How to Maximize Your Learning With Duolingo

I first signed up for Duolingo in 2016, but I really started to use it regularly over the last year. To me, it is a rare example of an EdTech business that has a clear social mission and actually delivers on that mission, even as it steadily grows in users and valuation – it’s a great model for “doing good while doing well.” Duolingo is phenomenal in many ways, but you need to do certain things to get the most out of it. My goal with this post is to delve into the strategies you can use to maximize the efficiency of your practice and learning with Duolingo.

Key Takeaways

Here’s a quick summary of my top recommendations to learn as much as possible with Duolingo.

  • Challenge yourself and progress faster: use the “test out” feature as much as possible, particularly at the lower skill levels.
  • Normalize failure: we learn a lot from failure, especially when it’s paired with corrective feedback. Don’t let the “hearts” feature get you down.
  • Bypass word banks, where possible: when you notice one of those ubiquitous word banks, first attempt translation without referring to the word bank. Only answer the question (using the word bank) after you’ve tried this free translation.
  • Vary your practice: study several different skills within one session, rather than focusing on just one skill.
  • Build up your streak: commit to extending your “streak” of consecutive days studied, which also reinforces good study habits.

These approaches don’t require Duolingo Plus, though some are easier to implement and maintain with a subscription. Let’s take a closer look.

Learning Science Within

To make the most out of Duolingo, it helps to recognize what it does well. 

  • The testing effect is central to the Duolingo approach. I know that “testing” can evoke flashbacks of harsh fluorescent light and #2 pencils, but at its core, this phenomenon has nothing to do with standardized tests. The testing effect is education research-speak for the finding that we learn more from answering questions than from reading or watching lectures that cover the same content.
  • Duolingo encourages us to space out our learning. As they say on their website, Duolingo lessons are “bite sized” and “feel more like a game than a textbook.” It is designed for short bursts of practice, spread out over time. Relative to massed practice (cramming), spaced practice leads to greater learning and retention.
  • The app is designed to give learners autonomy with some constraints. We like having choices, but we need structure: after all, we don’t know what we don’t know. Completely self-directed “discovery” learning is not as effective as more scaffolded learning. Duolingo provides a good amount of scaffolding, while still offering flexibility and choice.
  • Contextual learning is central to Duolingo. This comes in at least two flavors: learning through real-life situations (the often-goofy Duolingo “stories” are great for this), and learning by putting words and phrases into context. Contextual activities involve selecting the appropriate sentence to complete a conversation or choosing between different words that have similar meanings (such as different prepositions) to complete sentences.

The strategies I describe below are about bringing out Duolingo’s best side – accentuating these positives – to maximize your learning.

How to Learn More in Duolingo

Challenge Yourself and Progress Faster

The research is clear that difficulty – up to a point – enhances learning. But what is an appropriate degree of difficulty? I personally think that Duolingo is a bit skewed towards fun and easy. If you want to learn faster, you have to increase the difficulty. 

The "testing out" feature in Duolingo.

The simplest way to challenge yourself is to use the “test out” feature. This allows you to jump up to the next level of a skill by completing a tough set of questions with no more than a few errors. In the free version, you have to spend some hard-earned “gems” to test out. Unfortunately, you earn gems by completing the (easier) lessons that make up a skill. This is one way that the app encourages us to sign up for Duolingo Plus: testing out doesn’t cost gems with a subscription.

Normalize Failure

Back in the day, Duolingo didn’t actively penalize users for getting questions wrong. This changed with the introduction of “hearts.” Hearts in Duolingo serve the same purpose as life in arcade games: when you run out of life, you’ve got to pay to keep playing. Duolingo hearts can be recharged by “practicing,” which involves re-studying material you’ve already covered. Or, if you get sick of practicing, you can pay for Duolingo Plus for infinite hearts. In other words, you can pay with money (Duolingo Plus), or you can pay with boredom (re-practicing foundational material).

The hearts system seems like an innocuous way to remind users of the value of the app and encourage them to switch to Duolingo Plus. It’s less innocuous from a learning standpoint. We learn a lot from errors, particularly from errors paired with feedback. Moreover, this feature subtly nudges us to seek out easier forms of practice: for example, you might choose to steer away from the “test out” feature described above.

I think the best solution to this problem is to get rid of hearts entirely. If you’re wedded to the phone app, you can pay for Duolingo Plus. If a subscription isn’t feasible or desirable, you still have options. Hearts are absent from browser-based version of Duolingo (at least for now)! Just log in to Duolingo online instead of using the app.

Bypass Word Banks, Where Possible

Let’s say my first language is English and I’m studying German on Duolingo. As I study, I translate from German into English by selecting from a bank of English words. While I may not have David Foster Wallace-level grand wizard mastery of English grammar, if Duolingo shows me a scrambled up English sentence with a few distractor words, most of the time I can accurately reassemble that sentence. I’m able to form the sentence in English whether or not I can see the German version. This is an English grammar test, not a German translation task. We human beings are a bit lazy: it’s just too easy to short-circuit language learning and fall back on our knowledge of grammar in our native tongues.

A Duolingo "word bank."

Regardless of the language, building sentences from word banks is just easier than free-form translation. These tasks allow us to answer quickly, but how much are we learning? I’m sure these questions do have some utility – especially when we’re just getting started – but I try to avoid them and raise the difficulty whenever possible.

I’ve come up with a few different workarounds for this. On the phone app, you can cover up the word bank on the bottom with your thumb, then try to translate the sentence in your head before you enter the answer. This requires a lot of self-discipline. On the browser version, you can toggle a setting to turn off the word banks and enter responses on the keyboard. I like this solution, but I know that many users prefer the phone app. Finally, if you use the “test out” feature as much as possible, that cuts down on the frequency of these too-easy questions. Having tried all three of these strategies, I think the “test out” approach is the most sustainable.

Vary Your Practice

Duolingo gives users a lot of choice, including the choice to adopt sub-optimal study strategies. My default is to pick up where I left off: I progress linearly through the content, “leveling up” in one skill before I proceed to the next. That means that I’m often practicing a single skill per day. That isn’t ideal for learning. Research shows that interleaving – “mixing up” our practice – leads to better learning than lumping everything together. Mixed practice also improves our ability to apply our learning to different contexts. If your goal is to be able to use language out there in the real world, mixed practice is much closer to that reality.

"Skills" in Duolingo.

This one is pretty easy to implement. When you practice in Duolingo, jump around a little bit! For example, try to practice three different skills per day instead of practicing the same skill three times. Switching gears like this may feel more difficult, but it definitely deepens your learning.

Build Up Your Streak

Duolingo is clearly designed to encourage language learning in little chunks. It also has features to help us build good study habits. Notably, the “streak” feature encourages a little bit of study every day. This is bolstered by notifications that push us to study at a regular time. These “features of habit” are fantastic for learning. You’re much better off studying a little bit every day instead of lumping your practice into a few marathon study sessions. 

Maybe you’re already working on your streak, but if you aren’t, there is no time like the present! To help make this happen, I’d encourage you to try “habit stacking,” in which you pair your Duolingo practice with another daily habit. For me, it’s Duolingo with my first cup of coffee. 

Closing Thoughts

It’s not easy to become fluent in a new language. Duolingo is a great tool, but you probably shouldn’t expect to achieve mastery with Duolingo alone. Instead, you might plan to use Duolingo daily for a couple of years to build up a strong base while you supplement it with other approaches (including some form of immersion). To learn as much as possible from Duolingo, you’ve got to challenge yourself and develop good habits, some of which are not the default habits encouraged by the app. Good luck!