Restating views on Duolingo

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Restating views on Duolingo

Postby Cainntear » Sat Aug 01, 2020 11:23 am

It’s a long time since I’ve given a detailed description of my beef with Duolingo, and as promised, in light of recent heated debate, here’s a run-down of it.
First up, I’ll say what Duolingo does right:
It gives of high-density practice with immediate feedback.
It personalises the learning track slightly.
…and that’s basically it. Don’t get me wrong, that alone is a pretty big thing, but that is really all it does.

And even that second one says “slightly”. This is where I start to get really annoyed with Duolingo: they promised us machine learning and personalised learning, and instead we have a tree system where in a course with 100, 150, 200 “skills”, we have at most a choice of 3 new skills to study from at any given time, and even then, that’s only a choice for the immediate term, because you’re going to have to do all of them before moving on anyway.

It could allow us to set our own goals. It could allow us to tell it what we’ve learned in classes, but the company doesn’t want to do that, because then they would be presenting Duolingo as a tool, not a course. If I’ve been studying a particular tense in a language and then try to practice it in Duolingo, I have to complete or test out of all skills that the Duolingo puts in the learning track before then. So if my teacher or textbook puts conditional before imperfect and Duolingo does it the other way, I’m thrown to the wolves.

This would be far less of an issue if Duolingo was more complete, but it was written by computer scientists who really didn’t understand teaching very well. They launched with “lesson notes” that weren’t much use. The problem with the lesson notes was that they were a continuous chunk of text covering all grammar points that arose in the lesson exercises, and that was just too much text: I literally couldn’t keep all of it in my head. What I did, then was read a bit, then start a lesson. But the bit I read often didn’t come up at all in the session, and even if it did, I’d have been so distracted by trying to recall answers for the first few tasks that I’d have forgotten what I’d read in the notes before I needed it. This is perhaps the most fundamental rule of teaching: give the student an immediate opportunity to practice what you’ve told them, or they’ll forget.

The assumption from the design team was that notes were useless, and they then spent years hiding them. What they should have done was quite simply teach. Describe a bit, practice, describe a bit more, practice that, practice both together, practice alongside previous material… etc etc.

They talk about big data, they talk about A-B testing, but when they discuss decisions, it all comes down to retention of users. They change one thing and retention gets worse, and they change it back. Their limited model sits in a “local optimum”, where people stay and get a reasonable number of answers right, but people don’t really learn unless they’re using something else. But with the size of their audience, they could have explored all the possibilities of language learning by now. They could have explored explicit instruction first vs explicit instruction after practice. They could have used the data from their message boards to find the point where the grammar-averse learner suddenly decides they need to know what’s going on, and inserted just-in-time instruction into the course. They could have explored every possible ordering of grammar rules and mapped out the most efficient path through learning.

They’ve been going nearly 9 years, they’ve had millions upon millions of hours of user data, they’ve got a celebrated computer genius sitting at the head of the company, and what have they got to show for it? A simple interactive quiz program with a few bells and whistles.

The gamification elements annoy me too – they simply don’t understand what XP is.

In a game, you might get 1XP for killing a rat and 10000XP for killing a dragon. Makes sense, right? The dragon’s a harder enemy than the rat. But every single task is worth the same number of XP in Duolingo. But there are two dimensions of complexity in Duolingo – there’s task difficulty and language difficulty. In Duolingo, you’ve got word and picture matches, you’ve got multiple choice, you’ve got fridge magnets and you’ve got full text typing; you’ve got L1->TL translation, you’ve got TL->L1 translation, you’ve got dictation; you’ve got single words like “orange” vs sentences with the potential for complexity like “He said he would have done it if I’d asked.” All of these reward the same. They hide the typed answers because the users don’t like them – well maybe they’d like them more if they received recognition for the extra work, because right now, they slow down your accrual of XP, where they should be speeding it up. XP here doesn’t reward positive behaviours – it just rewards grinding.

