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"The CEO of language app Duolingo says too many people make the same mistake trying to learn a...

new language"

I'm not sure if anyone has posted this already, but I just found this article and I thought it was interesting enough to share. :)


May 21, 2017



Also, it's completely ridiculous to assume whether someone is consistently practicing or whether they are binging based on their duolingo activity. Someone can NOT use duolingo for a week and still be practicing the language every day, or they could be doing a bit of Duo and binging through other methods.

I find Von Ahn's quasi-religious belief in Duo provided data to be highly questionable.


Not sure about the minutes before bedtime....but the consistency has to be right on.


Time spent ≠ Language knowledge


Oh well, I'm binging every day... haven't got tired of it yet.


As long as you "stick around" 'cause that's very important to him, too. ;)


Same. I just lost my streak yesterday because I was busy though.


Heh. Well he's definitely right about consistency.

But if bedtime is pretty late--around the witching hour when Duolingo sometimes has trouble w/ timezone and kills streaks--a person might get quite ticked off if he (or she) were really into maintaining a streak and Duo glitched it out of existence. . . . Or maybe that day-change problem only affects the Russians, who seem to complain about it often.

Anyway. Studying early in the morning is better. :)


You can fit in really good binges in the mornings especially in the summer:)


You've got that right! Generally I try not to binge. But summer is coming . . .


Duolingo has 10s of millions of users. How many do you think are learning 5 or 6 or 10 languages? A tiny, tiny fraction of them.

Duolingo isn't designed for people who learn languages as a hobby, and Duolingo isn't going to make changes that would suit language hobbyists over the vast bulk of learners on Duolingo, who are only learning one, or possibly 2 languages.

The data analysts at Duolingo know far more about what works best for the 10's of millions of users that Duolingo actually cares about, than the armchair pundits who are complaining about the way Duolingo is developing.

Sure, the profile of people who post in these forums is heavily weighted towards people with multiple languages, but it doesn't take a genius to figure out that only an infinitesimally small fraction of the Duo userbase is posting in this Discussion thread - if even 1% of Duolingo users posted once a month, there would be tens of thousands of posts every day - the posters here are NOT representative of the user that Duolingo was created to help, and they don't know what works for the user that Duolingo was created to help.

Your opinion doesn't matter. If you think some other process or website will suit you better, go ahead and use it. If you're right, and Duolingo is wrong, 10's of millions of will follow you.


Here's one other perfectly reasonably explanation:

  1. People who are advanced excitedly come to Duolingo as another way to practice to practice their target language.
  2. They go trough a ton on Duolingo in a very short time because they already have a lot of exposure, so that's easy (the data suggests they are binging).
  3. After a short time, they find a lot of other great ways to practice their language, because that's what they do. They decide that they've tried Duolingo, gotten what they could out of it, but that they will put their time into other resources now ESPECIALLY because Duolingo only comes up to an intermediate level and isn't advanced enough.

On the other hand, someone who is a beginner and can't find other resources may join duo, do a few lessons a day, and go far in their tree this way.

The DATA will suggest what Von Ahn has assumed, that binging leads to quitting and only through slow consistency can you learn a language. But the DATA is NOT based on who quit a language, who learned a language, it's based on who quit Duolingo, who kept on Duolingo. ITS NOT THE SAME THING! You can't measure someone's language study just through Duolingo when there are a billion other factors involved.

I'm not saying that the data doesn't accurately describe anyone's case, but to take it as a mantra in foolish, it is NOT reliable data because there are so many factors that can not be controlled for and Duolingo data measures Duolingo ONLY use, not someone's wholistic experience with a language.


Also it can't differentiate between quitting and taking a break. It can be beneficial to step away from a language for a while. When you go back it seems far easier as it is now familiar instead of new and strange and you learn new ideas from different languages which gives you valuable new perspectives on the old one. You then make faster progress and can apply your attention specifically to those things which haven't stuck. I am counting down a 100 day break from Russian, when my streak reaches 100 I am goiing back to it again. I need all the familiarity I can get with that one.


Indeed, somone needs to look up how memories crystalise, the value of spiral ciricula and the value of personal control in motivation. It's interesting Luis has alegedly just signed up to do some of the harder courses for the first time, ones with no audio, poor notes or different alphabets. He can see what it is like to be shunted back down and prevented from accessing new material for little mistakes and to have to keep practicing ' this is my house ' time after time....then see how long it is before he quits that course and finds something better to do with his time.


