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I’m sure you’ve heard of Duolingo. It’s probably the first self-study app you’d hear from anyone you’d ask ‘How should I start learning X language?’

I’ve always been doubtful about the quality of the app. It seemed repetitively trying to cram vocabulary into my brain with seemingly useless sentences like ‘O travesseiro não fala’ – ‘The pillow doesn’t speak.’ one of the first sentences I learned in Portuguese. Most people I’ve talked to told me that despite having used Duolingo for months they still couldn’t string a simple sentence together. ‘You don’t learn how to speak with Duolingo.’

Myself, I started several languages on the app… and also felt as if I didn’t really learn much. I had installed the app, deleted it, installed it again, tried another language only to trash the app again.

One belief I hold to this day is that Duolingo is an app best for anyone who hasn’t studied much of the new language. If you’re trying to ‘refresh’ your skills you might have a hard time as you won’t be able to study exactly the topic you want as Duolingo forces its curriculum onto you, i.e. you have to start in the beginning, going through category by category. Yes, there is also the option to ‘test out’ to pass some of the categories but I still never thought that the level and what I was taught was helpful.

This was until I seriously started Portuguese, a language I had no previous knowledge of. And Duolingo was the first resource I could think of. At first, I was just playing around with the app and the sentence mentioned above regarding the non-sleeping pillow didn’t help to convince me for the better.

Overtime (and because my ‘daily routine‘ made me stick to it) I changed my mind though. I finally found value in the app for myself.


I learned that it’s not all about the content and Duolingo’s structure.
It’s about how you make use of it.

Just in case you don’t know how the app works, here’s a little recap: You open a lesson, get a sentence to translate and then diligently drag and drop the words into the correct order. Or you get 4 pictures and have to match the correct one to the word shown and spoken. Eventually (if you make it that far), around levels 3 and 4 you then have to write down the actual words without seeing them just juggled up. I hardly made it there in any language except for Portuguese.

As I’m writing this there is now a function to avoid the drag-and-drop system and use the keyboard to write out the answer

What do you learn through this? Your ability to ‘guess’ the right word and word order? Some passive understanding so that you can recognize some words when they’re written down. When will you have the chance to use that in the real world?!

Ok, I’m sure if you’ve tried the app you know what I mean (and in case you haven’t, you’re probably not even thinking about trying it out right now). Let me suggest some other ways to get a bit more out of your experience.

First of all, this is the advice even Duolingo gives you repeatedly. You have to speak the words and sentences out loud.

You might be thinking ‘duh’ but notice how often you actually do it?!

And how?!

I often heard students speaking in a somewhat monotone voice, dragging themselves through the exercise – which is exactly what it then resembles. An exercise. Something you ‘have to do’ because a teacher, or in this case an ‘app’ tells you to do it.

One of the most important study strategies that I’ve adopted over the years is, that I feel into the language. I pretend to be a native speaker and keep a certain posture imagining how I’d produce a sentence naturally and effortlessly.

But I don’t know how to say anything yet you might say!’

That’s where those sentences come in that Duolingo teaches you and where you have to change the way you think about studying a little. Every time you hear a sentence (and make sure that you allow for listening exercises and audio) you should repeat the sentences as if you were in a situation in which it would be applied. ‘The pillow doesn’t speak’. As idiotic as that sentence might sound, you could imagine being in a room, hearing a strange noise and confusedly exclaiming ‘The pillow doesn’t speak!’ (so then what was that noise)?

Also make sure to say the sentence at least twice at different speeds, voices, attitudes. That makes it easier for your brain to remember it (instead of speaking with a somewhat ‘lifeless’ or diligently studious voice – no wonder your brain wants to forget about that!)

Imagine you’re in the country, surrounded by other native speakers and that the language you’re trying to speak is not something that takes a lot of effort and that you truly enjoy. If you struggle to pronounce some sounds, repeat them over and over again at different speeds until you feel more comfortable. You don’t have to be perfect to pretend to be a native speaker. You can always iron out some creases later!

One prerequisite for this to work is that you have to have a certain image of the country, a feeling for its culture and the sound of the language. That shouldn’t pose a problem in the age of YouTube, Spotify, etc.  You can listen to the audio of the new language you want to learn, even if you don’t understand a single word. The goal is to become familiar with the sound of the language, it’s rhythm, speed, etc. so that it’s easier for you to imitate a native speaker and to learn to enjoy speaking the language instead of seeing it as a task! Have fun with it!!!

And, yes, you can see how the beloved role-play that we teachers like to pester students with in-class can come in handy. And at least with Duolingo, you don’t have to perform in front of anyone 😉

One little extra tip: When doing the listening exercises, you will encounter the speaker sign and the turtle sign. The turtle sign will slow down the sentence. I suggest to only use this if you tried the regular audio at least twice! The slowed-down version of the sentence sounds a little robotic at times and won’t help you get that feeling for the language (plus remember that people in real life will never speak like that)

Next, let’s talk about typing. That was a gamechanger for me as well. You have two options. The lazy one or the one that will help you master writing (your choice). You can either set the keyboard into the language you’re learning or you leave it in your mother tongue. By changing it into the language you’re learning you’ll automatically get the right spelling suggested as well as likely follow-up words, just as if you were typing in your own language. The more often you write one sentence, the more the keyboard will remember it and suggest you the correct words the next time you attempt this exact sentence. You can guess for yourself how much you’re learning from that. 

