So first, I need to admit that I’m not exactly new to Duolingo. I’ve used the site on and off for years, and used to work for Babbel, and took a keen interest in Duolingo’s product strategy and somewhat baffling educational philosophy.
However, recently, a friend sent me Duolingo’s TikTok, and let me tell you — the eponymous green owl has always been a little bit quirky and isn’t a stranger to turning up in your inbox at 2 am crying if neglected, but suddenly they’re also sassy, increasingly explicitly, and arguably a pop culture phenomenon. (3 million followers, other brands could never, icon behaviour).
So I decided to see if the product has changed too since I last failed at learning Russian with it in 2016, and I’ll share my impressions with you throughout.
Uh oh. Free, fun, effective? All sounds a little familiar — I don’t think Duolingo has upgraded its value proposition in quite a while.
And why would they? It has certainly served them well. On the screen after this, you can see how many tens of millions of users they have broken down by language.
However, given that I had just binge-watched an hour of their TikTok content, I felt a little disconnect here branding-wise. Where is the sassiness, the references to pop culture? Where’s the owl?
And if there’s one thing that Duolingo is famous for other than that time the owl went viral before April Fools for being an absolute menace to society, it’s for their random sentences. Bears eating spaghetti, young pigeons worrying about the downfall of the Tibetan government etc. — not sentences I would necessarily associate with “effective” as a claim.
So, I’m suspicious.
Not being shady — they literally offer made-up languages like High Valyrian.
So. many. languages. Firstly, seeing this screen immediately after clicking on “Getting Started” lets me know that yes, Duolingo does in fact offer more languages than a lot of other language learning products.
Including the number of learners isn’t just a flex either. It lets me as a prospective learner know that I’m going to be learning along with quite an impressive community, which is something that I know will make me more successful in my language-learning journey.
Plus, it speaks to the quality of the system. Surely they’re doing something right if they’ve got that many people learning with them?
If you’ve got a strong community, make it known! And like Duolingo, having it at the beginning of your new user journey doesn’t hurt! Maybe a total on their homepage would be impressive, but that would probably come across as a little arrogant…
The owl forced me?
I decided to try out Swahili, one of their smaller languages and one I’ve not seen offered in many other places. I’m then asked if I want to try a placement test, and with my knowledge of Swahili coming almost entirely from the Lion King, I’m confident that I’ll ace this. (Insert sarcastic emoji.)
After asking where I heard of them, I’m then immediately asked about my motivation. So first, it struck me as a little odd that I wasn’t asked “Why are you learning Swahili?” and just “a language generally”, as that took any personalised feeling out of the process. However, at this stage, it makes sense to allow the new user to introspect a little — after all, those who are successful are those who have a clear goal in mind, right?
Reminding them about their goal allows them to clarify it in their own minds. Plus, Duolingo gets to learn what kind of content users might be interested in. I’d expect relevant information to be highlighted to me after this placement, but we’ll see.
“For Medium content” and “so I’ll stop having nightmares about the owl” weren’t options, so I opted for “Brain Training”.
You will commit to us, like it or not.
I would have preferred this after having had the chance to check out the content a little. How do I know at this stage if I’m going to like it enough to commit to 20 minutes a day?
Then again, even 20 minutes isn’t sooooo long. (Ignore the fact it’s 1 am and I only now have time to write this post.)
However, this helps make my motivation more tangible and transfer it into action. I want to learn to keep mentally fit, so I am going to spend 10 minutes per day on Duolingo.
Behaviourally, asking for commitment will make users more likely to commit. It gets them thinking about how they intend to use Duolingo realistically, and even think about where in their days they might be able to slot in 10 minutes.
So, very nicely done Duolingo. But I do want to see how fluent I am at Swahili now and I’m getting impatient. If the progress bar is just about these kinds of questions and not the language placement test, I might drop off.
Reminds later, fun first.
Ok, this does make sense. However, the “just in case you forget” is patronising, especially as I am sure I’ll be getting an email reminder tomorrow. Plus, as I said, SHOW ME YOUR CONTENT PLEASE.
Duolingo promised fun upfront, but I’m not having fun yet.
After this, I was then asked if I wanted to connect my Google or Facebook, and then about my approximate level, so yes, the progress bar was purely about getting set up and I wrongly thought it was the language test. So it’s good that I’m getting set up for success, but I’d be more likely to set a routine I’d stick with if I could see how the content is going to work first…
I’m pleased to see the owl here looking cute in its scholarly garments. Finally, a little touch of quirkiness!
It’s also good that there’s a clear indication of how long this will take me and how it’s going to work. As a new adult user, I don’t like surprises and I don’t want to be doing this for 20 minutes, so I feel reassured before I begin.
I wish I’d known how long the previous part would have taken too, however. It felt like an hour but was probably only 2 minutes. That’s partly due to the design, and partly due to the fact it’s 1 am and I want sugar.
To start with the positives: each question had a little character accompanying it. And there was a wide range of characters, from different countries, different ages, different genders and skin colours. This was refreshing, and I enjoyed the little animations. The character pictured above, for example, slow clapped when I got an answer correct, whereas others would jump up and down.
However, it’s positioned so that these characters are speaking Swahili, and it doesn’t feel localised in a way. Maybe these are the global community of Swahili learners rather than Swahili natives themselves? I checked the level tests for other languages and saw the same characters across all. So; refreshing to see the diversity, but didn’t feel localised to the experience I had chosen.
Layout-wise, it’s all super clean and intuitive to use. I like that the lines where my answer should be inputted look a little like a school notebook page, and I also like being able to skip questions rather than have to get them wrong.
However, from a language perspective, many of the questions were easy to solve from the context. In the example above, I can recognise “China” from the Swahili, so I know that ‘Chinese” is probably correct over “American” or “Kenyan”. I can also see the possible forms of the verb are “am” and “is”, the latter of which fits with “He”, and neither of which fit with “You”. So without knowing the words in Swahili, I can guess that the correct answer is “He is Chinese.”
It was the same for a lot of content, although it’s worth noting for other languages, the questions were a little more advanced and difficult, however, it doesn’t instil me with confidence that I’m going to learn much either if I can game the system to win rather than learn.
Serves me right for saying I knew any Swahili at all. However, I did get over half right and was told to start from the beginning — which may be due to Swahili being a smaller language on Duolingo and not having more than basic content.
For now, I’m all Duo’d out, so I’ll log off and take my first lessons tomorrow.
First impressions? It looks exactly like I remember, so not much seems to have changed other than the Social Media team. I’m not convinced I’m going to learn much Swahili, more so that I’ll have a little fun playing a game and feeling productive for 10 minutes a day. We’ll see.
Oh, and I already have 2 emails from Duolingo in my inbox. So much for forgetting to continue this tomorrow.
Until next time! (Would say that in Swahili, but I don’t know how yet.)