Yes, this. And what's especially annoying is that it is precisely this one-sided interpretation of the data that has led them to introduce the life system, to prevent people binging.

Basically, they are not even trying to measure language ability or Duo's success at actually teaching languages long term. They are simply measuring what keeps people on Duo longer, i.e. how to increase their own metrics and make the company seem more inviting to investors. And then presenting that as some kind of educational revelation. I love Duo and have been here a long time but I am getting increasingly annoyed with their hypocrisy; pretending to care about language learning but actually just wanting to increase their user base.


You'd be surprised how much we measure people's performance on the language throughout their time at Duolingo. We really care about how well you learn. This is my life's mission.


What I don't understand is the taking away of features, however minor, that helped the learner learn a language. I am thinking, in particular, of the conjugation buttons that have disappeared from the drop-down hints under words in a sentence. It used to be that if I wasn't sure or got wrong a tense or a mood of a verb in a sentence, I could click on it, click the button, and see the verb in all its tenses and moods and do a quick review. Now, if I want to do that I either have to (1) click the words button above (if available for that language), scroll and scroll until I find the word I need, scroll back up to find it's box in the upper right hand corner, click again under "more details", and finally find the conjugation tables; or I can (2) go to the Wordreference website, type in the verb and click on a button to to get all the conjugation tables displayed on a single page. As you can imagine, I always pick option #2 now. It is sad that to get the most out of Duolingo I have to go to another site. I completely understand that Duolingo can't offer every single detail in a course but this one was already available and useful.


I "binged" Spanish to fully complete the tree in just 6 days (it's very similar to Portuguese). In those 6 days I had also done repetitions of the voc outside of Duolingo. My retention rate was extreme high the day after (7th day). But ever since it has fallen (a lot) since I haven't reviewed any Spanish thereafter because I've been building a new reviewing system for myself and have been slow to do so because of other reasons.

Rather than binging (not to say that it actually is bad for some) I strongly blame the lack of repetition options and the lack of more advanced content of holding me back. I'll soon start reviewing again, but it's extremely frustrating that no decent reviewing options nor advanced content exist and that instead I've got to build reviewing tools myself... Duolingo might be good to learn the basics of a language from scratch but beyond that it's frankly terrible (sorry it simply is).

Not even to mention all the time I've been forced to waste on creating (and testing) reviewing tools for myself that I could have spent learning...

I agree that 'binging' can come from 2 main reasons: 1 people with a terrible learning strategy 2 strong students who feel like Duolingo is too basic. It's good that Duolingo reviews stats but it's also important to know / think about what these stats don't say. For example, when I'm good at a language but keep getting words I already know, I'll get bored and respond to questions very quickly "to get it over with", which will obviously result in more errors. When looking at my stats it could wrongfully lead to a conclusion that I've gotten worse, while in reality I didn't get worse but simply lack content to keep my attention and to keep me motivated.

Duolingo must watch out that they don't fall into the same trap as schools: focusing on weak students while stronger students get held back by the very same system. Duolingo is supposed to be a tool for learning a language, not just a piece of entertainment with little real world value.


Quite correct.
Actually, binging gives you momentum.
If you take it too slow you end up spending a third of your time just catching up.
I think 3 to 5 hours daily is optimal.


We've considered this, but it turns out binging really is bad (we don't just have data from our own app usage).

We've also done controlled experiments that encourage people to pace their learning instead of binging, and people who are encouraged to spread out learning do better in post-tests.

I'm sorry you think we're incompetent. Maybe we should return our PhDs...


I'll try to give you a response from my point of view.

I personally feel like Duolingo is handling everything in a very binary way (I obviously could be wrong since my POV is based on limited information). If tests show something is bad for the majority / the average person it seems to get labelled as "bad" and that's the end of story, even if It’s beneficial for i.e. 20% of all students. Rather than a modular, dynamic approach the approach of Duolingo *seems * extremely linear. With a final product which is the sum of “best for the majority”-decisions rather than “detecting” what “type” of student somebody is and adjusting their experience to their needs and wishes.

Applied to binging: why is binging bad? What makes binging bad? I don’t know if you have answer to this, but I personally see this as the most important question. A binary “binging is bad”, end of the story “annoys” me. Firstly, it’s probably not wrong to assume that there are diverse types of binging. I.e. binging to finish a tree ASAP vs binging for efficiency. Perhaps binging itself generally isn’t even that bad but rather something else that often goes together with binging.

