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Could use some advice on how to get the most out of Duolingo

Hi all, I am having trouble figuring out how Duolingo is supposed to work. On the face of it it looks like a pretty ... bad program. However, my roommate and many of your posts here indicate that it's actually a really great tool for learning languages. I'm just having a tough time seeing it. Maybe if I articulate my issues someone can help point out what I'm missing. I have 2 separate problems regarding how the lessons work.

I have been trying the Chinese lesson (for work). The problem I have with the Chinese lesson in particular is that it feels like I'm just playing a game of match'm without actually learning what the words mean. It shows the Chinese letters for 4-5 words, like "nihao", and then I spend 5 minutes going through matching the character to the word... without ever knowing what the word means. What does "nihao" mean? I have no idea (well, I do, but mostly from Dora the Explorer's friend Kai-Lan, but the point is I'm not getting it from Duolingo). And yes, I very specifically chose, "Learning Chinese from English".

<pre>Am I doing something wrong? Should I keep at it and eventually it'll start filling in the blanks? </pre>

Thanks for your input all! Isaac

March 19, 2018



You'll have to stick at it a while before you see any results. You're right, though, if you use Duolingo mindlessly you end up learning less, so make a point of doing things like looking at the written Chinese while you say the English translation, and vice versa. You'll also find the website is more effective than the app.

My advice on how best to use it, based on my experience, what I've read in the forums, and based on how Duolingo is designed:

  1. Practise every day. Little and often works better, and is more fun.

  2. Above all else, keep the tree gold. Weakened skills are how duolingo's spaced recognition algorithms tell you the best time to revise each word. If you revise the skills at the times Duolingo suggests, you'll find it works really well.

  3. "Peeking" is holding the mouse over a word to see what it means. Peek when you need to, but not otherwise. Peeking helps you learn the words you need to know, and it tells Duolingo that you need to practise them more often.

  4. If you're comfortable with the difficulty of the skills you're strengthening, and you're getting most questions right, (and if you have time,) do a new lesson or two. Otherwise, use strengthen skills.

  5. Use review lesson after every lesson, to remind yourself about the correct versions of what you got wrong.

  6. Don't worry about getting questions wrong. Your aim isn't to be perfect now, but to be better in the future. Getting questions wrong is part of the process.

  7. Use Wiktionary to look up the etymology of words you find hard to remember. Knowing where a word comes from and where it fits really helps.

  8. Read about the grammar of the language you're learning. It's loads easier to have the patterns of the language explained to you, rather than figuring them out for yourself. Read them briefly, and don't worry if you don't understand them fully the first time you read them. Come back to them from time to time to help you sort out the bits of the language you're finding difficult. The tips and notes sections are fine, but there are plenty of resources elsewhere on the web, most of which are more comprehensive. I like Wikipedia's grammar articles, e.g. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_grammar

Good luck :)


People tend to have issues with how the Chinese course is set up. I think it is well conceived to facilitate development of actual reading skill in Chinese (and those with far more noteworthy Chinese credentials than mine seem to think the same), but there's no doubt it requires putting in the effort to draw the connections. You lean how to use the words in the exercises where you're translating sentences. The character/sound matching exercises are to help you learn to read. You don't learn to read via translating. You learn to read by hearing the Chinese in your head as you see the character and recognizing that that sequence of sounds carries meaning in and of itself.

As for advice: do the lessons in a skill and then use the strengthen option until you're able to complete both kinds of exercises (sentence translations and character/sound matching) with some degree of ease. If you're racking up several hundred experience points per skill, that's fully to be expected. Personally, I enjoy using timed practice (which you can buy for 10 lingots in the store). Not everyone does, though.


As a second language learner who eventually became fluent in Chinese, the Duolingo app is exactly what I would have wanted in a Chinese teaching resource. (And this is in contrast to the Japanese module, that I think is ultimately far too limited to ultimately achieve much of its aims). But that said, while it can be a good source for achieving specific types of goals in learning Chinese, no software, book, or tape is a sufficient stand-alone resource, and what is more, it may not be a good fit for your learning goals.