In a game, XP is exponential – the more you increase in levels, the more XP you’re going to get for winning a fight at your level. To keep you motivated to take on the hard fights, the XP you need for levelling up increases exponentially too. Duolingo doesn’t have exponential XP, but it does have exponential levelling. This means that the longer you play for, the less rewards you see. I suggest this is what has led to the proliferation of other reward mechanisms – trophies, owls, badges and leagues. They needed to add in various types of achievement to keep people feeling like they were progressing… but if they’d just implemented a proper XP system, this would not be an issue, as normal levelling up would occur frequently enough to motivate.

Then there’s Duolingo for Schools, launched in January 2015 to much fanfare, allegedly giving teachers control over their students’ learning, but as a teacher myself, I have to say it has never been usable for a language teacher. There are two options for assignments to set your students: a skill from the skill tree, or a set number of XP to achieve. The latter is utterly useless, because (as I said) the XP system rewards laziness and discourages working on challenging material. The former isn’t much cop either, as your students don’t get immediate access to the skill you’ve set them – they have to go through the whole skill tree, the same as any other user. In fact, in my test student account, I don’t even get any indication that I’m following a Duolingo for Schools curriculum, or about what my current “assignments” are or how close I am to completing them. If I wanted to use Duolingo for Schools as a language teacher, I’d have to change my teaching radically so that my lessons related to the Duolingo content, which might be easier if they supplied decent teachers’ notes, but the only thing you get is a list of words and phrases, and if the lesson isn’t named after a grammar point, the only way to find out what grammar it covers is to go through the lesson multiple times (because not every point appears first time round). So I could spend months of my life gathering data, months of my life building a syllabus around and then I’d have… a very mediocre language class. That whole thing about the lack of customisability I was on about earlier? That’s a million times worse when you push it towards teachers.

In essence, Duolingo for Schools is for schools that don’t have language teachers. It’s Duolingo, but with a school supervisor who just checks that the kids have done their allotted homework.

Overall, Duolingo is a massive missed opportunity. It’s the squandering of lots of potential by a couple of well-meaning techno-utopians who bit off far more than they could chew, and almost a decade on still have no clue about it.

And it’s not like you can just create a “better Duolingo”. With their price point of “free” and their massive press exposure, and little fish just disappear. Who remembers the site that was like Duolingo but was built around the idea of preparing you to listen to pop songs in your target language? It was better than Duolingo, but it disappeared because it was too similar. So we’re left with the likes of Babbel who set their stall on looking nothing like Duolingo, which means they end up missing out on the big advantage of online learning: rapid, high-frequency practice with immediate feedback. There’s fertile ground near Duolingo, but their tree’s so big it’s blocking the light from anything that tries to grow there.
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Re: Restating views on Duolingo

Postby CarlyD » Tue Aug 11, 2020 1:47 am

After reading your post, I decided to return to Duolingo and give it another try. I was about half way through Level 3 in German with every section having all 5 crowns. I took up with Dative Prepositions.

And I realized why I left. There was nothing anywhere to tell me why this word was chosen over that one. I tried to apply sentences that I got correct to newer ones, and there seemed to be no rhyme or reason. I tried hitting the "Discuss This" but people's answers were a bit rambling and didn't really help. I knew it was over when I plugged one of the sentences into Google Translate just so I could move on.

I'm sad that they didn't live up to their potential.
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Re: Restating views on Duolingo

Postby Cainntear » Tue Aug 11, 2020 1:44 pm

CarlyD wrote:After reading your post, I decided to return to Duolingo and give it another try. I was about half way through Level 3 in German with every section having all 5 crowns. I took up with Dative Prepositions.

Oh yes, I forgot to mention German in my summary of my views, because like yourself, it was German that really made me want to thrown my computer through a window. The whole whirlwind of unexplained ders becoming dases, die becoming d'oh! and das becoming die, die, die you patronising green-feathered demon. I don't think any other language learning material has ever induced such rage in me before or since.
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Re: Restating views on Duolingo

Postby jeff_lindqvist » Tue Aug 11, 2020 4:47 pm

CarlyD wrote:And I realized why I left. There was nothing anywhere to tell me why this word was chosen over that one.


