Duolingo and the basics of learning

I started to learn Spanish recently. Instead of committing to lessons straight away, I downloaded the Duolingo language app to grow my Spanish vocabulary. I was pleasantly surprised and soon recognised how well the app supports learning. Let me share a few of my findings.


The app uses simple but effective graphics. There’s a visual of the learning pathway and animated characters who are cheering you on when you’re answering correctly. These characters definitely make you feel good and as you may know, positive emotions can increase motivation and support retention. The characters are diverse; they vary in age, gender, skin colour and head dress.

Goal setting

Being goal-oriented is one of Knowles’ adult learning principles. Duolingo allows you to set streak goals, being the number of days you’ll be practising. The app then shows which days of the week you’ve practised end explains that practising daily delivers results. The app shows your progress by telling how many words you’ve learnt and how many words you’ve practised.

Right balance between ability and challenge

You can easily spend a lot of time on the app because it’s quite engaging. I often thought “well, I can fit in one more challenge and then I’ll put my phone down”. That’s probably due to experiencing Csikszentmihalyi’s flow. The app gets the balance right between providing challenging new content and offering the opportunity to show off what you already learnt. You get in the right flow for learning and stay engaged.

Varied practice

Remember the Forgetting Curve from Ebbinghaus? Learning retention is increased through lots of repetition (Baddeley, 2004). Research has also shown that learning is more effective if repetition is varied and interleaved (Brown et al, 2014). That’s definitely the case in Duolingo. The app offers multiple-choice questions, matching activities, listening activities, writing tasks, and translating words and sentences both ways. It also rapidly switches between topics and types of activities. Once you’ve learnt a new word, it’s repeated in different ways. So, no chance to forget what you’ve just learnt. After not logging in for a while, you even get a mini-review. It repeats a range of words with a series of multiple-choice questions.
Three Duolingo screenshots
Duolingo language learning app screenshots


The app is gamified to increase learner engagement and motivation. You can earn XP points and you lose them again for giving incorrect answers. Also, when you have committed to a streak, that is timed, you can earn gems.
After completing a lesson, you get your personal scoreboard, including the number of XPs, the time you spent on the activity and your result. Game elements in a learning app might not work for all learners, but I think Duolingo is striking the right balance.

Feedback and supportt

Don’t we all like to hear that we’re doing great or how we can improve? The app provides lots of encouragement and compliments along the way, varying from “Good job!” to “ I’m so proud of you when you give five correct answers”. Sometimes the comments are quite funny after you’ve completed a series of questions correctly. When you’ve made a mistake, you’ll see the correct answer. A short time after, you’ll get the incorrectly answered questions again to try another time. You can also ask for guidance: most words in sentences are clickable and after selecting a word you receive a translation or possible answer.

Contento aprendiendo (happy learning)

I now understand why this app works for 45 million monthly users and I haven’t even tried the paid version. I think it’s a great tool, accessible for all through a free version, to start learning a new language. Just keep in mind that it’s for beginners or to refresh. It will grow your vocabulary and basic grammar before you take up lessons.


  • Alan Baddeley – Your memory: a user’s guide (2004)
  • Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi – Flow: The psychology of optimal experience (1990)
  • Malcolm Knowles – The adult learner: A neglected species (1990)
  • Peter Brown et al – Make it stick. The science of successful learning (2014).
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