The Duolingo Language Learning App. Good for Spanish GCSE Students? I Oxford Open Learning


    The Duolingo Language Learning App. Good for Spanish GCSE Students?

    Duolingo is one of the most popular mobile apps in the world, and probably the most popular language learning app full stop. Duolingo has over 200 million users worldwide, with English and Spanish being the two most popular languages on offer.

    Duolingo’s appeal is clear: firstly, it’s free, although it is possible to pay for upgrades to go “advert free” and to access other content such as native language speaking tutors. Its interface is fun and inviting, and it’s as suitable for the absolute beginner as it is those with a reasonably high level of aptitude. Similarly, for anyone who has already learned some Spanish, they can easily navigate through Duolingo to start at the level that’s right for them. Spanish isn’t the only language available, either – there’s more than 30 to choose from, including Norwegian, French, Japanese, even a Native American language!

    The language learning in Duolingo is broken down into sections such as “travel”, “eating”, “shopping”, “family” and so on, as well as verb sections to help users learn different Spanish verb conjugations. Each section takes between 5 and 10 minutes to complete, and has four levels of difficulty, giving plenty of material to work with in very accessible bite-sized pieces.

    It’s this accessibility which makes Duolingo such a great resource for language learning. It’s so easy to just pick up and use for a few minutes a day, or whenever you have just a few moments to complete another level. It’s also engaging enough to study with for a good half hour without feeling bored. Duolingo creates some engagement through its “game” style interface where you can win crowns for completed levels and tokens to buy items for the Duolingo mascot which pops up through the app (although the items are very limited). Commitment to the app is actually more driven by the very clear progression through levels, which builds confidence in the language.

    Duolingo encourages language learning through listening, reading, writing and speaking – the vital skills needed to properly memorise vocabulary. For instance, a phrase might be spoken in Spanish and the user be asked to type the phrase into the app in either English or Spanish. It could also be spoken in English and a translation to Spanish be required; or the phrase may have to be spoken into the phone to practice pronunciation. This works brilliantly to ensure that no matter how a person learns a language best, it is covered in Duolingo.

    There is even more available outside of the application itself, too. Duolingo also has podcasts in Spanish, with stories read by native Spanish speakers to help language learners practice their listening skills. The level is Intermediate Spanish, but the words are spoken clearly, and even if not everything is understood, it is absolutely vital that, when learning a foreign language, study includes lots of listening. The more this is done, the faster the student will progress.

    Can Duolingo be used to learn Spanish as a foreign language on its own?

    Unfortunately not. Duolingo is a brilliant platform for building vocabulary, improving speaking and translation skills and keeping Spanish fresh in the student’s mind when they are not immersed in a Spanish environment. Its short and accessible modules can be used regularly throughout the week. However, it is best used as a support rather than replacement to a formal Spanish learning curriculum or teacher. There are a number of reasons for this:

    Duolingo uses organic learning for verbs. This means that they are taught by using different verb forms in sentences without explanation. As children, we don’t learn the verbs in our native language with verb tables, and it’s quite possible to learn verbs organically, meaning just learning each verb form at a time. However, understanding how verb structures work in a foreign language expands the student’s vocabulary immeasurably, and very quickly. Rather than having to learn each form of the verb “comer” (to eat), and then doing the same for “beber” (to drink), once we know that these verbs have similar endings in each person (I, you, he/she/it, we, you, they) and each tense (present, past, etc.) we only need to learn them once and use this knowledge for each similar verb.

    Making things harder, Spanish verbs are fairly unusual in that they don’t always need to be used together with a pronoun. For instance, rather than “I eat”, in Spanish it would be fine to say, “como” rather than “yo como”, but the Spanish student needs to already know that the ending of the verb is where the clue is as to the “person” who is being referred to by the verb (in this case, “I”). It is not always easy within Duolingo to work out which “person” is being used if you don’t already know the verb endings, and with the point of these modules being to learn the verb endings, it creates a vicious circle! There are other areas of Duolingo which are also seriously lacking in explanation. This means that while Duolingo is a good way to help Spanish students consolidate the Spanish that they understand, it’s not going to explain aspects of the language that they don’t understand.

    The second very important issue is that Duolingo teaches useful everyday Spanish, for getting around and about, but it does not build the kind of fluency that is required for GCSE Spanish and above. The entire premise of Duolingo is to teach useful but short phrases rather than conversations or in-depth discussions of topics, which require a completely different type of teaching to achieve. It’s great as a foundation, but again, it is very much a support and add-on to a formal curriculum, and not a replacement.

    Finally, for those students learning Spanish in Europe, be aware that the Spanish in Duolingo uses South American Spanish, which is almost – but not quite – the same. Some words are different, and on the Duolingo podcasts the Spanish accents are from a variety of South American native speakers.

    In summary, Duolingo is an invaluable support app for the student learning Spanish as a foreign language. It’s free, easy to use and fun, and will really help to support learning. While it is not sufficient on its own I would highly recommend it to everyone who is learning Spanish as a foreign language.


    You can look at Duolingo for yourself at their website:

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