Two is Better Than One

Duolingo’s language learning app pairs well with the school curriculum


A stack of books. Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Emma Li, Features Editor

It’s green, memeable, and has a hilarious TikTok account. It’s Duo, the Duolingo Owl. 

Duo has been terrorizing unfaithful learners since 2011 with emails and notifications when learners do not partake in their daily lesson. The mostly free language learning app encourages learners to practice every day, recording a streak if someone completes one lesson a day. Three to five lessons in each level, six levels in each topic, and various topics in each unit make up Duolingo’s curriculum, not including stories and alphabet supplements for languages with a different alphabet. 

People go to it for various reasons: to supplement a class, to relearn a forgotten language, to fulfill a New Year’s Resolution, or any number of other reasons.

“I just find it really fascinating to learn and understand the nuances of other languages,” Tivana Hester (11) said. “It’s not something I’ve just done just to supplement my Spanish, but just because I genuinely do enjoy language learning.”

Currently enrolled in Spanish Three, Hester has picked up learning Spanish on Duolingo to have a different learning experience, and partake in friendly family competition with her dad who majored in Japanese in college.

“Duolingo definitely drills it in your head so you memorize it, whereas at school you use it on a wider variety, so we use certain vocabulary less frequently, and it’s not as intense,” Hester said. “On Duolingo, you kind of just knock out the lesson and move on, and so I like the versatility and difference that school brings, but it’s definitely easier to forget.”

The solid and predictable format that Duolingo brings is useful for those who are interested in languages that are not offered at Central.

“When you’re learning a new language, one of the best things you can learn are conversational words and saying how are you and stuff like that,” Camila Mantilla (11) said. “With Duolingo, at least with Portuguese, I’ve gotten far enough for it to teach me a lot of new words that you would use day to day. We actually had some family friends come over and they all speak in Portuguese, and I was able to understand a lot more of what they were saying and I think it’s because of what Duolingo taught me.”

Mantilla’s family is from South America, so she was raised speaking Spanish, and along with a yearlong stay in Switzerland at the age of five, picked up French. Relearning English after returning to America was not particularly difficult, simply due to the immersive environment that school brings.

“I feel like if you’re forced, if you’re needed to learn the language, it will definitely come faster to you since you’ll be put in situations where you won’t get the multiple choice,” Mantilla said. “I think the personal experience definitely helps people, because there are people who go on study abroad tours to practice that language, and I think that really helps them as well.”

Andrea Williamson has taught Spanish at Central for 17 years, and is one of the World Language department chairs. Williamson’s interest in Spanish began after her family hosted an exchange student when she was a sophomore in high school.

“Listening to her speaking Spanish on the phone when she called her family in Mexico was just fascinating to me,” Williamson said. “The next year, as a junior, I started taking Spanish One and her family actually invited us to come visit them. We went down there to Mexico over winter break, so we celebrated New Year’s with her family. Experiencing a celebration like that in person with different customs just really hooked me in. I’ve kind of been in love with Spanish language and Spanish speaking cultures ever since.”

Although Williamson does not use Duolingo, her husband and two daughters do.

“My younger daughter has a friend from Argentina who moved here just two years ago; it was the year before the pandemic started,” Williamson said. “That started her interest in learning Spanish, and I suggested that she try Duolingo. I think she really picked up on it this year and her streak is 120 something days currently. I’m surprised how she, as an 11 year old, has really taken to that.”

Part of the appeal of Duolingo is safety in language learning without judgement. 

“She feels like it’s a safer way to learn words and practice than with her friend because she gets embarrassed about not being able to do it correctly,” Williamson said. “But Duolingo in general is compelling because they’ve got rewards for streaks, and if you do it more than once a day, you get extra points, and they’ve kind of built into the psychology of the reward.”

However, language is alive, and so it is important that the learning process includes the living aspect of language. Meaning, holding conversations with people.

“Duolingo is kind of good for general hard and steady baseline rules, but it doesn’t allow for the creativity in language that I think is essential and that the school provides,” Hester said. “If you want to learn a language, you have to be able to write it, speak it, and you have to present it. You have to create those sentences on your own. And when you’re able to do that, that’s when you know you understand the language. Duolingo doesn’t have that free opportunity to create and for it to evaluate what you’ve created.”

In reality, the constant give and take pressure that communication gives is what draws out improvement in language. 

“I think I’m a little bit better at English,” Mantilla said. “This is going to sound a little bit ridiculous, but when it comes to smarter sounding words, I’m definitely a little bit better at that in English. I think it’s definitely because of school.”

Language in various contexts are important. Language at home, which is where most bilingual students speak a language that is not English, uses different words and most often do not change, and therefore do not evolve on feedback. 

“It would be nice if Duolingo had prompts you could fill out that you could send to a team of moderators or a team of people that can look at these and give you feedback on it,” Hester said. “Duolingo is constantly talking about improving the curriculum and working with people to do so, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they have a large team already who have some of those skills.”

In addition to professional input, solidarity between other learners can motivate those who do not have a family of language enthusiasts. 

“I think a great Duolingo 2.0 feature would be to connect with another Duolingo learner via their app,” Williamson said. “Maybe you form a network, kind of like you would with fitness apps. You start finding friends that are using it as well, that way you see that they’re on, and maybe Duolingo proposes, ‘Have a conversation on this topic,’ and maybe it gives you some vocab words or something, but maybe that idea of practice with another human being would be a really neat feature.”

Even though Duolingo may be good as a starting point and not much beyond that, it is not altogether unforgivable.

“I think as far as for our students here at Central, I don’t think the world language teachers would say, ‘don’t use Duolingo,’” Williamson said. “Just don’t use it instead of the things that we’re trying to get you to do in class.”

In general, a language is more than grammar and vocabulary. It’s about the people who speak, live, and think in it.

“Being immersed in the culture, which is kind of the approach that we try to take here in the classrooms at Parkway Central is we try to bring the culture into the classroom,” Williamson said. “We talk about leading with culture, whether it’s watching music videos, advertisements or seeing videos of celebrations in the target language, we try to bring that enthusiasm for the culture of the people who speak that language into the classroom so that it is more than just an academic exercise.”