I was excited to see The Atlantic offering an important reminder that if something seems too good to be true, then it probably is. In the Dec 2018 issue, David Freedman chronicles the 70-plus hours he spent attempting (and failing) to learn Italian with Duolingo. We know that learning a language is one of the hardest things that we ask adults to do, and, under the best of circumstances it takes some time. We also know that, as fun as they can be, games are not an effective approach to language learning. Nor is translation, which, while seemingly intuitive, is actually a time-consuming and ineffective way to teach a language. Freedman discovered through his own, personal empirical study that the popular language learning app Duolingo is a tragic combination of two approaches that just will not work.Funnily enough, he confirmed this finding with Duolingo’s founder, Luis Von Ahn, who confirmed that the company spends most of its time trying to make the app addicting, with little regard for the fact that users become addicted to something that isn’t actually helping them learn a language.We know from dozens of years of research that learning a language requires motivation and engagement, but we also know that we are doing learners a disservice when we aren’t teaching them the right thing. And the right thing is different for everyone. Anyone serious about language learning would be far better served to find a trained teacher able to help facilitate the targeted, personalized practice necessary for progress. I can promise you that it takes far fewer than seventy hours to make meaningful progress in a new language with the right instructional approach. As with anything else, in the case of language learning, you really do get what you pay for.
Katharine Nielson, Ph.D. leads a team of curriculum specialists, data analysts, and research associates to develop test items, curate language learning content, develop curricula, and run empirical studies. She’s spent twenty years teaching languages, researching how to teach languages, and teaching people how to teach languages in various settings around the world.