Duolingo needs little introduction. The cute owl has been motivating and prodding language learners all over the world to make progress in their app for 11 years now.
It is the most popular language learning app in the world, and almost every language learner has had it on their phone at one stage and has an opinion on it.
So we thought we would do a review of the German track of Duolingo to find how useful it is in helping you learn German. Let's dive in!
Lernen macht Spass!
Duolingo makes use of a gamified learning format. By interacting with the app on a daily basis, you are able to unlock certain features to enhance your learning experience.
This follows the theory that the more fun a learner has, the more likely they are to remember what has been taught, and the more they are motivated to study.
As you finish (and then repeat) a lesson, and maintain Duolingo’s infamous daily language study streaks, you earn points (known as Lingots), hearts and level ups (in the form of crowns). Each new level unlocked allows you to receive achievement badges. Lingots and heart are used for in-app purchases such as costumes and access to extra lessons.
All of this is designed to keep you engaged as a learner, and coming back every day to practise. As language teachers like to say: ‘little and often is the key’ and Duolingo certainly offers incentives to follow that advice.
The app has a cutesy art style that will appeal more to some students than others.
The interface is quick to learn and easy to use – and is the same across Duolingo’s languages.
New vocabulary is presented with graphics which might help with memory, though how useful the ‘flashcard style’ presentation is a debate among language teachers and researchers.
Duolingo makes use of a spaced repetition system, which research does suggest is useful for both retention and recall of vocabulary. The Duolingo system keeps track of how long it has been since you last saw a word or phrase in the app, and will prompt you to revise it after an allotted amount of time.
Finding other Learners
Duolingo is one of the most popular language learning apps, and has a large community of loyal users across social media platforms. Duolingo’s dedicated forum is busy, and has learners, teachers and natives as members, meaning there is always someone to answer any question you may have.
This removes the isolation that can be felt by self-studying students, and the gentle competition amongst friends and community members in order to gain a place on the leaderboard each week can be motivating for competitive learners.
Duolingo German has recently undergone a redesign, which now allows it to align more closely with the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) than it did in the past, while still following the core Duolingo format.
Each ‘skill’ (Duolingo’s term for a themed lesson) teaches a small core of vocabulary (either individual words or whole phrases) and provides practice of others that were covered in previous skills.
The vocabulary is organised by topic, which is a popular organisation system in language learning culture. While this helps with memorisation, it is not useful when it comes to using words in a variety of different contexts, and so an effort must be made to associate words with other topics where they might be useful.
The ‘skills’ are arranged into groups, with each skill building on the last. Each skill must be completed multiple times so you can level up and progress to the next one. At current count, German has a total of 133 skills.
This progression is very useful for a total beginner, because it provides you with a logically structured course. However, the inability to choose skills can be frustrating for those finding the current level too easy, or age-inappropriate. (It feels like the beginner skills were created for school children, as they make use of words and phrases that are not often needed in adult life.)
That said, Duolingo German does provide a placement test feature, which allows you to potentially skip certain skills if you feel you are of a specific level. While this is great in theory, the question offered can feel restrictive, broad and harshly marked. Accuracy is prized over knowledge, and so unlocking appropriate levels can be difficult.
Receptive Skills – Reading and Listening
As with many study apps, Duolingo’s focus is reading and listening.
When it is playing audio files the quality is good, though the phrases can be quite fast.
Duolingo’s stories (written in German to provide reading comprehension practice) provide a greater challenge for improving receptive skills. The stories are funny and hyperbolic, which keep you engaged and entertained. They contain a lot of vernacular German, which is great for improving your skills in informal, chatty language, but the vocabulary can sometimes be a little stilted.
Productive language skills – Writing and Speaking
Duolingo offers hardly any speaking practice apart from the repetition of phrases. This is not a criticism of Duolingo, as many study apps have the same limitation. The Apple app allows for recording of your voice, so you can test your pronunciation against that of natives. The Android and Windows apps currently do not have that functionality. In practical terms, speaking is a difficult skill to study without a partner, so it seems unfair to judge Duolingo for this.
Duolingo offers lots of translation activities for writing practice. While this is fine in theory, the algorithm that grades the translations does not always take into account certain German peculiarities. For example, it does not insist on capitalising nouns in the German phrases.
The algorithm is also very restrictive in terms of synonyms. Where there are translations that have many different (and equally correct) answers, the app will only recognise the one that has been programmed as being correct.
How does Duolingo German teach vocabulary?
Each skill contains a range of activities chosen at random from those available.
The types of activities offered by Duolingo German are:
- • Arrange the words in a translated phrase into the right order.
- • Arrange the words in a sentence into the right order.
- • Translate a phrase from German into English (and vice versa.)
- • Tap matching words.
- • Transcribe what you hear.
- • Choose the right picture to match a word.
- • Choose the right word to match a picture.
- • Choose the correct pronunciation of a word.
- • Listen to a phrase or story and answer a comprehension question.
These are all standard Duolingo activities available across the platform.
They also mimic the types of activities you might find in a German textbook or classroom situation, making this a traditional learning experience in an electronic form.
CEFR Levels and Vocabulary
Completing the German course teaches you approximately 2000 words, which is in the A2-B1 CEFR bracket. But it’s important to keep in mind that your receptive skills will be more honed than the productive skills, so you will find yourself better at understanding German than at speaking it.
Beginners and False Beginners
This means that Duolingo German could be a good fit for complete beginners who want to gain their first 2000 words, false beginners (people who have studied some German before but feel like they’ve forgotten it) looking to gain some confidence before tackling a pre-intermediate course, and those who are curious about German and want to see if they enjoy the language before investing in a course.
It could also be a good starting point for younger children, and adults who were put off by grammar explanations at school, as there are only brief (optional) explanations of grammatical rules. Standard grammar is taught in context using words and phrases.
However, this can be a negative for those who wish to hone their grammar skills. Some of the more complex German grammatical forms (the dative case, for example, or past tenses) are glossed and don’t have clear lessons related to them. Given that grammar is something that students of German find difficult it would be wise to pair Duolingo with a grammar book if you were using it as your primary learning tool.
This lack of grammar instruction also makes it difficult to create complex sentences. Ideas that are simple to express in English (such as “I’m drinking tea because I am thirsty”) are more complex in German due to rules about subordinate clauses (“Ich trinke Tee, weil ich durstig bin”) and without knowing that, you can end up saying something that doesn’t make sense (“Ich trinke Tee, weil ich bin durstig.”)
Formal and Informal
Unfortunately, this lack of grammatical explanation applies to politeness rules too, and so learners don’t learn the difference between polite and casual phrases, which is massively important in German! This could be problematic if you are looking to learn for business purposes.
We hope you enjoyed our review of Duolingo German! Perhaps you found it helpful in deciding how to approach learning the wonderful German language. There are so many tools available and a little bit of research never hurts. Viel Spaß!
Darren, the author, has been a language teacher for sixteen years, and has taught all ages from pre-school to adults. He has been a German speaker since he was 12 years old.
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