Applied to myself. When I was learning Portuguese on Duolingo I had a period where I tried speed up my progress and I binged with very little reviewing. Result: demotivated, spending less time a day on learning and a poor retention rate. But I actually binged more before and after the aforementioned without losing motivation, with a lot of reviewing by redoing skills and a higher retention rate. I finished the Spanish tree in 6 days and did repetitions of the voc in Excel. I often say that my retention rate on the 7th day was 80+%, but that’s actually incorrect. I can’t see what my retention rate was the 7th day as the system I use only stores my overall score for each word. But here’s the real overall data from training voc through my Excel file of the entire 7 days (English to Spanish only):

Total words = 1549. I’ve repeated every single word at least 3 times (most more often). A total of about 7000 repetitions = an average of 4.5 repetitions / word. These numbers don’t include any data from Duolingo but purely from my practice sheet. Words were asked this way: “the apple” to which I had to reply “la manzana”.

% of voc I’ve never gotten wrong: 82.38%

% of voc I’ve only gotten wrong once (no big deal): 9.3%

% wrong twice: 3.36%

% 3-5 errors: 3.55%

% 6 or more errors: 1.42%

That’s not bad at all, isn’t it? Spanish is an easy language and Portuguese helped a lot but those are still nice numbers. Therefore, I won’t at all believe that binging is always bad. I believe that what I did for Spanish was one of the best and most efficient things to do. I haven’t reviewed any of it ever since as I’ve been building a new improved reviewing tool which allows me to review multiple languages at once and I've also been busy because of other reasons. Side note, for Spanish I don’t have a verb conjugation reviewing tool (yet), I only reviewed voc.

I agree with taking action against "bad" binging (i.e. the health system, which I haven’t been exposed to). But my main frustration is that there are no good efficient reviewing options. Redoing skills was fine (and boring) for Portuguese, the first language I did on Duolingo as I didn’t yet know any better. But I’ve soon realized that targeted voc practice is waaaaay more efficient and effective. But it’s something that Duolingo doesn’t offer. So why doesn’t Duolingo offer it? It would barely take any effort to add it on Duolingo. So, again, why is there no such option??? The only reason I can think of is Duolingo trying to cater for “the average student”. Where a voc reviewing system might be too boring for “the average student”. The average student most likely being not all that serious about learning a language. And what about those who actually are more serious about learning for whom a voc reviewing system can be very beneficial?

In school I’ve always been very good at math, I’ve experienced a bunch of math exercises getting assigned for which 2 hours were reserved but which I finished in not even 10 minutes (nobody else finished within the first hour). Do you want to know what that meant? It meant I had to sit in my chair for 110 minutes doing absolutely nothing, not allowed to silently use my smartphone, not allowed to sleep, not allowed to go stretch my legs, nope just sit there. That’s pure torture in a literal sense. Schools are focused on the weaker students; weaker students also get extra help. But when you’re good at something, it’s basically “go F yourself”. Duolingo goes a bit in that same direction, low general standards to accommodate for weaker and less serious students while no care is given about those who are stronger or more serious. How about trying to accommodate for everybody? It’s so extremely frustrating to me that I can’t get / do what I and other serious students need / want simply because what I want / need might not be beneficial for the “average student”.

I don’t think that I speak just for myself when I say that I don’t care about what your data says about what’s best for the “average student”. It’s good that you try to improve your service but I don’t like that everybody is being painted by the same brush. I don’t think that I have the inherent ability to learn a language more quickly than others nor do I think that my memory is better but I do think that I take learning a language more seriously than the average person. Yet Duolingo seems to prefer to focus on the “passer-by” and other kinds of people who don’t really take learning a language serious and who are the least likely to ultimately have a use for or remember what they’ve learned. While those who are more serious aren’t really being provided for. Obviously, this will cause frustration.

Even some basic tools are missing likely because they aren’t “entertaining” enough for the average student. I don’t consider it “normal” that stronger and serious students get punished because the tools they need / want are “too boring” or “not entertaining enough” for weaker and less serious students.

P.S. it's not because I focus on what I consider to be bad that I think that Duolingo is bad in everything. It has it's strong points too, it simply can still become a lot better. Duolingo's approach might be "revolutionary" compared to terrible classic teaching methods but it's still in it's infancy with a lot of room for improvement. I'm certain that you've got some good improvements in the pipeline but I still feel like my point is one that needs to be made, whether you agree or not.


I couldn't agree more!


