With its immersion format, levels and prizes, I found Duolingo absolutely addictive. Because I already knew the basic grammar and some vocabulary, I climbed the "language tree" rather quickly. Even practicing concepts that I already knew, I still managed to pick up new vocabulary words and reinforce verb conjugations, articles, etc.
The rubber met the road when I started learning new verb tenses like present perfect, past perfect, future perfect, the use of the verb haber, modal verbs, things like that. While Duolingo offers very little if any grammatical explanation for these concepts, I "got the idea" pretty quick. I still plan on reading about these concepts before we leave for Central America, just so I can understand them better. But I will have to look elsewhere for information because Duolingo just doesn't have it. This being said, it is a great tool to have and very possible to learn new information and vocabulary with in a fun way.
In the account settings, you can set a daily progress goal anywhere from "casual" (10 XP per day- takes 5-10 minutes) to "insane" (50 XP per day- takes 20-30 minutes). At first my goal was automatically set at 20 XP per day, but I did more than that because it was so addictive. In October when I stopped gardening and farmers market, I reset the goal to "insane". For the most part I was able to complete the daily goal, sometimes more, except on the weekends. Obviously as I leveled up the lessons took longer, but it was still very doable. I was able to complete the language tree (that is, work through the entire program) in three months. The way Duolingo works is that as time goes by, words or concepts will need to be re-practiced. Even though I technically completed the program, I can still log in and practice new concepts.
How much can you learn with Duolingo?
While Duolingo can teach new concepts, as was my experience, it can't bring you anywhere near fluency. Even after completing the language tree, Duolingo still says I am only 56% fluent. Honestly, I don't think any program or practicing system can bring you anywhere near fluent. Unless you've actually tried to have a REAL conversation in Spanish (not pre-scripted "hi, how are you? My name is Bethany" conversations), you won't understand how little ability you have. I remember asking Hubs (who really can have a Spanish conversation) what the intelligence level is of someone who had taken, say, Spanish I or II in high school. "Well, you could probably talk with a three-year-old." he answered thoughtfully. I thought this was an insult to students who had spent hours and hours completing assignments, but Hubs was being serious.
Last year we were sitting at a coffee shop in Antigua when a five- or six-year-old boy came and asked Hubs for some money. Amused, my husband carried on a short conversation with him. How old are you? Do you have brothers and sisters? Where are your parents? What do you like to do? I understood some of it, like when the boy said his older brother was fat. But I missed the part about his parents working at the coffee shop, and some other things. Though he didn't succeed in getting any money from us, Hubs let him look at the pictures on our phone and offered the little guy some of his cheesecake.
Duolingo Is a Tool Only
On the internet I have read a few critical reviews of Duolingo, that it did not make someone fluent or it was not as good as Rosetta Stone. 1) No study program will make you fluent, and 2) Duolingo is HUNDREDS of dollars cheaper than Rosetta Stone. In fact, anybody with a smart phone or internet connection can use Duolingo. We have heard from missionaries in Guatemala that locals are learning English on their lunch breaks using Duolingo. This alone was enough to convince me that the program is worth my time.
Meeting the little boy was an example to me of how far study alone will get you- that is, not very far. You MUST be having or at least listening to real conversations. Even after taking one year of Spanish in high school (I was an eager student who actually learned things, including proper pronunciation), teaching myself at home for several months, sitting face to face with a Spanish teacher for literally 35 hours, and spending several weeks in a Spanish-speaking country (TWICE!) I still could not have a good conversation with a five-year-old.
I wish every parent knew this when planning a child's high school or home school agenda. High-achieving parents and teachers shove extracurricular activities down kids' throats without even considering the value of it. "Oh, foreign languages are good, right? I will make my kid take Spanish, and then she will be bilingual".
Recently I spoke with a teenager taking Spanish II. "That sounds like fun!" I said. "Do you know a lot of words now? Can you understand something if I say it in Spanish?"
"Not really. I don't understand most of what the teacher is saying, except cognates*. I can understand something if it is a cognate." He replied. I was kind of disappointed. At the local high school, one of my friends took a trip to Spain- an incentive offered to students who had completed X years of Spanish classes. The idea was that you go and spend a week or two with a "host family" and have the opportunity to use your Spanish skills. Since then, I heard from the students that their host family spoke English most of the time.
I realize that I've gone on a rabbit trail (and this might become another post in the future), but I'm trying to drive home the fact that learning Spanish to be fluent is a huge undertaking and Duolingo- or any language learning curriculum, software or program- is not going to be enough on its own.
Is Duolingo Worth Doing?
I would say yes, it is worth doing. Duolingo is a lot of fun and you can learn new skills or use it as a tool to review. After using the site for three months, my reading comprehension has greatly improved. I'll continue to use Duolingo along with the other free or cheap resources I have until we head of to Central America again this winter.
Happy foreign language learning!
*I had to ask him what a cognate was. It is a word that sounds or looks the same in two different languages.