English words won’t help me guess the right Portuguese one here

Now onto the challenge. Say you’re learning Portuguese and use the English keyboard. Like this, it won’t remember the Portuguese and you will not get any suggestions on ‘autocorrecting’ what you’re writing. Yes, it takes more effort. But that effort will also redeem itself. I personally learn more when I write down foreign words letter by letter than when I just let them autofill themselves. Handwriting would technically still be better but let’s stay realistic and keep it to what you can – and will – actually do.

Another ‘study method’ I discovered for myself has to do with the order in which I work on different categories and levels. Yes, Duolingo sets that up for you but who says you can’t ‘personalize’ that and adapt it to your needs.

Personally, I like to start with an intermediate lesson to get started, followed by an advanced one and then an easy one. I’m referring to the levels here (0-5). If you have certain lessons at a higher level, you’ll know what I’m talking about. At level 4, the motivation to get through a lesson will probably be a little lower as it takes a lot longer and more effort from your side than at level 1 which you can almost do eyes closed.

So, if I have some level 2, 3 and 4 lessons, I’ll start with a level 3 exercise, then one (or several) in level 4 and then one (or more) in level 2 to wind down and feel the fun of the language. Again, this depends on how your brain, motivation, and energy work best. Just try different versions and then stick to your preferred one. That will help to make your Duolingo study seem a little more ‘structured’ than just randomly clicking on a lesson.

I also chose categories that seem to go well together or maybe not at all. Sometimes I might study two different tenses in a row, just to make my brain work a little more and really challenge it. Or I take one ‘grammar’ lesson, then one vocabulary one (personally, I prefer the grammar ones, but that’s my geeky language brain).

Talking about lessons in general. When you work on a single category you might notice that the sentences repeat themselves a lot. Working through the Portuguese Duolingo I figured out that usually, two lessons will contain different sentences after which they start repeating themselves. That means to avoid getting bored, do a maximum of 2 lessons per level. Let’s say you have 15 lessons in total to do for level 3 in the category ‘animals’. You can do lesson 1 and 2 in level 3 and then move to another category. Come back to the category animals a few days later.

Again, I use a strategy regarding different categories and levels. When I start a level or a category, I’ll repeat it more often, say every day and once I did a few lessons, I’ll only work on the same category a few days later. This is how all the language apps work where you can study flashcards using the ‘spaced repetition system‘. First, you repeat the words a lot, later they show up only a week later, then a month later, etc.… You can create that for yourself in Duolingo. I hope you can see that I try to spread out which categories I’m working on instead of pressing through all lessons and levels in one category. That won’t make you remember the words in the long-term.

Ok, this was a long post.

Let me give you a little summary in case you couldn’t hold your attention span for that long….

How to get the most out of your Duolingo study:

  1. Read every word and sentence out loud
  2. Imagine and pretend to be a native speaker and ‘role play’ the sentences
  3. Try and mainly listen to the audio at the real speed. Only use the turtle (slower audio) when you cannot follow after listening several times
  4. Adjust your keyboard so that you don’t automatically get word suggestions or your own writing autocorrected
  5. Find your personal structure regarding in which levels you’re working. The one I recommend is to start with a medium-level exercise, then an advanced one and finally an easy one.
  6. Also, think about the different categories. Create your own ‘spaced-repetition’ system, so that you create a long-lasting language memory.

Last but not least let me tell you a little trick:

If, for whatever reason you want to jump over a level, i.e. because the sentences are too repetitive or not useful, there is a way to do it faster.

You might have seen the ‘key’ sign where you pay 5 lingots and then test out of that level to get to the next one. You still have to do that. However, in order to not make too many mistakes, do two lessons of that level and then try to ‘test out’ and skip the rest of the lessons. Usually, your ‘test’ will include the sentences and words you practiced in those two lessons, helping you to pass. Again, use your own judgment whether that’s what you want to do 😉

I hope that helped! Let me know whether you’re getting more out of Duolingo now or if you have further suggestions.

And don’t forget that Duolingo isn’t the only way to study. It’s one of the most convenient one and a good way to start out. However, I’d also pair it with other apps, online-courses, actual language classes, books, watching movies/vlogs, etc.…

PS: In case you’re wondering, there is some use in learning meaningless sentences such as ‘The pillow doesn’t speak’.  It’s actually a teaching strategy that I learned when I was in Japan. To break a sometimes beautiful, yet artificial lesson as you only talk about words and sentences that fit well together, you throw in some words that throw off the students. They’ll be surprised, confused but they’ll also pay more attention again. I can only guess that Duolingo tries to do the same. And hey, I’ll never ever forget the words of ‘O travesseiro não fala’ 😉

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3 thoughts on “Duolingo hacking – how to get the most out of the app

  1. Nicely written. As a user of Duolingo for learning Spanish, I agree with your thoughts on learning a new language. One of the strong points of Duolingo is the possibility to do be able to do at least one lesson on days when you are very busy so as to get even five minutes of study in.
    I think mastery in a foreign language comes through constant practice. I also like the option to practice/learn difficult grammar acquisition repeatedly in order to grasp the grammar point.

  2. This is good advice. I think that having fun with the language and acting the part of a native speaker is really helpful. I also write down sentences I have learned and try to come up with my own. Reading all the tips and notes in the web version is so helpful too. A friend and I get together to practise speaking and we base some of that around three or four Duolingo topics. It all helps! Thanks for the post. The bit about the surprise sentence was really helpful too. I shall know what to tell people now when they say it’s silly! Being silly can be a good thing.

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