One of the most well-known resources for learning a language – multiple languages, in fact – is Duolingo. This site can be accessed either over the internet on a computer or laptop, or on your phone as an app. It is also designed very well in that the Duolingo on the phone works just as well as the one on the internet.
One of the best things about Duolingo is that it’s a free resource. This is especially worth noting because the way that it works is quite similar to Rosetta Stone, which is coincidentally and notoriously expensive. Another thing that works in Duolingo’s favor is the vast array of languages that it offers – at no charge – while Rosetta Stone charges for each language you pursue.
Duolingo (and Rosetta Stone) follow a very natural and intuitive teaching method. Instead of there being charts of pronouns and their conjugations in different tenses, you learn on the go. Formal education teaches things from the standpoint of explaining them and then using them in action. In contrast, Duolingo frequently employs sentence construction via translation or sound and will mark what’s wrong in your sentence after you’ve done it.
A typical example sentence would be something simple like El conejo come carne “The rabbit eats meat” – such sentences are sometimes quite silly or illogical but they do show the verb in action. If by chance you wrote, El conejo comen carne it would show up in red with a large X telling you that it should be come because comen is plural.
If by chance you didn’t know the words el conejo or (la) carne, Duolingo sometimes offers a dictionary function where you can press on a word that’s underlined and see its definition. This is helpful for new words or ones you’ve never seen before. The program also periodically speaks the sentence so you can hear the words and speak along.
One of the best things about Duolingo is that, similarly to Rosetta Stone and in formal education, there’s a part where you can speak and the program will judge your pronunciation. This can be good or bad. First, it assumes that you have access to a microphone, and secondly, it assumes you can speak in public. This part can be skipped if you want, though it does raise a potential issue: can the program accurately judge your accent the way a real live person can?
The answer is probably not, since all accents are different and a person or native speaker can give you better tips and feedback than a simple pass or fail.
Duolingo employs the ability to assemble sentences with a “pick-and-click” option where your sentence is something like “She is Mexican” and your word bank would be: Ella, él, es, son, mexicana, inglés, de… Your goal would be to drag the words Ella then es then mexicana and hit Enter.
Another way Duolingo teaches is by translation, which is helpful, though sometimes not always. You may get the sentence, “She is Mexican” and have to type in Ella es mexicana by yourself. This method can be quite helpful, but it does have its limitations.
One sentence I received was: Como carne. I mistakenly put, “Like meat”. In reality, it meant “I eat meat”. However, the error here is because como means “like” or “as”, while como as a conjugation of comer in present tense: “I eat”. Sometimes Duolingo will give you words or sentences that don’t have context and that can lead to some mistakes.
Other examples I can give of the lack of context was in the nationality section – because Duolingo works in lesson plans, one section related to verbs, one for pronouns, one for nationalities, and so on. In this section, I was introduced to the words americano, estadounidense, and norteamericano. All of these translate as something like “American”, but in different contexts that are not really touched upon.
As someone who has studied Spanish before, I know that estadounidense means “from the United States”, while americano is more simply “American” (which applies more generally to a person from any part of the Americas, North or South), and norteamericano is “North American”, though “North American” could technically apply to Canadians as well. If I were someone just starting out, I don’t know if I would have understood the difference in a real way, and in the context of just using the program itself, I don’t know where I could find more information about it. There are some pieces of information that do seem to require more than just passing knowledge.
Something that could be good or bad is that there are some courses in the program that you “purchase” with experience. You are rewarded with a gem-like “lingot” for completing certain courses and you accumulate them until you “purchase” a new course. For 30 “lingots”, I could “buy” a section on Spanish Idioms and Proverbs… maybe helpful in terms of setting a goal, but also maybe frustrating for people who want to learn without restrictions.
Duolingo also has more interactive functions where you can see wordlists or get involved with other users of the program in the discussion option. This helps the program feel less isolating.
The biggest pros of the program are that it’s widely available (in different languages), has various components that help optimize language learning, and that all of its functions are free provided you make an account which costs nothing but your time. It can be used anywhere provided you have an internet connection, though maybe not so much in public if you’re doing a listening or speaking section.
Above all, Duolingo is a very useful tool but it does have its limitations. Chief among them is that sometimes the sentences are quite simple or bizarre. They do help you assemble sentences, but talking about “the cats eat bread” is not a sentence I routinely use in Spanish. Some sentences might feel very irrelevant or absurd.
Secondly, though the program teaches by example, it doesn’t always provide a frame of reference. I’ve seen the verb ir change from voy to va to van to apply to different subjects, but I don’t see any mention of regular or irregular verbs. There’s not a real discussion of which verbs are irregular in which tenses or moods, or even defining the tenses or moods. It’s based on learning on the fly, not a discussion of core elements of the language itself.
Thirdly, the program might be limited for people who have worked their way through the “Spanish tree”… that is to say, the list of available lessons or courses in the Spanish section. If you’ve made it all the way through, you might still not feel completely fluent or competent, though you might understand more of the concepts than before. The wordlists are basic but not always comprehensive which means that you have to look outside of the program to build your vocabulary. And if you didn’t understand things exactly with the grammar aspects, then you also have to look outside of the Spanish tree.
Finally, what I feel like Duolingo suffers most from is the lack of conversation with real people of authority in the language. Not just for the simple interactions of having conversations and understanding different accents or vocabulary, but to revisit the things you find confusing. There’s no one to really ask what makes imperfect and preterite so different except in the context of sentences and example. It doesn’t explain the difference between a tense and a mood, or the true rules of regular and irregular verbs in action.
I find that Duolingo is a great place to learn if you have some of the fundamentals securely mastered, but it may not be helpful for everyone, and it may not answer all the questions that any learner, beginner or advanced, would have. There are some things a program can’t account for, and in those moments it’s better to have something more substantial. Duolingo is an amazing program, but it shouldn’t be the only thing you use to learn Spanish.