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Duolingo Spanish Review
A detailed breakdown of the Spanish language learning program from Duolingo
Duolingo is one of the most popular apps in the world for learning Spanish, and for good reason. With a totally free base version and a cool course design that gamifies learning Spanish, people rave about this product. But the question most people have (and that we hear time and time again) is: can this e-learning tool built on games that doesn’t charge a cent really work for learning Spanish? We address just that question in this comprehensive review of the Duolingo Spanish program.
Let’s kick this review off by covering the cost of Duolingo’s Spanish program, as this is one of the main reasons why so many people are drawn to this app. As many of you may know, Duolingo actually offers a free version of their course. That is correct: you don’t need to pay a dime.
However, before you go running off to sign up for Duolingo as your language program of choice, know that there are definitely some limitations around the free version. The free version is ad-supported (meaning you get hit with annoying sidebar and pop-up ads), there are daily caps on your program usage, and you’re forced to follow a very rigid curriculum (as opposed to being allowed to jump ahead).
In other words, Duolingo uses your typical “freemium” software subscription model, and makes their money mainly through paid, premium subscriptions. And if you do opt for their paid subscription, Duolingo Plus, it will cost you right around $84 per year (or $7 per month).
By upgrading to the Plus plan, Duolingo removes those annoying ads, includes unlimited usage (no caps on “hearts”), allows you to test out of units and move ahead, and adds personalized lessons to review your mistakes, among other features.
So is it worth it to upgrade to Duolingo Plus? I personally think it is worthwhile. I think the premium features make for a much better experience, but ultimately, this will likely come down your budget. That said, if you want to try Duolingo Plus out, they do offer a 14-day free trial so that you can play around with the upgraded plan and see if you like it that much better than the free version.
Now of course, if you are willing to pay for a Spanish learning course, that begs the question, why Duolingo? A major part of Duolingo’s appeal is their lack of a price tag. So if you’re going to be paying for a course regardless, why not consider one of the more premium language learning programs out there? I think that’s a valid question, as Duolingo certainly has a few disadvantages (more on this below).
So if you are going to pay for a course, I’d recommend doing your research and seeing how Duolingo stacks up against the competition. Feel free to check out our reviews of Pimsleur, Babbel and Rosetta Stone. We actually have all three of these Spanish courses rating out much higher than Duolingo.
How The Duolingo Spanish App Works
With all that said above, I’m not here to talk about other companies. I’m here to talk about Duolingo. So let’s jump into how their Spanish course is structured.
Essentially, within Duolingo’s Spanish learning “tree” (for lack of a better word), there are different checkpoints. And within each checkpoint, there are 20 to 30 modules that cover skills, concepts and thematic topics (e.g. emotions, travel, and present tense).
Each module is made of up 6 levels, and within each level, there are 3 to 4 lessons. That may sound like a lot, and it is, but know that each lesson is very short, taking only about 5 to 10 minutes to complete.
So that’s the program from a high level. Basically, there are different modules you need to complete which are gated by checkpoints, and each module consists of several levels and lessons thereunder.
And to be clear, Duolingo dictates the order in which you complete modules. New modules only become active once you’ve completed the previous one, and the same is true for the individual lessons within each module. However, under the paid Duolingo Plus subscription, you are allowed to test out of individual modules (or entire groups of modules if you want) by passing a short quiz. This allows you to jump ahead as you see fit.
In addition, as you complete each lesson, you earn experience points (XP points for short), as well as Duolingo currency known as “lingots.” The XP points relate to your daily goals and allow you to track your progress, while the lingots can be used to purchase additional features within the Duolingo store.
So now that you know how the Duolingo program is structured, let’s dive into what the lessons themselves are actually like. And the major takeaway is this: they’re very short.
As I just referenced above, each one only takes about 5 to 10 minutes to complete, and they go by super fast. This is in large part due to the fact that each lesson is made up of a dozen or so quick-hit, interactive drills and exercises. Some examples of these exercises include:
Listening Drills. You might listen to a native speaker say a word or phrase, after which you select it from a list, or you may even listen to a full sentence and be asked to type it in.
Fill-In-The-Blanks. You might be shown a cartoon graphic of a man alongside a sentence with a blank to fill in, and you click the word “hombre” to complete the sentence.
Matching Pairs. You might be shown 10 different words, 5 in English and 5 in Spanish, and be asked to match them up correctly.
