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The McDonald's of language learning

I spent some time away from Duo after they took away immersion, hoping whatever they replaced it with would be substantive -- but seeing it now, it looks to me like it's no longer intended to be a serious site for language learners. It looks like a site geared for mass appeal and fun and profit -- to the detriment of language-learning quality. I think I understand why they are heading the direction they are, but I had really high hopes that this was going to be a great platform to learn virtually every language and learn it well -- with a community of other like-minded aficionados and a fun, all-in-one environment. It now looks like it's just a site geared for children. That's fine, but I would bet all the language addicts the site used to attract are feeling left out in the cold (like me).

The tree is ok -- just ok -- for absolute beginners. I doubt it would get anyone to the intermediate level. The labs look fine, though underwhelming. The real problem is that there is no actual "meat" to this site anymore. There's nothing to challenge or "immerse" you and keep you learning past the tree. And don't tell me to go find a "meatier" site then -- I think I have a right to voice my opinion, given that many of us invested a lot of time in Duo hoping it would continue to improve in the direction it was once seemingly heading.

I don't even think it's that great for the basics of language learning now. I don't think typing one-off, context-less sentences over and over again is enough to give you the deep muscle-memory knowledge of even the fundamentals of the language you need. It might help as a supplement to something else. Other programs like Fluenz and Rosetta do the basics slightly better with their native-speakers and immersive drilling (and, I think, more comprehensive curricula?). Meanwhile sites like Yabla and FluentU and Readlang provide you with the higher-level authentic-material nutrition. The problem is that there is no solid, all-in-one language learning site/app that offers virtually every language in existence AND takes care of your learning needs at all levels AND adds the wonderful social aspect.

The ads and offers to buy health certainly don't help you feel like an adult. But that's not all: Tiny flash cards. Klingon, but no Latin. Anybody at level 16+ in a lang no longer has a way to increase. Not that I think immersion was perfect and irreplaceable, but I'm disappointed they haven't actually replaced it with anything useful, and that they simply don't seem intent on making it the best language-learning site in the world.

Does this not leave a huge gap in the market? I know I would pay $20/month for something that filled the needs I described...

August 3, 2017



"The tree is ok -- just ok -- for absolute beginners."

Depends on the tree. Some are as you say, some are worse, some are better.

"I doubt it would get anyone to the intermediate level."

It's not designed to. Duo serves as an introduction to a language. Intermediate and advanced study need to be done elsewhere.

"There's nothing to challenge or "immerse" you and keep you learning past the tree."

This is nothing more than a matter of personal motivation. Once you've finished a tree, get out and start speaking to people. You're not supposed to stay attached to the Duo teat for your entire language-learning journey.

You don't need sites like FluentU to access higher-level media- it's all available for free on streaming sites, news sites and so on.

While I agree with most of your points about an all-in-one app in principle, one thing I struggle with is that Rosetta Stone can be claimed to be of any sort of quality whatsoever. You're more likely to learn a language by eating a dictionary and hoping it sinks in than using Rosetta Stone. It's spectacularly time-inefficient and massively overpriced.


I gave you an upvote, not because your response was well thought out and well presented (though it most definitely was), but solely for that last sentence. I really did laugh out loud, and it was so perfectly spot on and appropriate for everyone's favorite $$$$$ language software.


LOL. Here are 5 more lingots for the second-to-last sentence.


I'm saying it USED to be more useful for intermediate/advanced students. It would've been great had they continued to make those rungs available and improve and offer more in that area. Why does it only have to be absolute beginner?

A solution to the ad/money thing: why not make the tree free and make upper-level activities cost a little bit? If they involved authentic material, if they were good and effective, if they taught me well and still built up my points and kept me addicted to the site, I'd pay a little extra.

"You don't need sites like FluentU to access higher-level media- it's all available for free on streaming sites, news sites and so in." -- That's just not true for a lot of languages. For getting really, really good at Russian, for instance, it's really hard to just watch a video and figure out what they're saying. Sometimes you need the advanced phrases and words transcribed, translated and explained. You can learn really efficiently with sites like Yabla and FluentU. I've had a lot of success with them, especially Yabla -- well worth the $7/mo or whatever when you're studying really intensely for a period of time. Readlang and News in Slow X as well, all very good. Highly recommended. Would love it if Duo could integrate something like that to their platform.