So, first, let's talk about goals. You say you are learning Chinese for work. But unfortunately, I have never met anyone who managed to successfully learn Chinese just for work. Then again, though, maybe "learn" is a complicated concept. For me, I wanted to be able to live in China in Chinese, away from the tourist traps and international enclaves where English is spoken; I wanted to hang out with old people playing 象棋 in the shade of a tree in a 大杂院儿 in old beijing, and listen to their stories; I wanted to get recipes from people's grandmothers; I wanted to read and translate poems, not just from books, but from the cursive calligraphy adorning so many paintings; I wanted to laugh at the jokes that didn't make sense in English. Basically: i wanted to use the language as a means of integrating myself into Chinese culture and society. To do that, I needed to be able to think in Chinese, and understand things the Chinese way, without needing to translate into English, even mentally, or even conceptually.

The Duolingo Chinese module is an exceedingly good tool for accomplishing this goal, and the most important feature is that it resists giving you word-to-word equivalencies. By focusing on character-pinyin-pronunciation associations, and then using those characters in sentences, you learn words the way a child learns words in their native language - through application and context. When you think about your native language, you may not know precisely what many words mean, but you know how to use them. This is what allows you to engage in fluent improvisation, where you adapt the language to express subtle or nuanced meanings. If you simply think in terms of equivalencies, "你“ means "You," "好” means "Good," "你好" means "Hello" then you will never be able to speak anything more than reverse Chinglish, and no matter how polished it may become, you will not gain true insights into Chinese culture until you can break free of English equivalencies.

It took me four years of study at the university, including two years studying abroad to learn to do this. Some of that time was wasted because I initially began by seeking English equivalencies, and half way through found that I didn't really understand Chinese words, I just presumed they matched English words, and at that point I threw out my Chinese-English dictionary and got myself a 词海 - the Chinese version of a dictionary. And then I began learning again. All the while I had the benefit of close, highly literate friends, lots of books and newspapers, and an endless stream of Chinese media, especially novels and independent films. I think that if I had simply replaced my textbooks with Duolingo, while still retaining the rest of that milieu, I could have shaved a year off my time for learning to fluency. As it happens, we didn't actually use books in class after second year anyway.

So think about that commitment: if you use Duolingo every day for two years, and then combine that with integrating Chinese into other aspects of your life, then I think you'll learn it just fine. This would mean you don't do a lesson just once. You don't just complete the tree in the module. You keep going back and doing every lesson over and over again until it is intuitive. (You'll notice, you can complete the tree in about 12 levels, but people who reach higher levels in duolingo, especially above 20, have repeated the language over and over again.)

If you have more modest goals, Duolingo might not be the most effective way to go about achieving those goals. If you largely are learning it for work as a courtesy, so you can make an attempt to reciprocate when your Chinese colleagues speak to you in English, then flash cards and a phrase book will probably be all you need, because you won't really need to speak Chinese, but instead, be integrating some Chinese phrases into larger English conversations.

If you have specific situations via work where you have to be self sufficient in Chinese, for example, negotiating customs to get shipments in and out of the country with officials who can't or won't converse in English, then you might need to focus more on situational role-playing practice with a tutor, so you can master that narrow specialty in dialog. This could be true on a less dramatic level if, for example, you want to learn to be able to buy yourself food at a restaurant without a minder - though good luck shaking the minder your business partners will assign to follow you and pay for everything...

If you want to be able to listen in on what your Chinese partners are saying in Chinese amongst themselves, when they think you aren't able to understand them, then you will need to really hone your fluency and cultural awareness, since much of this talk, even when confidential, is rich in subtext.


Coursera.org has a pretty nice Chinese course out of Peking University that I'd recommend as a supplementary resource. I agree with a lot of people here--while Duo's Chinese team figures out how to best optimize the course, use as many supplementary resources as you can.


Thank you for your help!

I did notice the Peeking bit, that is good at least. If Duolingo watches these forums, I'd like to recommend that they include the "Peeking" at the very beginning of the lesson so that we know the word we're working with, then again at the end. I think that would help reinforce not only familiarity with the language as its written, but also what is actually being written, heh.

I will keep trying at it and keep those tips in mind, thanks again!

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