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Duolingo review: A fun, functional approach to learning a language

¡Hola, Duo! This app finds solid middle ground between campy cartoons and the routine of a classroom.

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Duolingo's ease of access, tailored learning content and welcoming interface earned the language learning app a CNET Editors' Choice Award for 2021.
Shelby Brown/CNET

Learning a new language is tough, especially as an adult. Seriously, our brains just aren't wired for it the way they are when we're younger. Language learning apps are a convenient way to help us over those hurdles, but some are better than others. And in a field full of apps trying to help you understand the lyrics of your favorite Spanish songs, Duolingo shines brighter than the rest.

Duolingo

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Like

  • Old material refreshes to stay challenging as you learn and progress.
  • A majority of the app is accessible for free.
  • Reading, writing and speaking exercises used for ultimate comprehension.

Don't Like

  • Premium features aren't in everyone's budget.
  • Losing a practice streak can be discouraging

Like millions of other people around the world, I started trying to use Duolingo consistently during the early months of the pandemic. I missed my family and started digging into my ancestry in response. I learned some basic German, which my late grandmother would pepper into conversations when I was a child. I also tried to pick up where I left off in college with Spanish.

Duolingo has been around for almost 10 years and is available for iOS, Android and via browser on PC. The app employs bite-sized lessons that include speaking, listening, reading and writing to teach you a new language or brush up on a secondary language. Lessons are also gamified, which means they offer rewards and other benefits for making progress, giving you more incentive to keep learning.

When you use the app for the first time, you can choose the language you want to learn. Duolingo offers almost 100 language courses that teach 39 different languages, including endangered and indigenous languages, fictional languages like Klingon from Star Trek and High Valyrian from Game of Thrones. Duolingo will ask why you want to learn it (travel, school, job opportunities, etc.), whether you're brand new to the language, and how much time you'd like to dedicate to learning -- Casual (five minutes per day), Regular (10 minutes per day), Serious (15 minutes per day) or Intense (20 minutes per day). 

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The internet pokes fun at Duo, the app's mascot, for "threatening" reminders to keep up their lesson streak.

Video screenshot by CNET

Duolingo encourages you to meet a daily time-based goal (which you set and can change at any time). Reaching that goal earns you experience points, which translate to a numerical skill ranking, as well as access to leaderboards for competition-style features. The longer you use the app, you'll earn achievement badges and earn gems which serve as in-game currency to enhance the game elements. Along the way, a little green owl named Duo cheers you on and reminds you about completing your daily goal. Duo's "motivational" tactics have earned him a spot in meme culture as well. 

Duolingo maintains an encouraging, welcoming environment from the first time you sign on and offers a high-quality language learning experience for free (without pressuring you to upgrade to a premium subscription). The app deftly delivers lighthearted gamification without losing the ultimate goal of learning. This fun, effective learning experience is why we've given Duolingo a CNET Editors' Choice Award for 2021.

Language lessons for everyone that don't get tedious

Duolingo's streak feature is an extra motivator, but it's not where I feel the most pride when using the app. The most rewarding feeling is learning a particularly tricky conjugation, finally getting a question right that I'd missed before, being able to comprehend one of the in-app stories, or understanding a bit of dialogue in a movie. 

The app features learning units, which break down into lessons like phrases, travel, family, school, emotions, routines, weather and more technical stuff like word tenses. Lessons have five levels -- as you progress, you earn crowns and exercises get harder and more lessons unlock for future units. 

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Duolingo shows that I've reached a mastery level for most of unit one, but the "cracks' in the icon are nudges from the app to review old material. 

Shelby Brown/CNET

The lesson icon turns gold when you reach level five, but it doesn't mean you can't go back to it. Once you hit level five on a lesson, you can do three more sessions to gain a Legendary Crown, which indicates mastery and turns the icon purple. I like that past Duolingo lessons grow with you. For example, I can go back to the very first lesson that covers introductions, but because Duolingo knows I've got over 40 crowns, it won't be giving me softball questions. This makes reviewing old material way less tedious.

Besides regular lessons, you can test your knowledge with Duolingo Stories, a section of the app that tells a short, simple story. You can read along, but the story is also narrated so you can hear pronunciation and inflection. After a couple lines of dialogue, the app will ask a comprehension question, like "what is this character looking for?" If you're unsure of a vocabulary word, you can tap to get a translation and it won't count against your score. Like the regular lessons, if you've already gone through a story once, the next time you do, it'll be a bit more challenging. The stories reiterate the vocabulary words you've learned while putting them into realistic situations. 

The app also includes a forum where you can connect with other users, real-time groups you can join for a more classroom-like learning experience, a dictionary and a list of words you've learned, when you last practiced them and how strong you are with the material. Duolingo says its algorithm uses spaced repetition to determine when you should practice words to get them into your long-term memory. 

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Duolingo features a storytelling section for comprehension. Along with animated characters of different nationalities, the app includes LGBTQ+ representation. 

Shelby Brown/CNET

Duolingo also has supplementary podcasts that you can find on most podcast apps. Each episode features an interesting story from a native speaker with English narration for context. The episodes feature more intermediate language skills and won't apply towards your rank or points in the Duolingo app. They're still enjoyable to listen to and have a similar feel to a feature piece you'd hear on NPR. 

Plus, when you make an account, Duolingo makes it easy to access it across devices. For example, I can do a quick lesson on my phone, iPad or swap over to PC. The app is also pretty adaptable. For example, if you don't feel like repeating a phrase you can skip the question and the app will keep your microphone off for an hour while using the app.


Should you try Duolingo?

There's a lot of language learning apps out there to choose from (check out our favorites) and it's OK if Duolingo doesn't fit your learning style. Duolingo doesn't force you to make an account right away and doesn't harangue you about subscribing to the premium tier. In fact, you can access Duolingo content without making an account. You won't be able to save your progress, but it's a great way to test out the service with zero commitment. 

Is Duolingo Plus worth it?

The free version of Duolingo and Duolingo Plus aren't drastically different. After a 14-day free trial, Duolingo Plus costs $13 per month, but you can also subscribe for a year for about $84 ($7 per month), or choose a family plan that supports two to six people for $120 per year ($10 per month). You can also cancel Plus and revert to the free version at any time. 

Duolingo Plus levels up your earning experience by removing ads, and adding extra features like special mistake review quizzes, monthly streak repairs and mastery quizzes. You also get unlimited hearts for a smoother learning experience: In the free version, you lose hearts for incorrect answers and can only replenish them with earned gems or another practice session. In addition, Duolingo says that Plus subscribers help support the free tier for others.

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