A solution to the ad/money thing: why not make the tree free and make upper-level activities cost a little bit?

Because half the point of Duolingo is to provide free language learning to as many people as possible and not to discriminate based on whether someone can pay. That is, to my understanding, one of the basic tenets of the company. I don't know if that will ever change - maybe one day it will have to - but considering the aim of Duolingo as a whole, it would make no sense for their first port of call to be "Well let's start charging people."

(I would love to see more activities for more advanced learners, but I don't believe charging people for them fits into DL's ethos at all.


If you are creating this post to punish Duolingo for removing Immersion (ie McDonald = Duolingo has become cheapened and low quality), it's probably a misinformed effort.

(Please understand that I am not intending a harsh tone. Really, a lot of people have not fully understood why Immersion was removed. I too miss Immersion, but, because of what I know, I get that it was a necessary cut.)

Duolingo scrapped immersion because it was a legal nightmare. People were uploading copyrighted material, and people from the EU were using it. Both situations could have sunk Duolingo. Additionally, (less immediately dire but still important) it was costing Duolingo money to maintain it and many people were abusing it to gain levels/lingots, harass translators, place advertising links, and upload pornographic material. Ultimately, it was removed because the cost/risk/benefit ratio was very skewed against Duolingo keeping its head above water.)

As for the labs, that is a feature inviting us to sample ideas. The features available there aren't fully developed versions. They are essentially ideas somewhere between alpha and beta stages that, depending on performance, may or may not reach full release. So, if they aren't super meaty, that is probably why.

As for how Duolingo is performing as a language learning resource to help people grasp the basics, people can read the Effectiveness Study.

I agree, Duolingo would benefit from several upgrades in the way that I agree all online, language learning resources could. It's not going to take people to fluency. It doesn't advertise that it will. Personally, I think it's amazing for what it is and what it can accomplish. And, it is still improving over time, despite some unfortunate but necessary feature cuts to keep it afloat.


Well stated, but as far as the EU goes, one would think Duolingo could have just stopped with the paid translations, which they now say yielded them minimal income: a year's worth of translating generating less income than one day's worth of ads now according to Luis in one of the AMAs. And about copyrights, they could have just restricted it to known domains that complied with Duolingo's strictures, something they did, in fact, do in the last weeks of the system's operation.


I had originally also typed up a long list of ways in which people were abusing Immersion that required staff to spend their time cleaning it up and addressing the abuse issues, which equated to paying them to do that instead of work on other projects that would do better in keeping Duolingo afloat. I can attest to some of it because as only one moderator among many, I was spending ridiculous amounts of time collecting evidence and writing reports on these abuses and I wasn't the only moderator Duolingo. When processing reports, staff review everything. It was all very time costly for staff and volunteers. Even with these things, I'll admit that my knowledge has its limits.


That's really interesting, because at the time it looked like Duolingo was doing nothing to clear up the problems with Immersion. (This was not just my observation, but was complained about, more than once, in the forums, as I recall.) It just shows that we never entirely know what's going on behind the scenes.


@b05aplmun.ca investigating Immersion abuse and writing reports was becoming so time consuming for moderators that we had to ask people to start only reporting users who were serial violators ruining whole articles. We weren't able to properly care for the forums we were intended to take care of. The Immersion abuse was happening on an overwhelming scale. There was a backlog of complaints, which is probably why people didn't think we were doing much about it.


b05aplmun.ca, no worries. This community and Duolingo's dream mean a ton to me. :)


Usagiboy7 - thanks for your hard work trying to keep up with the Immersion problems.


Duolingo never claimed to make you fluent,they outright said it could only really get you to A2 because it taught the basics.

There will never be one site that you go on and use and magically learn a language because that's not how language acquisition works like at all. From any site you can only learn the basics and from then on you have to immerse yourself, Duolingo cant fully immerse you, only you can do that by reading books, listening to the radio, watching shows, thinking in the language. Essential for Duolingo to be the site you want it would have to be Duolingo, Netflix, YouTube, a library, and your actual brain.
You will find the same of any site you use, you can't just learn a language from one site and you never will be able to, Duolingo is just trying to give you a good start in the basics. So if the best language site in the world is one that gets you intermediate in a language using only that site then I'm sorry but your gonna have to wait until they figure out how to download a language directly into your brain.
It's really a matter of how much effort you put in and how much you know about language acquisition


With the disclaimer that I've dabbled in Rosetta for several languages but only really done a large amount of it during a trial period for Hebrew, I have to disagree that it does the basics better. It was boring, slow, and inefficient, and it had several incorrect sentences. (I did send feedback, they never responded.) Even if Rosetta was free, Duolingo Hebrew would still, IMO, be a better use of time; with the current pricing structure, in which RS is wildly overpriced, Duolingo is immeasurably better.

