d be ideal if Duolingo had an approach like KhanAcademy where they had video lessons in addition to the lessons. I know that my understanding in terms of general linguistic framework and when to use which tense is awfully weak. The issue to bear in mind is that Duolingo’s incentive to improve stops as soon as their service is sufficient to train an army of translators. They don’t need to make us fluent for their purposes, so I feel like we’ll always need to supplement our training if we want to become fluent speakers of the language we’re learning.

    • Hi Eva,
      I just finished DuoLingo spanish, and am now looking for other exercises so that I may become proficient in both speaking and comprehension especially. Do you happen to recommend any? Thanks a lot.

  2. Hi, I recently discovered Duolingo and am about half way through the tree after about 22 days of practice. I am usually doing around 10 lessons a day splitting my time 60/40 between strengthening existing words and doing new lessons. I was a complete beginner when I set out and have just reached Level 9. I am quite impressed with it so far, but feel as you have mentioned, that it focuses too much on comprehension and not enough on speaking/using the language. I have also noticed several bugs where the letter tiles provided are definitely wrong. They need to have a way to report a question that has a problem. That being said though, while not perfect, this is far and away the best language learning tool I have ever discovered.

    Just curious, what level were you on when you finished the course? Did you practice every day? How many lessons did you do on average? How much time did you spend using the strengthen feature? Have you tried to use what you learned conversationally?

    • Thanks for the comment! I was on level 14 when I finished the course. I’m getting close to level 15 now that I keep going back to practice. Yes, I practiced pretty much every day since I started – broke my streak when I had to go to out of the country for a few days, but other than that I was solid. On the average day I varied between 10 and about 50 or 60 points. I tried my best to keep most of my words at gold, so I did a fair amount of strengthening. As of yet I haven’t tried to use what I learned conversationally, but I think I’m going to pick up a book on medical spanish and a spanish language novel soon and try to work through those. I may also look for a speaking pal online to try to get some practice. I doubt I have the skill to carry on a very high level conversation yet, but the more I practice, the better I’m likely to get.

      As an aside, are you mostly using the mobile app? There is a way to report questions with problems on the website but I’m not sure the mobile app has that feature. I reported a bunch of flaws myself in the last few lessons. I’m guessing that the quality of the later lessons is going to improve as the feedback volume goes up.

      • I have pretty much only used the iPad and iPhone Apps. I discovered Duolingo when the iPad App launched, and have only logged onto the website very briefly. I find that most of my studying is done on the go in taxis, on the train etc. For this reason I have not used the desktop version. They need to add a report feature to the iPad and iPhone Apps.

  3. As a long-time Duolingo user and currently an exchange student in Chile, the more I use Duolingo the more I feel it to be definitely way too much hyped. Its “language-learning” way is *fundamentally* wrong. Sure, after all that you might understand a little bit of text extractions of the language. But you can’t understand anything by ear and can’t speak anything by tongue. What’s the point? Not to mention it’s really really dangerous to have a English thinking pattern behind new languages which is very hard to rectify. And to say Rosetta Stone is “gold standard” is totally ridiculous. Currently I figure there’s still no way to replace solid small-class teaching, and immersive practice. Really. What Duolingo excels at is opening the door and bringing in the interest, for free, but little more.

  4. FYI, I have studied the Rosetta Stone lessons extensively for Russian and paid a lot of money–twice– and really didn’t learn that much Russian, which is too bad, since I was living in Moscow at the time! I would much rather take Duolingo Russian lessons, if there were any. I’m on level 18 in Spanish, coming down the home stretch.

  5. I am on level 7 Spanish on Duolingo and I’m using it in tandem with a private tutor once per week. Having two very different methods to learn has been helpful – it reinforces the skills I’ve already picked up. I am also ahead of the app when it comes to verb conjugation because that is one of the first things my tutor wanted me to learn. He focuses on the language structure and grammar first, how to construct a proper sentence, then we build the vocabulary around it. Duolingo starts with vocabulary and builds the sentence structure in. Having both has been a great way to learn a lot quickly.

