Duolingo French review: The good, the bad and the ugly

Duolingo is one of the most popular French language learning apps – but can it genuinely help you become fluent?

To find out, I’ve spent the past few days completing interactive lessons and testing the well-known app for different levels of French.

Here’s what I’ve discovered about Duolingo French and how it compares with our very own French Together.

Is Duolingo the best French learning app?

With its varied exercises, lovable characters, and fun and motivating learning method, Duolingo is a great way to practice French and stay the course. But no language learning app can cover everything. Duolingo especially falls short in grammar, culture, and speaking practice. Duolingo should be used with other resources and apps if you really want to learn French – especially French as it’s spoken today. For example, you could use Duolingo together with an app focused on conversational French such as French Together.

If you want more information about Duolingo’s good and bad sides, read on!

What is Duolingo?

Duolingo mascot Duo the owl waving and saying "Hi there! I'm Duo!"

Duolingo is a learning app for beginner to upper intermediate learners that offers courses in more than 40 languages, as well as kid-oriented courses in reading (in English) and math.

You can use it as a web app on your computer or you can download it onto your mobile device.

Duolingo French offers practice in areas like vocabulary, listening, reading, writing, and speaking. To a certain extent, there’s grammar learning, as well, although I found the explanations included in the “guidebook” before each lesson to often be too cursory and not serious enough.

Still, the moment you start looking into Duolingo, it’s easy to see why it’s so popular. The interface is fun and has a cartoonish, whimsical aesthetic. Oh, and there’s another great thing going for it: It’s completely free. There are two paid versions of Duolingo, called Super Duolingo and Duolingo Max, that offer more content and a few appealing extras, but even the basic version includes a lot of features.

What’s good about Duolingo?

Lesson complete page showing score and other info. Duolingo mascot Duo the Owl and Goth teenager Lily stand back to back striking triumphant poses, although Lily continues to look a bit cynical.
Duo and my girl Lily

After trying out the app, here’s what I thought were the strong points of Duolingo.

Its charming and delightful interface and characters that crop up in examples or just to encourage you as you learn. Cynical, sort-of Goth teenager Lily quickly stole my heart, personally. I loved how she would roll her eyes and grudgingly clap when I’d get a right answer.

• The app’s exercises are varied and give you a number of ways to practice and learn French (listening, reading, speaking, and writing).

• You can choose how long you want your daily lesson to be.

• The variety of different interactive exercises in a single lesson. Especially as you get into higher levels, you’ll be asked to fill in sentences, match vocabulary, practice pronunciation, listen, type a translation, and more, one after the other. I personally enjoyed this – it kept me on my toes and rarely felt repetitive.

The “Stories” feature for higher level learners. These are short dialogues that, as you can guess, tell a story. You listen to and read them, can replay lines, and will be asked to interact – for instance, filling in the blank or answering comprehension questions. I loved the variety of ways these stories were used, and as with the regular exercises, I like that the Stories touch on various bases of language learning, incorporating reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

• It motivates you to practice daily. In addition to its famous “streaks” (uninterrupted days of practice), Duolingo offers incentives like the game-like rewards system, where you get gems and other items for completing lessons and reaching other goals.

• Its cast of unique and diverse characters. If cynical teens aren’t your thing, there are lots of other Duolingo characters, both people and animals. These characters are a diverse group, each with a different cultural background, body type, age, etc., and very different, distinct personalities. In addition to the admirable inclusion and the chance it gives everyone to have their own favorite character, the diverse backgrounds and personalities mean that each character has a different voice and inflection, which is helpful for listening practice.

• The app lets you go back and review, as well as access guidebooks for later lessons, no matter what lesson you’re currently on

• Although Duolingo takes a fun, joyful approach to language learning and starts out a bit easy, overall the app’s exercises can be pretty challenging.

• The standard version of Duolingo, which has lots of content, is free.

What’s not good about Duolingo?

A snobbish looking brown bear wearing a blue scarf around his neck stands beside an exercise that asks users to translate the phrase "une petite télévision" into English by choosing from an assortment of words.

Here’s what I didn’t like about Duolingo (and also one that many other people may not like).

• To me, Duolingo doesn’t provide enough information for absolute beginners. They might learn vocabulary but they don’t get clearly laid out information about things like how French is structured.