Maybe it's different for each language, but Portuguese has Tips for every lesson. (The ones I checked have information about the topic, including grammar.)
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Re: Restating views on Duolingo

Postby Cainntear » Tue Aug 11, 2020 8:34 pm

jeff_lindqvist wrote:
CarlyD wrote:And I realized why I left. There was nothing anywhere to tell me why this word was chosen over that one.


Maybe it's different for each language, but Portuguese has Tips for every lesson. (The ones I checked have information about the topic, including grammar.)

German has tips too, and I read them, but they didn't help, because I could only read them before the lesson, but there was no way of getting it to practice the thing I'd just read, and then after answering dozens of questions related to other points and finally got tested on the thing I'd read, I'd completely forgotten. And before I'd fully sorted the der/die/das of the nominative in my head, I was juggling dative and genitives too. With all those variables tumbling over each other, one form was interfering with another as my brain kept wanting something to be "die" all the time, and when it started to correct for a different case, suddenly I didn't want to write "die" for it at all, only the new one.
This despite completely understanding the idea of case and the notion of different prepositions ruling different cases.

Portuguese doesn't have anything that complicated to deal with, and given that you've already got Spanish in your language list, you've already got most of the cognitive structures built to deal with Portuguese grammar.
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Re: Restating views on Duolingo

Postby CarlyD » Thu Aug 13, 2020 7:58 pm

jeff_lindqvist wrote:
CarlyD wrote:And I realized why I left. There was nothing anywhere to tell me why this word was chosen over that one.


Maybe it's different for each language, but Portuguese has Tips for every lesson. (The ones I checked have information about the topic, including grammar.)


I printed out the Tips for each section. Amazingly short, and generally not helpful.
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Re: Restating views on Duolingo

Postby jeff_lindqvist » Thu Aug 13, 2020 9:11 pm

Cainntear - whether I already know Spanish or not has little to do with the fact that there are grammar tips for Portuguese. I just wanted to point that out in case somebody got the idea that Duolingo doesn't have grammar.

Carmody - I had a look at the tips for the Dative section. The basic paradigm is there, as well as some general examples. Of course, one lesson isn't enough to fully grasp the concept of dative in German. Not that anyone said that.
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Re: Restating views on Duolingo

Postby Cainntear » Fri Aug 14, 2020 6:41 pm

jeff_lindqvist wrote:Cainntear - whether I already know Spanish or not has little to do with the fact that there are grammar tips for Portuguese. I just wanted to point that out in case somebody got the idea that Duolingo doesn't have grammar.

No, but it does change how usable they are. Because not only do you need them less than I did using German, but they're easier for you to hold in your head while waiting to be tested on them.
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Re: Restating views on Duolingo

Postby Xenops » Sun Aug 16, 2020 1:19 am

I'll preface my post by saying that just because Duolingo isn't a high-quality learning product, just because the company has ulterior motives and exploits their volunteers...Doesn't mean I can't use it as a resource. Using it as my only resource isn't ideal, but as an additional resource, why not?

When I was reading reviews of learning-to-code platforms, people similarly criticized this one platform, Codecademy.com . A comment dialogue went something like this:

Person 1: ...Codecademy isn't a good platform for learning to code, because of reasons A, B, etc.
Person 2: But if you're a complete beginner, at least you'll learn something.
Person 1: If you're a complete beginner, anything will teach you something, but...

And so this complete beginner to coding (me) did in fact find this inferior platform useful to start learning. The format permitted me to learn while I had slow times at work this past season: there was no audio or video to distract coworkers; it was hands-on; it gave me small pieces of information at a time; and I felt like I was making progress making incremental goals. Udacity appears to teach coding much better, with clear and informative videos--but I can't use it at work.