  6. The maximum level you can reach at graduating in a language -without practicing, re-strengthening words, and/or translating texts, or redoing lessons-, is 11 or 12 depending of the language.

  7. I am using DuoLingo in parallel to LingQ where I am a paying member. I am enjoying both greatly. LingQ for the wealth of material and languages and for the independence and possibilities of talking to others which it offers. I was also given a year on Babbel as a present, but not for a DL language. I enjoy Babbel for its structure and steadily-growing course content. DuoLingo also provides a relatively structured way for beginners and allows me to feel nice and nerdy while playing at learning (and actually learning how to type fast in a foreign language. I find the spelling aspect more challenging in French than in Spanish, but that is natural, I suppose, given the intricacies of French. I would never spend money on Rosetta Stone.

  8. I paid for Rosetta stone to learn German. I lasted about two weeks before I decided to try Duolingo just to see how much better Rosetta stone was. I haven’t touched Rosetta stone since, and probably never will. Despite the price differential, Duolingo is vastly superior IMO.

  9. I had some latin in high school. Lived in Germany for 18 months and learned enough language to get by. Subsequently had two years of German in college. Started Duolingo Spanish in January 2014. It is now June 2014. I Have been using Duolingo on an off. Longest streak is 22 days. I am on level 11 and know I will finish the program. Duolingo is by far the best learning tool I have used. I do not feel proficient in speaking the language and alternatively have added Pimsleur Spanish to assist in speaking spanish.I would not have had enough interest to follow through if not for Duolingo. I think it will be the written language learning process of the future.

  10. Duolingo will not make you fluent but it sure beats flashcards for just building that base vocabulary to excel in a classroom environment.

  11. I found that i was able to learn the Duolingo Spanish material well up to the first preposition lesson. After that there began to be inconsistencies in the grammar structures that were never explained. For example, (rhetorical questions) why did some sentences include “a” after a verb, and some didn’t? Why is “for” sometimes translated as “por” and other times as “para”? Why is the verb “to be” sometimes expressed as “ser” and other times as “estar?” The list goes on. Without any explanation, i would be marked wrong for using a word to mean something when I had just been marked correct when using it to mean the exact same thing. This has been discouraging, especially after the success with the 1st levels. I was able to find some of the answers on the web, but I think that having a teacher who can explain the concepts is very important.

  12. I am on level 13 Duolingo Spanish with 104 lessons to go, all my strengths are full. The pure repetition makes things stick and along with trying things out with my Spanish hosts ( I live in Spain ) I am pleased how things are progressing. I am not in a race to the end and mostly its keeping the bars full with the odd new lesson completed. All the points you raise above Helen I find answered in the flag by other users and if I’m still unsure I seek an answer elsewhere.

  13. I first used Duolingo to help me pick up a little German and now am using it to try to learn French. I took French in sixth and seventh grade, but not since then. Duolingo is definitely very helpful, as I can tell that I’m making a lot of progress in the language even though I haven’t been trying to learn it for that long. It’s definitely best for reading, and understanding and speaking at faster paces will probably take more training.

  14. Rosetta stone is an absolute waste of money. It’s good for very basic understanding, but, not worth the money as far as what they advertise.

    • I have an active subscription to Rosetta Stone now. I am not using it. Instead, I am eagerly waiting for Duolingo to get its Russian course ready; it’s due in a month or two.

  15. I’m about halfway done with Duolingo, and I’ve had some surprisingly lovely moments when I passively listen to Spanish radio and suddenly realize I can understand most of it. I also like astounding the Spanish-speaking kids I coach by occasionally speaking to them in Spanish. Duolingo is awesome! Still, I keep in mind that fluency is pretty much unattainable unless you also practice speaking to a human.


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