Duolingo is not a one stop shop, but realistically, no one should expect it to be. What it does (and IMO does well) is give a person a solid grounding in the basics of a language (some trees are better than others, but in general the ones I've completed have been pretty good) and the tools to then go off and start learning in the real world, by talking to people and getting language exposure.

(I frankly never found immersion was all it was cracked up to be; necessary disclaimer that I was not, typically, spending a lot of time on the languages that had official Immersion, but still, while I think that translation is an absolutely valid and worthwhile way to learn a language, I don't think that doing it within a computerised system and relying on peer-voting as to whether you've done a good job or not is a particularly efficient use of time. I know many others found it very beneficial, and good for them, but I think for a great many users, Immersion was a frustrating waste of time or something they barely noticed or in some cases (depending what languages they studied) something they didn't necessarily even know existed. For some people, sure, Immersion was the USP of Duolingo, but I think it was a much smaller minority than is claimed.)


It looks like a site geared for mass appeal and fun and profit --

If it was profit that Duolingo was interested in they would have been charging you a subscription of several hundred dollars a year for each of those languages you have been learning. Instead of that, they have been subsidising the site by several millions of dollars per year.

So you think Rosetta have done the basics slightly better ...... Now there is a company that is only interested in Profit. If you had used Rosetta instead of Duolingo you would be several thousand dollars poorer.


If it was profit that Duolingo was interested in they would have been charging you a subscription of several hundred dollars a year for each of those languages you have been learning. Instead of that, they have been subsidising the site by several millions of dollars per year.

Duolingo isn't 'subsidising' itself; venture capitalists have been persuaded to invest in it. Clearly they are only doing this because they believe they will eventually get a good return on their investment. Of course Duolingo is interested in profit; this doesn't mean that they are out to fleece us (unlike certain Egyptian stones). There is generally a point where a very large user-base paying little or even nothing can generate much more revenue than a small base each of which pays a lot—look at facebook.


That's not true though. You can make huge profits by building a massive userbase with a free access model and then finding ways to monetize it. There is a reason why the free-to-play games models are so successful: it works.


You can make some profit but if you charged for it you would make 100x the profit.


Not necessarily. Again, that's why the f2p games work so well nowadays. You would have waaay less users on Duolingo if it wasn't free access.


Yes free to play games do work but just look at the market for games like CoD they charge and they certainly are not lacking in player. However this is a pretty advanced economic concept and would very much distract from the main point of this discussion so it's not best to go into this here


It's actually very related to the subject here. CoD works well on a paid access model mainly because they have an already known franchise. When you are not an established company or are not working with a known franchise, the f2p model is very prevalent nowadays. And even paid access models are now borrowing characteristics from the f2p models: dlc, add-ons, in-game cosmetics or other advantages.


F2P games are successful because they nickel-and-dime their customers with microtransactions. I wouldn't fancy that here.

I much prefer adverts.


Well, I don't use the mobile version of Duolingo, but from what I understood there are already microtransactions for 'health' I think, something that allows you to keep using the app after some time spent per day.
By the way, there are some f2p games (because yes, not all f2p models are the same) which are also ads-only.


No language app is perfect, there is no magic button to learn a language.


Doesn't mean it can't be better (or worse).


I didn't even use Immersion, but I still miss it for the vibe it gave this place. The Stories are nice, but ultimately very limited and labour intensive for paid Duolingo staff, I would imagine.

The problem is that I would never try out a language learning service that costs 20 $ a month, with so many free ones available and useful in their own ways. So this new player in the market would have to get me seriously hooked before I wanted to part with any money...


Upvoted because I think the B1-B2 learning is an area that Duolingo should address. I'm not certain the service can support limitless upward growth in a language without radical feature changes. I'm not sure such a vast expansion of scope is wise for the organization, either. But I do think that the service should dip its toes back into higher level and contextual content and open-ended vocabulary lists.