• While many people (including me) like Duolingo’s vibe, others, including French Together’s Benjamin Houy, thinks its fun and whimsical approach can be a disadvantage. For Benjamin, a lot of the vocabulary you learn is of dubious usefulness. Sure, learning how to say things like “I’m a cat” or “This is my first cow” is fun but when will you ever say things like this in real life? Doubtful.

Grammar explanations are brief at best, and often not particularly clear. There’s a “guidebook” before each lesson that’s supposed to explain certain aspects of grammar that you’ll cover, but I found the explanations to often be too cursory and not serious enough.

• The app only recognizes the vocabulary and phrases it teaches you, not synonyms or equivalent expressions. Because Duolingo isn’t, of course, a live person (no matter how real its cast of characters seem), it won’t accept alternative ways to say the same thing. This might not be so much of an issue if its set phrases and vocabulary were the most common ones in everyday spoken French, but that’s not always the case…which is why my translation of the phrase “What would you suggest?”into French was counted as wrong.  This also means that…

Phrases and translations aren’t always the best choice for contemporary spoken French.

Cultural aspects of French, especially the importance of politeness, are ignored. For instance, one sentence I was given to work with had me tell someone I wanted them to make me a meal, using the phrase Je veux que. While this would certainly be understood, using the subjunctive like this is a direct, impolite command. This is especially important to be aware of since politeness is a vital part of French culture.

Fill-in exercises have each word pronounced, instead of liaisons. In exercises where you have to put words in order, the words are pronounced individually, without liaisons being made. So for instance, C’était is heard as “ce était” in these exercises. Not great for training your ear or practicing pronunciation.

The app’s free version has ads, including video ads. Yes, it’s free, so this is the price to pay, so to speak. But it’s still not great. I also found that ads seem to get more present the more you use the app. On the first day I used Duolingo, I think I only had a print ad or two for the app’s paid version, but by the fourth day, I was getting video ads at times. These weren’t terribly invasive – they didn’t pop up in the middle of an exercise, for instance – but it still felt strange and distracting. Because I live in France, my ads were localized to at least be in French, but I can imagine that they’re even more jarring if you live somewhere else and get ads in a totally different language.

• Duolingo takes an intuitive language learning approach. This learning technique isn’t unique to Duolingo, and it’s not necessarily something everyone would find negative, but personally, I’ve never been a fan of this type of language learning, especially if your goal is to attain near-fluency, including grammar proficiency. See enough examples, Duolingo’s creators figure, and you’ll get it. But I’m not really sure that’s true. By the end, you’re expected to know how to conjugate verbs in various tenses, for instance, and I strongly suspect that longtime users only know how to conjugate for the subjects and verbs they’ve become familiar with through the app’s example sentences.

How much does Duolingo cost?

Duolingo is completely free.

There are also two paid versions of Duolingo: Super Duolingo and Duolingo Max.

Super Duolingo offers more content and a few appealing extras. Duolingo Max, which is only available in a few countries and only as an iOS app for now, includes all of Super Duolingo’s features, plus an AI chatbot. Both of these paid versions are ad-free.

Unlike the free versions of most language learning apps, Duolingo’s is absolutely worth it. It includes an impressive amount of features and lessons. The only downside is that it also includes ads.

Should I use Duolingo to learn French?

Franco-African Duolingo character stands in a jaunty pose beside an exercise prompt that asks users to translate the sentence "This bag costs the price of two computers" into French, by choosing from an assortment of words.

To me, Duolingo is a great resource for someone who has a base knowledge of French and wants to keep things fresh in their mind and review, or for someone who is a little intimidated about starting to learn French and will also have other ways to practice and learn.

In both cases, the person should use Duolingo in addition to other learning resources, especially when it comes to grammar, culture, and knowing how people really say things in everyday spoken French.

Fortunately, there are lots of other ways to learn and practice these important aspects of the language, including reading, listening to, and watching things in French. Using Duolingo along with other learning apps, like French Together for practice with contemporary spoken French, is also a good idea, and a reasonable option financially, since Duolingo is free.

I hope this Duolingo review was helpful. Whichever app(s) you choose to learn or practice French, good luck and enjoy your French learning journey!

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Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. She recently published her first novel, Hearts at Dawn, a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling that takes place during the 1870 Siege of Paris. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.