Does Codecademy teach me how to think like a coder? Nope. Do I remember or understand everything I "learned"? Nei. Can I build a website now? Really nope! But with the little bit I learned, I can already do basic-problem solving with my Wordpress site. Because I have some coding basics, now I can venture to other resources and deepen my understanding in true "multitrack" form.

Duolingo is like Codecademy in more ways than one, the most obvious being convenience. Waiting for the bus? I pull out my phone and earbuds. On lunch, didn't bring my language books? Out comes the phone. The lessons are short, they keep my attention, and I have just enough urge to tap the next task. I've tried LingoDeer: it does teach better in general, but some reason, it bores me to tears. The lessons seem too long, the bespectacled deer isn't enthused enough, the 20 plus letter blocks you need to find and tap to form a sentence--I don't know why, but I just don't like it. I've never had more than a 3-day streak on LingoDeer, whereas I'm on my 82-day streak on Duolingo.

Now, the question is: what am I using Duolingo for? The answer: Norwegian. Would I recommend it for Germanic or Romance languages? Perhaps. Would I recommend it Japanese, Hebrew, Greek, Turkish? Absolutely not. I do not recommend these languages on Duolingo the same way that I do not recommend Assimil with these languages. What, why? Both teach the minimal amount of grammar, and are highly dependent on the student grasping concepts by intuition and native/second language similarity.

In short, I agree with iguanamon's approach: use many resources, don't rely on one. If it fits your lifestyle, why not use it?

edit: clarification.
Last edited by Xenops on Sun Aug 16, 2020 2:52 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Restating views on Duolingo

Postby tangleweeds » Sun Aug 16, 2020 7:48 am

Xenops wrote:I'll preface my post by saying that just because Duolingo isn't a high-quality learning product, just because the company has ulterior motives and exploits their volunteers...
I agree completely with so much you say here. I use Duolingo for Irish, even though they teach the very standardized version. But the things you listed are indeed the very reasons I don't give them money, when I do like to pay for most resources i use, from music to apps to news to whatever. I'm into paying creators--but not in this case. But I can still use it for free so great, I'm happy, I'm using it.

Xenops wrote:When I was reading reviews of learning-to-code platforms, people similarly criticized this one platform, Codecademy.com . A comment dialogue went something like this:

Person 1: ...Codecademy isn't a good platform for learning to code, because of reasons A, B, etc.
Person 2: But if you're a complete beginner, at least you'll learn something.
Person 2: If you're a complete beginner, anything will teach you something, but...

And so this complete beginner to coding (me) did in fact find this inferior platform useful to start learning. The format permitted me to learn while I had slow times at work this past season
Just wanted to mention that, speaking as a CS/Linguistics major, I think this was a great analogy.

Xenops wrote:I've tried LingoDeer: it does teach better in general, but some reason, it bores me to tears. The lessons seem too long, the bespectacled deer isn't enthused enough, the 20 plus letter blocks you need to find and tap to form a sentence--I don't know why, but I just don't like it. I've never had more than a 3-day streak on LingoDeer, whereas I'm on my 82-day streak on Duolingo.
Ayup, I'm just across that border where the gamification on Duolingo drives me a bit crazy, while I find Lingodeer to be chill and textbook-like. But I'm one of those who works fine from textbooks, probably because studying when I was in school was calming and grounding for me when life beyond that wasn't necessarily so chill.

Xenops wrote:Doesn't mean I can't use it as a resource. Using it as my only resource isn't ideal, but as an additional resource, why not?
<snip>
In short, I agree with iguanamon's approach: use many resources, don't rely on one. If it fits your lifestyle, why not use it?
I'm of this school too. I have a lot of language apps on my phone to play with when waiting for/riding transit (hmm maybe not so mucn anymore) killing time out on the porch when it's too hot. Kanji and kana apps for Japanese, Lingodeer, Duolingo, Rosetta, mandolin fretboard apps, kindle books... anything to keep me from doomscrolling social media or news sites!
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