If you haven't checked out labs, the Duolingo team is playing with integrating stories. The more advanced stories help address the needs of A2 and early B1 level learners, so the feature seems like a step in the right direction. I think it's problematic that developing stories requires so much human curation, but the format is nice. I expect new labs to continue to push up the usefulness of Duolingo into the B1 range.

What I really hope to see longer term is more sophisticated learner progress modeling (Bayesian models for student accuracy informing spaced repetition of grammar concepts, idioms, and vocabulary) and extensive algorithmically generated content. Perhaps using human moderators as a filter for auto-generated content could be a next-level expansion feature for Duo.

However, the team is probably still focused more on creating breadth for the platform, and I can't fault them for it. What you call "the McDonald's of language learning" is a much more inspiring idea than that - it's a platform where you can get to A2 proficiency in dozens of the world's languages, for free. The incubator means speakers of less known languages can develop courses to make it easier for someone to get to a level where they can interact and progress in those languages. That's cool.


The thing that makes Duolingo successful is the free access model, so it's irrelevant to compare it with paid access models. You should also keep in mind that the "hardcore" members are probably not the ones who make Duolingo profitable.

I agree on a lot of points though, and I think they wouldn't need to spend a lot of resources to make improvements targeted at a more advanced audience. A major overhaul of the forums combined with a smart usage of the community could make things like the old immersion doable at low maintenance costs.


You should also keep in mind that the "hardcore" members are probably not the ones who make Duolingo profitable.

Not directly, no.

But the hardcore users are (or used to be) an important part of the content creation here: volunteering to build courses, answering questions in the forums and the sentence discussions, giving useful feedback on beta courses, fostering a great community spirit here, recommending Duolingo to everyone they know, etc. You can do some of that with professional staff instead, but it's very expensive and lacks the street cred a vibrant community has.

So I'm not sure it's economically more sound in the end. Especially since the professionally created courses haven't exactly been better than the volunteer created ones, as far as I've understood...


Yes. What is their brand going to be, long term?

I used to tell people who asked me how I learned languages, at least in part "get on duolingo". Now I say "that's for kids, here's what you do instead..."

Looking back, I think the greatest value of immersion was actually the promise that the site was going to give you first easy things to master (tree), then a virtually unlimited amount of difficult material to work with (immersion or whatever they had in mind to replace it). It kept you motivated, it kept you interested in building your language levels and adding your friends, etc....And maybe they do have plans for more advanced learners, say to expand the Labs idea or something. But for now and for about a year and counting, their brand is "The McDonald's of Language Learning".


I used to recommend Duolingo to literally everyone I even had half a conversation about language learning with (strangers at airports, bookstore staff, ALL of my friends, relatives, and colleagues).

For me, the turning point was when they started experimenting with payment options. Since I find some of the things they are trying OK, but others pretty exorbitant, I can't wholeheartedly recommend it anymore. I mean, I know that it's still a fabulous service and it's possible to use it for free, but a new user that isn't committed yet will be pretty turned off my some of the things and amounts. I don't want to associate myself with that (since I often sounded like "the crazy Duolingo lady" even before...).

So if someone now asks me for advice about starting a new language, I'm more likely to suggest Memrise. Which is a pity, since Duolingo as it was was better than Memrise is.

(For people beyond the level that Duolingo offers, there are more options, since they are probably already more committed to learning and to experimenting with different tools. Duolingo used to be the perfect "gateway drug" to language learning.)


Thing is that the old immersion was almost unusable. You had to translate sentences for XP so on almost every document you would have people translating it has just a bunch of random letters for the XP and when you actually translated it people would just change it again for XP not leaning or actual corrections. Another problem was that you also got XP for downloading documents which meant that no one checked of what they were doing was allowed and used copyrighted material.
I honestly can't see anything like immersion happening unless it's not done for XP or 'levels' because then most people only do it for those which leads to enormous amounts of spam


You are probably right, but I feel like advanced learners shouldn't care for xp or levels anyway. I actually see this immersion concept as something users could do themselves like they do on some message boards and are sometimes trying to do here. Duolingo's forum is quite unpractical though and lacks some features which would enable these initiatives to be profitable for everyone.


Actually I think the XP and levels thing is great, even for advanced learners. Motivation is everything in language learning.


