Review by Leslie Crenna, Common Sense Education | Updated July 2013

Duolingo: Learn Languages Free

Ever-growing, free courses cement learning in six languages

Common Sense Says:
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Grades
7-12 This grade range is a recommendation by Common Sense Education and not the developer/publisher.
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Pros: Full-sentence language learning is holistic, attractive, and sports tons of depth.

Cons: Verbal input is only available with newer generation devices; attempt at gamification is weak.

Bottom Line: Sparkling, holistic learning for five traditional European languages plus English.

The most obvious, low-maintenance uses for Duolingo are as daily homework, a free-time activity, or extra credit. More directed activities could include a whole-class competition where students add each other to their leaderboards via email and compete for streaks, points, and words. Teachers could teach a bit of statistics vocabulary by charting data snapshots at regular intervals leading up to a final tally. Teachers could also conduct game show or spelling bee style competitions using app content. A more cooperative approach would have teams providing answers collaboratively for a sentence wall activity or creating their own questions and lessons to quiz other classes. Aspiring computer scientists could design or code a language learning app for a language not included in Duolingo.

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Duolingo: Learn Languages Free packs full-sentence learning and sixty-four (plus) multiple-lesson themes into an easy-to-grasp mind map layout. After email registration and a quick but detailed level selection, English-speaking kids can select any of five languages -- Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, German, and French -- while speakers of these languages (plus Romanian, Turkish, and Polish) can select English (though instructions are still partially in English).

Themes cover basics, phrases, animals, transportation, sports, money, and much more. Lessons ask kids to type or select translations or missing words, select a picture to match a word, or listen and type translations. Feedback is immediate with a high tone "ding dong" sound and praise for correct answers. Incorrect answers are followed by a low tone, an x, a lost heart, and the correct answer. Mini lessons and hints pop up at appropriate learning moments to direct kids to tap words for meanings or long-press keys to type accents. Kids must avoid errors to retain all their hearts, but perfection isn't necessary to move on. Kids can navigate freely within four groups of themes but must complete the whole group before moving to the next. Kids can also choose to test out if they feel confident about a particular theme.

Be aware that references to alcohol do exist in the app, which is normal for European language materials, even school texts.

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Editor's Note: Teachers should know that Duolingo: Learn Languages Free has some privacy concerns. Consult our full evaluation for details.

This is a sparkling example of how apps can make learning easy and accessible even without games. Kids are entertained by occasional quirky sentences and kept motivated by a heart and word strength system. Kids can invite others to join their in-app leaderboard by entering their email address, and the app will send push notifications to motivate kids to keep practicing. The ability to control listen-to-translate activities by slowing down sentences to turtle speed makes a huge difference for the listening challenged. But the real strength of Duolingo is in its holistic approach -- content is always presented in full sentences. The result? Kids learn and associate pronouns and proper nouns and the corresponding verb endings through experience and usage rather than conjugating verbs in isolation. Duolingo also sports seamless account sync across the web, Android, and iOS.

One very small downside is the tantalizing fact that verbal input and response is only available on newer devices. The app keeps track of days-in-a-row activity, word strength, and points, but doesn't emphasize them -- a possible upside, actually. Also, there's no in-app link to the fantastic online community on the developer's website with even more sterling tools and information. Bottom line, it's all good!

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Overall Rating
5

Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return?
5

Clean and responsive design uses fun sounds and photographic images, plus heart icons that count down errors gently.

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer?
5

Feedback is immediate, detailed, and smart. The app delivers content in full sentences, and learning is cemented with persistent yet varied repetition.

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students?
4

Kids can easily see and track progress on themes, lessons, and vocabulary. English learners can set the instruction language to Portuguese, Spanish, German, Italian, French, Romanian, or Polish.