Duolingo was the first free language-learning app to rival expensive paid programs. It offers plenty of self-paced exercises to help you build a base understanding of dozens of languages or review one you already know. It’s easily the best free language app you can find, and our Editors’ Choice. Even when measured against paid programs, the content is so good that Duolingo still ranks among the best software for learning a language.
While Duolingo offers instruction for dozens of languages, some are stronger than others. For example, if you’re learning Spanish as an English speaker, you’ll find a podcast, interactive short stories, and even get-togethers with other learners (which are online-only in light of COVID-19). More boutique languages don’t have as much content, however. Even so, Duolingo is one of the best language learning apps for getting acquainted with a new language or improving your existing skills. It has wonderful exercises and a clear interface, and it works well on both desktop and mobile devices.
Duolingo has courses in around 34 languages, and that’s only counting the ones that use English as the language of instruction. There are many more if you add up all the courses that use a different base language, such as Catalan for Spanish speakers.
The 34 languages for English speakers—excluding languages from works of fiction—are: Arabic, Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Esperanto, French, German, Greek, Hawaiian, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian (in beta), Indonesian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Navajo (in beta), Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese (Brazilian), Romanian, Russian, Scottish Gaelic, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish, Turkish, Ukrainian, Vietnamese, and Welsh. A Finnish course is in development. Duolingo also has material for learning Klingon (in beta) and High Valyrian (we exclude languages from works of fiction in our official count).
If you know someone looking to learn English, Duolingo has programs for speakers of many languages: Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Czech, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hindi, Hungarian, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Punjabi, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, and Vietnamese.
Duolingo started out as a free app with the promise to remain free forever. The company has kept that promise by becoming ad-supported and offering a paid membership called Duolingo Plus.
Plus costs $12.99 per month, with a discount if you pay for a year ($79.99) or half year ($47.99) upfront. The Plus membership removes ads, lets you download lessons to do offline in the mobile app, and allows you to use the mobile app to an unlimited degree. It also gives you one free “streak repair” per month, meaning if you skip a day of practice, your stats in Duolingo won’t be affected.
The $12.99 per month price is fair, though higher than it once was. Yearly access for similar programs typically costs between $100 and $200, with more traditional software (the kind you keep forever) falling into the same range.
Should You Pay for Duolingo Plus?
You might consider paying for Duolingo Plus if you love Duolingo and want to support the people making it or if you primarily use the mobile app (for Android and iOS) rather than the web app. The two are nearly identical except for one big difference: hearts.
In the Duolingo mobile app, you start with five hearts. Every time you get an exercise wrong, you lose one. When you’re out of hearts, you can no longer do exercises until you earn some back. To refill your hearts, you must either wait (five hours per piece) or spend 350 gems; you get gems by simply using the app. With a Duolingo Plus membership, you don’t ever have to worry about hearts.
You also don’t have to worry about hearts when you use Duolingo on a desktop browser. They simply don’t exist there, meaning you can practice and learn for as long as you want. If you’re going to use Duolingo for free, I highly recommend using the web app to prevent heartache over the hearts system.
That said, there are times when it makes sense to use the mobile app because you’re on the go and have a few minutes to learn.
Getting Started With Duolingo
Since Duolingo launched, I’ve used it to study or review multiple languages. Some of them were brand-new to me, and some I had learned before. Recently, I’ve been using it to brush up my Spanish, which I’m also strengthening in an unrelated online course. I did the same thing a few years ago with Romanian when I used it as a complementary study aid.
When you first get started, and depending on the language, there may be a placement test if you already have some knowledge of the languages. By taking the placement test, you may be able to skip some of the more elementary lessons, like learning simple words and verb conjugations.
You always have the option to start from the beginning, of course. Additionally, you can study as many languages as you want at a time, and you can switch between courses at any time.
Learners often take structure for granted. When it’s present, we don’t notice it. When it’s missing, learning can seem painful and aimless. What exercises should I do next? Am I ready to learn new words? Should I review what I learned yesterday?
Duolingo is highly organized and structured. The app’s home screen displays a list of modules in order. Every module has a topic, whether it’s grammatical (Reflexives, Imperfect tense) or thematic (Arts, Sports). Each module contains multiple lessons. You have to pass a certain number of lessons to unlock the next set of modules. On average, each lesson takes me three or four minutes to complete.
You mostly work in chronological order, although you can go back to a lesson you’ve already completed and re-do it any time you want. As you progress, words and concepts that you learned earlier re-appear. New words get highlighted. Once you’ve finished a fair amount of introductory material, you can review what you’ve learned by taking a practice test. Look for the dumbbell icon.
Each module has levels. For example, you can pass level one of a module about the preterite to see it marked completed and have it unlock some of the following content. If there are multiple levels for that module, however, you can optionally complete them to continue practicing that skill. If you finish all the levels within a module, the icon for it turns into a gold coin. If you don’t return to practice it after a long time, the coin breaks. You repair it by returning to the module and completing some levels again.
Bear in mind that some languages don’t have as much content as others. Some may have only one level in each module.
