Sketchy Marketing: The secret behind Duolingo’s Undeserved success


The Duolingo Bird, Duolingo’s mascot

Duolingo is a popular language-learning app, which rapidly grew in popularity because of its appeal to people who have a tough time learning. Unlike the tedious task of going to a Chinese class a couple of times per week, it can magically teach the student the language with just 20 minutes of use per day. It is interesting enough as an opportunity to learn Chinese, so obviously many people would decide to download the app to effortlessly learn. But has anyone ever actually learned Chinese from an app? 

To master a language, there are various important categories to learn— Vocabulary, spelling, grammar, syntax, etc. For many new languages, grammar and syntax are completely different, making speaking even with the right words difficult. People do not notice this with their first language because they never had to “learn” the language. 

When using Duolingo, the category that is mostly focused on is vocabulary. This is part of Duolingo’s business model. After a few lessons, the user should be able to ask simple questions, like “where is the restroom?”, and “how much does it cost?”. The types of phrases taught to the users at the beginning of the Duolingo path are basic phrases necessary for communication in a foreign country. The people who visit foreign countries for a vacation are the target audience for Duolingo. They just want to use Duolingo for a short period to learn the most basic phrases in a language, without learning how to use the phrases to form other sentences.

For example, if the user learned to say, “the boy ate an apple,” that means they know how to say it and what it means, but if they wanted to change it to something else, such as “the boy wanted to eat an apple,” it would be impossible. This is the problem with Duolingo’s marketing campaign. It is advertised to be able to teach someone a language, which means mastering all important subcategories such as grammar, when in reality it can only teach singular phrases and how to put them into a sentence.

According to Spanish teacher Kristin Wilson at Highlands High School, “Duolingo is really good for vocabulary, but as far as helping with grammar and actual use of the language, it does not provide enough resources for them”.

Although Duolingo is insufficient to learn a category IV or V language in the language difficulty ranking, it is excellent at teaching category I languages, or languages similarly related to English. Due to this, Spanish and French are the 2 most learned languages on Duolingo due to their use of the same alphabet and Latin origin. Despite some category IV languages, such as Polish, sharing the same alphabet as English, the completely different pronunciations of certain letters and combinations of letters make it like learning a whole new alphabet. For example, the letter “W” in Polish is pronounced like the English “V”, and the Polish “W” sound is written as “Ł”. 

Another thing that is not taught in Duolingo is the special digraphs. “Cz” in Polish is “Ch” in English. But there is absolutely no way for a native English speaker to know this by just looking at the word. Because of this, there is a good chance that the learner will be incapable of pronouncing the digraph because “Cz” cannot be pronounced in English. This also contributes to the user’s incapability of pronouncing whole words.

The word “dziewczynka” is a longer word that the average American speaker would have trouble pronouncing. This is not a particularly complicated word, (it means girl), but even a simple word like this could be impossible for an English speaker to pronounce, due to the aforementioned differences between the Polish and English alphabets. 

Due to the complexities of languages that greatly differ from English, Duolingo is insufficient for mastering a language, but if mastering the language is not the goal in mind, then it can be used to learn simple phrases to be able to have basic communication skills in a foreign country. So, it turns out that a game-based language-learning app is incapable of making the user master the language. This is because like all things in life, sometimes it is too good to be true or to progress. The learner must put real effort into their studies.