Whoops, I did it again! I should've never posted this article. I couldn't have guessed it would generate such 'heated' responses. Oh well, have a nice day everyone, and happy learning! Oh, and be sure you "stick around." :)


Na- its good to vent and show what we think of some of these pronouncements from on high.


I just want to say that it was a good thing you posted the article and thank you.


Hi Carina,

I am happy you have posted this article. Because the "heated" responses are giving a lot of information about ....
- the different natural learning styles
- the influence of the private situations on the way people are using Duolingo
- the need to let users choose their own learning style, otherwise they will quit with Duolingo
- etc.

Greetings from the Netherlands


Hoi Pentaan! Wat leuk om je weer te zien op Duolingo en dat je hierop ook hebt gereageerd. Ik schrijf je effies terug in onze moedertaal. :) Ik had echt geen idee dat het plaatsen van dat artikel zoveel boze (min of meer) reacties zou opleveren, alhoewel niet op mij gericht gelukkig. Het schijnt dat veel serieuze Duolingo-ers een groot probleem hebben met het feit dat hij (Luis, de directeur) aanraad om niet te "bingen" (je weet wel, te veel in een keer doen) met het leren van talen via z'n app, en daar worden ze echt nijdig van! Hij heeft liever dat je langzaam leert en dat je zo consequent mogelijk bent. Het kan best waar zijn dat hij echt geeft om de gebruikers van z'n app/site en dat ze success hebben met het leren van talen, en daarom wil hij dat je niet te snel leert. Maar er zit natuurlijk ook een andere reden achter. Het feit blijft dat Duolingo een virtueel bedrijf met klanten is, en zoals de meeste bedrijven wil je je klanten niet verliezen en probeer je er alles aan te doen om hen zolang mogelijk te behouden. En in dit geval, hoe sneller de klant uitgeleerd is, hoe sneller de klant het bedrijf verlaat. Dit is ook niet gewoon een simpele game app met maar één werknemer; dit is een bedrijf begonnen met veel investeringgeld en een nu een groot hoofdkantoor en zo'n zeventig werknemers. Die moeten ook allemaal betaald worden. Dat zie ik dus als de voornaamste reden waarom hij zegt wat hij zegt!

Groetjes terug uit Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania!

[deactivated user]

    Heel veel mensen zullen je dankbaar zijn, dat je dit artikel hebt geplaatst.
    Luis heeft zelfs al 2 reacties geplaatst!

    Hij zal mij juist als klant verliezen als Duolingo gaat bepalen op welke manier ik moet leren. Juist de huidige vrijheid in de Android App en de web versie bindt mij aan Duolingo, terwijl ik helemaal niet van talen leren houd.
    Het allerleukst vind ik het schrijven in de troubleshooting fora in het Engels en zelfs al een heel klein beetje in het Duits. Iets wat ik nooit durfde, maar na een paar maanden Duolingo wel.

    Groetjes uit zonnig Nederland.

    A lot of people will be grateful to you for posting this article.
    Luis has even posted 2 comments!

    He will just lose me as a customer, if Duolingo is going to decide how to learn. Just the current freedom in the Android App and web version binds me to Duolingo, while I do not like learning languages at all.
    Most of all, I like writing in the troubleshooting forums in English and even a little bit in German. Something I never dared, but after a few months Duolingo I do.


    This is interesting! I know every time I got the spark of interest in German I burnt out quickly, but I've had a long-time appreciation for Spanish. I haven't been here long, but I've been going more slowly than I tried to with German (I'd rather spend days strengthening the skills I know I passed only through repetition of incorrect questions than breeze through the learning tree without retaining anything), and I already feel like I've got a better grasp than I ever did with German. I'd like to get a good foothold in Spanish and maybe eventually go back to German someday, though.


    Does it also help that Spanish is much easier than German? =)


    I dunno, maybe. I didn't find German particularly difficult, though (aside from pronouncing the R). I just wasn't as interested in the long run, and ended up dropping it every time I started. Meanwhile, I tend to listen to Spanish music and watch Spanish movies, so I had more reason to stick around with it compared to German (my only tie to it is a German friend, who's fluent in English). I wasn't trying to say that this article was entirely right (others have pointed out that perhaps advanced speakers stop by for a short time to review things they already know, then move onto other resources), but it does make sense at least in some cases, is all.


    That certainly didn't apply to me!

    Still binging three years later:)


    Von Ahn seems to think that it makes sense to measure the effectiveness of Duolingo in teaching a language by learners' performance on Duolingo, which is completely absurd if you think about it.


