Autonomous Learning Through m-Learning: the Case of Duolingo

Zita Braziuniene and Ruta Kalytiene
Vilnius College of Technologies and Design, Lithuania,


The article presents Duolingo which offers personalized free language education, making learning of a new language as a fun game.  Over the past decade the use of mobile devices, such as tablets or smartphones has become an integral part of our everyday lives. Activities provided by Duolingo challenge individual learners to reflect upon their self-awareness of their individual learning strategies, their previous learning experience and their individual beliefs. Duolingo is now a promising app in the language learning process and digital education. However, one must consider the pros and cons of the gamified language m-learning.

Promoting Autonomous Learning

Duolingo, the gamified mobile application, is a perfect example of straightforward language app which was introduced in 2012. Currently, it offers free learning experience in 22 different languages. The user of the programme familiarizes with all four skills involved in a foreign language learning. According to Lightbrow & Spada “an educated speaker of English is believed to know at least 20,000 words, but most everyday conversations require <…> 2000 words“ (2013:60). Duolingo app almost perfectly fulfils such a requirement, for example: the complete course of French includes 1854 words. However, the mastery of specific weird slang words or watching TV news in a local dialect might be intricate to overcome. Despite of that people all around the world enjoy the opportunity of taking free language courses whenever and wherever possible. Each course in Duolingo is made up of modules arranged in a specific order by which one can complete different modules, with new modules becoming active only after completion of the previous one. Duolingo recognizes that language learners need to be motivated to come back to the app and get enthusiastic about its activities within visual learning methods.

First, it offers a goal-setting tool which can vary from ‘casual’ to ‘insane’, depending on how motivated one is about learning and how quickly wants to achieve the best result. Lightbrow & Spada also believe that “more successful in language learning are extroverted, outgoing personalities, showing intelligence and motivation“ (2013:75).  However, if one lacks motivation, a daily reminder (called “Duo”) provides daily messages for everyone who seems reluctant or gets engaged in other activities, forgeting that language learning is a daily routine.

The second tool for encouraging learners‘ motivation is the ability to earn “lingots“ (virtual currency of Duolingo) which can be used to reward learners for various achievements related to language learning. Lingots can be used for purchasing bonus skills, for example: the Spanish course offers two bonus skills in the first part of the course – ‘Idioms’ and ‘Flirting’, which teach pick-up lines and improve communicative skills.

Another supportive Duolingo tool is badges which display a student‘s completion or achievement of the level. The badge system effectively stimulates the intrinsic motivators in relation to progress and mastery while learning a language and at the same time allowing students customize their learning tempo according to their language skills. One can choose to skip lessons if he/she passes special quizzes that prove the validity of the skills expected at a certain learning point. Similarly, each lesson only becomes unlocked once the previous levels are all completed. The user‘s ability to choose individually which lesson to do first within the same level of lessons adds bonus point to the autonomous language learning.

Pros and Cons of Duolingo

According to Lyanne Alfaro from CNBC (Consumer News and Business Channel): “Today, there are 1.2 billion people around the world learning a new language. 150 million of them, aged seven to 95, are now using <…> Duolingo to do that learning for free“. With such impressive numbers of users, Duolingo undoubtedly has both positive and negative commentaries about the scope of its activities.

Duolingo pros:

•Free of charge and does not require constant app updates
•Accessibility, i.e. the ability to start from the beginnings regardless your age, status, educational background, previous knowledge of the language you are going to learn, etc.
•Variety of topics: some topics are revealed through other topics
•Ability to learn four skills: writing, speaking, reading, listening
•Ability to build your own vocabulary through audio, visual and verbal dimensions
•Ability to create simple sentences from the beginnings
•Helpful tool for migrants, refugees or anyone who needs to start life in a new environment and need to pick up the new language from the very start

Duolingo cons:

•Requirement of perfection, i.e. no allowance to make even tinniest mistakes in spelling or pronounciation (“i“ instead of “I“, “a“ instead of “the“)
•Grammar structures might be unnatural and sound weird in everyday conversation, for example: “Their elephants drink milk“
•Lack of human interaction: it allows to practice pronunciation, but not speaking skills, i.e. repeating what the machine says, not creating your own sentences
•Basic everyday conversational phrases like: “What‘s your name?“ or “Where is the bathroom?“ are introduced only in the middle of the course
•Gamification: for some language learners medals and lingots seem to be meaningless in language acquisition.

Language learning is a constant process, requiring willingness to learn, devotion, commitment, motivation and passion. As Erard puts it: “cases of the most successful learners of multiple languages show that their unusual talent was associated with a willingness to work hard on tasks that may would have been considered too boring or difficult“ (2012:83). Duolingo is an easy start to learning the basics of a language, but it is just one basic and useful tool. However, if someone really wants to master a language, he/she must consider using a set of multiple tools, reinforcing their usage in a real setting. Other methods, especially conversational, might contribute to the real mastery of the new language. Finally, emulating the famous proverb “When in Rome, do as the Romans do“ keep up to the language skills and gain experience in the country where you might be as a native.

What‘s Next?

The number of Duolingo users has been growing all around the world with the largest countries being the USA, Brazil, Mexico, France and the UK. Bozena Pajak in her article “Which countries study which languages, and what can we learn from it?“ stated that in 2016 “the most popular languages to learn were English, French, Spanish, German, Swedish, Italian and Turkish“. The new languages such as Polish, Hungarian, Irish and Welsh were added recently. Undoubtedly, Chinese, Arabic, more Slavic and even Baltic languages might be added in the future. As the number of users is constantly growing, the demand for language courses development is also in progress. Duolingo incubator is the place where bilingual and passionate language users might contribute to a language course by adding translation of sentences, supplying grammar structures, vocabulary extensions, etc.


Erard Michael “Babel No More: the Search for the World‘s Most Extraordinary Language Learners“. Free Press. 2012
Lightbrown M. Patsy & Spada Nina “How Languages are Learned“. OUP. 2013 (checked on 20th February, 2017) (checked on 4th March, 2017)
Alfaro Lyanne “How this ‘genius’ grew the language learning app Duolongo to 150 million daily users” (checked on 27th March, 2017)
Pajak Bozena”Which countries study which languages, and what can we learn from it?” (checked on 27th March, 2017)