I actually see this immersion concept as something users could do themselves

Indeed. Or if they want to work with others: http://translatihan.com/


True - but at least you had the option to do the immersion and take it seriously. I think I got a lot out of it. It was NOT perfect, like I said, lots of problems. But it's better than nothing (i.e., better than what we have now). I was just hoping that they would improve it or replace it with something else. What would be wrong with, say, using lingots to purchase higher-level lessons -- clips of authentic material broken down for you or something? Videos with challenging dialogue, then questions and then transcripts at the end? Articles? Any kind of pre-written mini-lesson for extra points? I mean I could think of a dozen ideas off the top of my head. And if you can't get something like that to function as a self-sustaining community-driven function (not sure why that would be impossible), then I don't think many people would mind paying a little bit for that alone (especially if it's GOOD). There's your replacement for ads...Make the tree free, make the intermediate/advanced activities cost a little money.


I like all your ideas, Jimmy_McNulty, and I would definitely pay (money or lingots, or both) for an advanced tree. The option to pay for advanced material targeted to certain areas would also be great.


This would be very difficult to sustain for the exact reasons as stated above, anything on here for levels is vunerable to copious amounts of spam which even the discussions are hence the rewriting.

It was not at all better than nothing. You cannot just take copy writed material and put it in another which was what a ton of people were doing, although Duolingo never gave any information on the matter you can almost guarantee that this lead to legal issues so while it may be better there than not for you it would not have been for Duolingo itself and it was a choice between immersion and the site.

As for all the other stuff you mentioned, you can get those on a million different sites why would they spend so much money developing these just because you can't be bothered to open up another tab to a site that does do it. Take control of your own learning, Duolingo can't spoon-feed you everything for you to learn a language, that is purely up to you to learn, Duolingo can only give you the basics and send you on your way to learn independently which is the only actual way to learn a language to s higher level.


I can open up other tabs just fine, thank you. If you'd read what wrote, I do take charge of my own learning in other ways, but as a lover of the duo platform/general idea, I wish they would incorporate more of these things. what I'm looking for is not "spoon-feeding" (the tree does that, actually), but rather more challenging, higher-level material. As a user/customer, that's what I'd like to see on this site. Otherwise I'm likely to leave it and miss out on all the condescending forum posters ;)

[deactivated user]

    I agree that removing immersion without a proper equivalent was damaging to our ability to get further here, and the social aspect was great for learning more about the surrounding cultures, but I disagree with you on your thesis. The good will that this site was started with continues to perpetuate throughout the majority of their choices. Though I wish Ashton Kutcher would do more than just give money, do the voices maybe. I am American and I have issues with the way the English course voice sounds sometimes.

    Duolingo needs to improve, they need to streamline, they need to allow for more volunteer work, they could likely allow for us to get further in a language, the notes need to be added to mobile, they need to properly teach grammar, the Hebrew course has truly inefficient explanations of the alphabet, the Vietnamese course doesn't really go into tones at all, lingots serve no purpose once your Duo-fu is on point(for real I have thousands of little buggers), the buying your streak back is a cheap way of getting money from us, and things loose their gold much faster than I forget what is on there, but I gotta say this is a great service.


    Duolingo "can't" find a way to give most learners anything like a reasonable shake at translation into their target language in their trees. Bad for their metrics they say. OK, well, add an option to up the number (probably the most-request option in the forums); hide it well if you have to so unwary beginners don't get tripped up by it; the translations are already in the system; just let us at them. But they don't. Intermediate learners just sorta aren't their jam. But they're working on things they say. And, well, they are. Stories are neat. And they hint at other things coming, but obviously that's not where the vast bulk of their users are at.


    Have you tested apps like LingQ (very input-focused) or Speaky (language exchange via chat)? I think they are a good complement to Duolingo. Anyway, I do not believe in all-in-one-approaches when it comes to language learning apps. This doesn't work because 1) development would be very difficult and expensive, 2) you can't define a language learning process that works for every user, 3) such a hypothetical app would become a monopoly and charge you more than 20 bucks a month ;)


    Thank you for those two mentions. I don't think I'd heard of Speaky before. Looks like they've added some gamification to the language-exchange space. I'm sure that will have its appeal.

    Interesting to note the figure of total words learned on LingQ's homepage: 227 million. If the average user had learned just 1000 words, that would put the total number of users at 200,000, 1/1000 as many as Duolingo, and this from a site that I think is pretty well-known in language-learning circles and has been around twice as long as Duolingo. Unfortunately, I think this speaks to just what a small niche the post-beginner language market is.

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