Verbal Practice. You might listen to a native speaker say a phrase or sentence, and then be asked to repeat it (during which Duolingo’s voice recognition technology is there to judge your pronunciation).
Writing Full Sentences. You might be tasked with typing full sentence translations from English to Spanish, and vice versa.
Mock Conversations. You might need to complete mock conversations by selecting the correct response from a list of phrases.
These are the primary exercises you’ll be asked to complete in a nutshell, albeit in different variations and difficulty levels. To reiterate, they’re very short and go by quick.
What We Like About Duolingo Spanish
Now that I’ve covered the different subscription options and you know what the lessons are all about, let’s get into the nitty gritty of this review. That is, what I like and what I don’t like about Duolingo after thoroughly testing the program. And let’s start with the good news.
The Price Tag (Or Lack Thereof)
One of the clear highlights for me is the fact that Duolingo offers a free version. That’s pretty rare in today’s day and age, and who doesn’t like free? I mean, you don’t even have to enter your credit card number and you get full access to their program (albeit somewhat throttled).
Now, as I mentioned earlier, there are some downsides with the free version, but still, if you’re on a tight budget or you’re just looking to learn the basics for an upcoming trip to Mexico, then it’s hard to argue with free.
Nice Variety Of Drills
I like that Duolingo offers a pretty wide variation of drills and exercises which span listening, speaking, reading and writing. For learning purposes, it’s great that you get practice work across several different mediums.
In addition, the variety makes the program more engaging and enjoyable. I never really felt bored within individual lessons.
Quick-Hit Lesson Work
Not only do I like the nature of the Duolingo Spanish lessons, but I also like that the lessons are short and engaging. They just go by super quick.
This is great for busy professionals and students. Not everyone out there has a spare hour everyday to dedicate to their language learning. Sometimes 15 to 20 minutes is all you have, so it’s nice that you can knock out a couple quick lessons a day and still feel productive.
I like that the Duolingo lessons include English directions, hints and translations, as not all all language learning language programs do this. For example, Rosetta Stone is a big believer in 100% immersion. In other words, they use very little (if any) English. And although I think there is some merit to this strategy, I also think that can lead users to frustration.
Ultimately, I just appreciate that Duolingo incorporates lots of English into their lesson work to ensure you always understand what’s going on, what’s being asked of you, and to help keep the lessons moving in a timely manner.
Sleek Digital Platform
I’m a big fan of Duolingo’s digital platform, and all the visuals and reminders they provide. Their dashboard is super clean and easy to navigate, and includes a daily goal tracker, as well as a scoreboard where you can compete against other users, invite friends, and keep track of your streaks.
Together, this all creates a fun, collaborative environment to keep you motivated and on-track. So I give Duolingo two thumbs up from that perspective.
Duolingo Spanish Podcast & More
Lastly, I like that Duolingo provides access to other resources as well. This includes short stories to sharpen your reading and listening skills; forums so you can connect with other learners; an engaging podcast; and a Spanish-English translation dictionary.
But perhaps my favorite resource is the series of online events where you can directly interact with other learners and earn XP points.
Some of these events take the form of live classes where you can learn about interesting Spanish cultural topics, or you can simply connect directly with other learners at the same level as you to practice your speaking skills. It’s just a great tool for boosting your learning.
What We Dislike About Duolingo Spanish
Now that I’ve run down all the reasons why I like Duolingo, let’s switch sides to the things I don’t care for.
Lack of Focus on Speaking
The first downside I would note is that the Duolingo lessons don’t develop your speaking skills very well. True, there are speaking exercises integrated into their lessons, but they’re just not very good.
Essentially, you’re just asked to repeat words and phrases in a vacuum. You listen to a phrase, and then you’re immediately asked to repeat it. There’s just no real memory aids or contextual setting to help you make sense of the words and boost retention.
Plus, their voice recognition technology is far from perfect. There were multiple instances where I knew I was mispronouncing a word or phrase and the program would accept it, telling me that I got it correct. It’s just very limited.
Honestly, when it comes to verbal practice, I think Pimsleur, a Duolingo competitor, is much better. The Pimsleur audio lessons ask you to say words or phrases and respond to a native speaker in the context of an actual conversation.
With Pimsleur, you’re actively involved in tracking a conversation, and the moderator of the audio lessons keeps you on your toes by asking you to recall and use language under pressure, just as you would in real life situations.