We already mentioned that placement tests let you skip modules that you don’t need to learn. You also have the option (again, depending on the language and where you are with it) to take a test to get exempt from the current module if you find it too easy.
In my experience, starting from square one isn’t a bad way to go. It forces you to review vocabulary and basic concepts, while also giving you time to get acclimated to how Duolingo works. You can also breeze through some of the beginner modules in a few minutes. However, depending on your experience, Duolingo’s core exercises might not be challenging enough. In those cases, be sure to explore all the content under Stories in the app, and check to see if there’s a Duolingo podcast for your language. Stories start out easy and advance to an intermediate level—stick with them until all the English disappears. The podcasts are designed for intermediate speakers. They use a mix of English and the language you’re learning, spoken by native speakers. Duolingo makes the transcripts available online, too.
If Duolingo simply isn’t challenging enough, try Yabla, an online learning program with videos of native speakers using different accents and everyday language. There’s much harder content there.
The Learning Experience
Duolingo can help you develop a base level of knowledge for a variety of languages, but it’s limited in what it teaches and how much it challenges you. Depending on your goals and prior experience, you’ll likely want to strengthen your reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills. You’ll also want to know if there’s any real language generation, in other words, coming up with an idea that you want to express on the spot without pausing too much to translate from English.
Reading, Writing, Translating
In Duolingo, you’re primarily translating, which is a type of reading and writing. Typically, you translate a word, words, or sentence from the language you’re learning into the language of instruction, or vice versa. You might type the answer using the keyboard or cobble together a sentence by selecting the correct words from a word bank. You can choose whether to use the word bank or type out the words, depending on what kind of challenge you want. Sometimes, an exercise has you pick the correct translation from a list of options.
Through these exercises, you learn vocabulary, see verbs in different forms, and generally get used to the structure of sentences in the new language. Translating helps you practice agreement and other grammatical skills, too.
Duolingo could improve by getting you to focus on some concepts more deliberately. For example, when translating a sentence using a word bank, you can usually rule out several words that are completely unrelated to the others. If the sentence seems to be about grandmothers cooking, you can rule out words like architecture and swimming. A harder challenge would be to fill the word bank with similar words or even variations on the same word, such as “hear, hears, heard.” Duolingo does have one exercise where you pick the correct form of a word, but it comes up only rarely and it doesn’t mix the words with others from the sentence.
Listening and Reading
Listening and reading exercises have improved tenfold since Duolingo launched its series of podcasts. They’re only available for Spanish and French at the moment, but they’re great. You can play the episodes on Duolingo’s website or download them to a podcasting app, such as Apple Podcast. The benefit of listening via Duolingo’s site is that the transcripts are there, too.
In each 20-minute episode, native speakers tell true stories, with an English-speaking host breaking in regularly to provide context in English. It’s stellar content and is challenging for anyone who is not yet at a conversational level.
In addition to the podcasts, Stories also work your listening and comprehension skills a bit more than the core exercises. These interactive stories have you listen to and read a short story while answering questions about what you heard and read. They’re only available in select languages, including Spanish, French, German, and Portuguese. The voices used in the story sound natural, which makes them enjoyable. The questions look similar to any other exercise, but to answer them, you must have paid attention to the content of the story and any new words that appeared, so it requires active listening and comprehension. As you advance through this section, the stories get harder and harder, with new vocabulary, more complex sentence structures, and a mix of verb tenses.
Another place you’ll find reading is anywhere you see a light bulb icon. One occasionally appears when you click on a new module. These reading sections are in English (or your language of instruction) and typically explain some grammatical point. Sometimes these sections are crucial to your understanding, and in those instances, I wish they were more prominent in the course material. As they are now, they seem secondary.
Speaking and Generating
In the core program, speaking and listening aren’t given much attention. The speaking exercises are optional. You can enable or disable them in the settings, and you can temporarily disable them if you’re in a location where you can’t do them.
For these types of exercises, you typically repeat or read aloud something on-screen and the app assesses whether you’ve said it correctly.
Duolingo used to have a section called Clubs that was meant to help you generate the language more, but it’s since been retired.
Events still exist, however. These are meet-ups among people learning the same language as you who want to practice. Even with COVID-19, there are still plenty of virtual meet-ups.
If you need to focus more on speaking and generating, I highly recommend Pimsleur or Michel Thomas. Both are named for the professors who created them, and both are old-school audio-guided programs, only now you can get them as digital files instead of on cassette or CD. Their strength is in getting you to think through how you would say a certain phrase or sentence before you open your mouth. Instead of always doing straight translations, you work your way up to responding to prompts.
Best Free Language-Learning App
Considering what you can get from it, Duolingo is the best free language-learning app you can find. It’s unlikely to take you from a beginner to fluent, or even conversationally proficient, but it gives you exercises that help you learn a lot about a new language and practice it daily. Using Duolingo is an excellent way to supplement other learning, whether classroom-based or self-taught.
|No. of Languages Offered (Not Incl. English)||35|
|Average Duration of Lesson (Mins)||4|
|Live Tutoring Included With Package Reviewed||No|