    I think the beginning of the end of consistency on Duolingo happens when you turn off notifications for a particular language. I regret turning off notifications for Dutch. I had a girlfriend living and working in two French-speaking areas of Belgium. Of course I loved practicing my French over there, but we both found Dutch (Flemish) and the Dutch-speaking areas quite intriguing, possibly even more so than the French-speaking areas. But she got a job back in the States and that was that. I had other languages to improve and maintain — but now I wish I had kept up with Dutch even with just two or three timed practice sessions per day after finishing my tree.

    The beauty behind notifications is that you should never get them if you knock out your lessons during the day. And when you DO get the email notification for a particular language, you should be surprised— Hey, I didn’t study yet! Then you study and it’s all good. The absolute worst thing to do is to turn off that notification safety net. Skipped days then become weeks, months,….

    Additionally, I recommend joining or becoming an admin for a Duolingo club. I am an admin for three clubs: Danish, Polish, and Japanese. There’s no way I can let any of those languages slide. The clubs are awesome for maintaining consistency. We “heart” and encourage each other for maintaining streaks, starting new skills, finishing skills, winning the weekly leaderboard, etc. Groups like that are impossible to walk away from, and the side effect is that you learn and maintain the language(s)!


    Personally I don't see binging as a bad thing at all. If I binge, it means that I am in the zone, I'm happy, and I want to learn even more, if the time allows me. And then if I stop, for example, it just means that I've found a way to improve my skills even further.

    Let's say that I binge study German, but this site isn't giving me everything I need. I don't have videos to watch, I don't have books or long texts to read. So I leave this site after milking all its worth, and then I spend more time finding materials that interest me. In no way does it mean that I stopped studying because I binged.


    that makes sense : )


    Cannot read it because I have an add-blocker and I refuse to turn it off for them but thanks anyway.


    "There's one thing that separates the success stories from the failures when it comes to learning a new language.

    That's consistency.

    People who practice their language for 15 minutes before bed have a major edge on other Duolingo users, according to founder and CEO of the language learning app Luis Von Ahn.

    "Those people we know are going to stick around for a really long time," von Ahn says. "We see them doing that for a week, we say, 'This person is going to be here for a while.'"

    Meanwhile, users who binge — spending hours on the site, cramming in French or German or Chinese language lessons — tend to disappear fast.

    That's because, no matter what sketchy online ads tell you, learning a language is a marathon, not a sprint. You cannot hope to master a language in weeks — or even months. So people who start out of the gate at full speed tend to burn out fast.

    "If you are able to make it a part of your routine and space it out, that's much better than going nuts and cramming," von Ahn says. "It is not a sprint. If you sprint, you will forget everything."

    Von Ahn says that he's currently learning Portuguese, and applying the principal of consistent, daily practice to his own learning sessions. So far, it's working out well. He's gotten to the point where he can understand a great deal of it and even watch Portuguese movies.

    "When I speak Portuguese, I sound like a combination of an American and a Mexican speaking Portuguese," he tells Business Insider. "I can pretty much understand everything. I know what to say — I just sound really bad."


    Rubbish, i have a 400 plus day streak and i binge on particular languages. Esperanto in three weeks ( all gold all the way through) Swahili to level 7 in three days - the reason i have halted on that is that the course is simply not good enough yet and i am waiting for it to go out of alpha and into beta. Currently binging Spanish again - to re guild the tree and german, to finish the darned tree....my learning style, my way. What does luis know about, strange work patterns, chronic illnesses, new babies, sudden and unexpected goals like interviews, work opportunities, holidays etc all of which affect how you might interact with the language and the app. What use needing to have basic spanish in two months to take up an internship if the app requires you to slow down and take a year or more. Grrr.


    15 minutes a day is nowhere near enough for Duolingo Portuguese, you just end up going backwards! As you progress, there are more sections to refresh - I find sometimes six or more sections that were gold the day before now need refreshing. If I don't refresh all of them, I can't move on, and I start forgetting stuff I already learnt. Not helped by the fact that I normally do my practice on my phone, so often hit the wrong letter!


    Don't forget that Luis is a native Spanish speaker so he has a bit of an advantage there. :-) I know what you mean by reviews piling up but I think in the long term a little everyday is better than cramming once or twice a week.


    He's not saying that you should only practice 15 minutes a day.


    Associated post on this issue, for the record, from June 2019. That might interest others also :

    Learn a language in just 5 minutes a day. For free.