In my opinion, this ultimately creates a much better environment for learning a new language. Again, here’s a link to our Pimsleur review if you want to check that out, as well as a comparison.
Unnatural Usage of Language
It is odd, but some of the sentences that Duolingo uses within their lessons are unnatural. I’ve read a lot of complaints about this issue online and I’d have to agree. Some of their vocabulary choices and sentence structures are just plain weird.
To be fair, it seems like Duolingo has improved in this area as of late, but you still occasionally come across an awkward sentence or phrase that sort of turns your head, whether from a grammatical perspective or a pure, “what the heck did did I just hear?” type of moment.
A couple of the examples I saw were “my horses collect teeth” and “I like that beer since yesterday.” I mean, it’s not the end of the world, but it can disrupt you and distract your learning process from time to time. Other companies like Rocket Spanish are much better in this respect.
Grammar Instruction A Low Priority
This one is pretty simple. Within the Duolingo lessons, grammar instruction doesn’t seem to be a priority. To be clear, I’m not saying they should bog you down with dense, boring grammatical principles, because I actually think that can do more harm than good, especially when you’re first learning a new language.
However, I do wish they included a little more instruction or explanation around grammar rules. It would be nice if Duolingo approached grammar sort of like how Babbel does it. Babbel integrates grammar instruction into their lessons in a very subtle and efficient way.
Sometimes it’s just a quick and simple one- to two-sentence explanation, and other times they discretely incorporate it through drills. Either way, I think the way Babbel does it is great. Again, here’s a link to our Babbel review if you want to check that out, as well as a comparison.
Duolingo Free Ads Are Annoying
As mentioned above, the free version of Duolingo contains ads. There’s nothing terribly uncommon about that with free software, but there’s no denying that they are distracting and take away from your main purpose (you know, actually learning Spanish).
It’s not too bad at first, but it definitely starts to wear on you. If you’ve ever played the free versions of Candy Crush, Angry Birds or another silly game on your iPhone, you know what I mean. The ads just get old. Honestly, I’m here to learn and practice Spanish, not get bombarded by advertisements.
The Free Version Heart System
The free version of Duolingo limits your daily usage. Here’s how they do it: everyday you get a limited amount of “hearts.” You start with 5 per day, and if you answer a question incorrectly, you lose a heart. So essentially, you’re only allowed 5 misses per day, unless you go back and practice old lessons to restore your heart count.
If that sounds annoying, that’s because it is. But it’s more than just slightly annoying, it can also be discouraging. When faced with the choice of either reviewing old lessons in order to earn more hearts, or just giving up for the day, I tended to just give up.
And reading the forums, it sounds like that’s what a lot of folks end up doing, especially when many of the mistakes come from typos and not actually entering incorrect answers. I guess it’s just another annoying aspect of the free version of the course.
Verdict: Should You Use Duolingo To Learn Spanish?
All in all, there’s a lot to like about Duolingo. This Spanish learning app is free, there’s a decent variety of drills and exercises, and the digital platform is top-notch. However, there are certainly some disadvantages with Duolingo Spanish as well. Most notably, in my opinion, it’s just not ideal for developing your Spanish speaking skills, and there are some serious annoyances around the free version.
Bottom line, I think Duolingo should be used more as a supplemental study resource than as a full-fledged language learning course. In my eyes, you’re just better off treating it like an educational game than a serious study tool.
If that’s all you want – perhaps because you just want to brush up on some Spanish for fun from time to time – then I think Duolingo is an excellent resource. But if you’re serious about learning Spanish, and you really plan on dedicating a good chunk of your time to achieving some level of fluency, then I think Babbel, Pimsleur and Rocket Spanish are likely a better bet.
After using the Duolingo app and thoroughly testing this program out, our team’s consensus is that Duolingo isn’t great for learning Spanish. Duolingo has some serious limitations, and we see it more as an e-learning tool or supplement than a comprehensive program if you want to truly learn Spanish.
How long does it take to learn Spanish with Duolingo?
Given Duolingo’s short, quick-hit lessons and gamified design, it would take months (if not years) to learn Spanish following their recommended schedule of daily goals.
How long does it take to finish Duolingo Spanish?
How long it takes to finish Duolingo Spanish depends greatly on how much you do each day, but if you just follow Duolingo’s standard recommendation of 10 XP points per day, it would take well over a year to complete.