Detail from iPhone version of Duolingo

Why is duolingo unpedagogic? (Part 1 – it isn’t!)

My Product Marketing Manager asked me this week why Duolingo was seen as unpedagogic, i.e. why it’s approach to teaching  language is poor. She’s picked this up from general conversations on language learning apps within the product development team. I started off by counter arguing this – that there is a lot that is pedagogic about Duolingo. I’m going to state why, and then in a later post will state why there is a belief that its pedagogy is poor.

For me, the main reason is…

It works – I’ve learned loads of vocabulary

I’ve learned a lot of French and Spanish vocabulary in Duolingo.

There is a clue here to one of Duolingo’s main problems – my focus here is solely on learning words. And for that aspect of language learning Duolingo does an effective job at presenting and practicing lexis.

When I go back and practice old units I can recall the vocabulary I need. I’ve learned the words because they has been reinforced over multiple exercises and importantly it has drawn me back to practice language that has previously been presented.

There is a clear example of constructivism at work here. Sentences are built up, getting more and more complex by adding previously learned words to new structures. The more complex sentences provide practice for earlier learned words as well as the opportunity to show new contexts and introduce new lexis within that context.


Duolingo is one of the most motivating language learning apps available, especially for low levels (CEFR A1 – A2). Anything that motivates a learner and gets them coming back is good for learning.

It motivates through a variety of cleverly designed approaches. Many of these are classic gamification elements:

  • Clear goals and progression through a number of levels
  • Rewards for completing levels
  • Points and leaderboards to compete against friends.

The app also uses notifications to good effect, reminding the learner that language learning takes a little work at frequent intervals. The Android version also has Google Now cards which also keep the app in mind.

And this forms part of what is a very good user experience.


Good UX is half the battle when developing good digital language learning. And it’s the first half. There is no point developing something with great pedagogy but with poor UX. If a user cannot complete the learning objectives because of obstacles due to poor navigation, poor design or bugs, then the product fails.

Duolingo looks nice, and nice looking experiences are better than ugly looking ones – they make you want to spend time in that learning experience. The content is very neatly presented. The colour palette is very attractive. There is a minimalism to the design but it feels rich at the same time.

In terms of the content, it is very easy to complete the exercises – at no point is the user left with any doubt what they have to do. With the one exercise that cannot be achieved in all circumstances (repeating verbally what is said which is not going to be used much in public), there is the option to turn off this activity type for an hour. The time needed to complete a single lesson is just right, especially if using the mobile app. It’s short enough to comfortably complete a couple of lessons in a session and long enough to feel you are getting to grips with the lexis it’s teaching. The bitesize nature means it is easy to dip in

The good UX in a motivating product that keeps you coming back and a sense that it works as a language teaching tool provides a sense of progress which is so important in language learning. Duolingo has achieved phenomenal success and that has been warranted in many aspects. However it has some pretty serious flaws which I’ll explore in another post.

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