Duolingo review: Is Duolingo the best way to learn French?

Duolingo is one of the most popular language learning apps – but is it the right one for you?

I’ve spent the past few days completing Duolilngo lessons and tests for different levels of French.

Here’s what I’ve discovered about the app with the ow and how it compares with French Togetherl.

What is Duolingo?

Duolingo is a learning app 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’s a paid version of Duolingo, called Super Duolingo, that offers more content and a few appealing extras, but even the basic version includes a lot of features.

What’s good about Duolingo?

I’ve mentioned a few positive things about Duolingo already, and another major thing that might contribute to its appeal for a lot of users is its cast of 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.

If Goth 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 with very different, distinct personalities. This diversity is admirable and also inclusive, making you feel “seen” in one way or another, and a part of something more than just learning a language.

Side note: For parents reading this who might be interested in having their kids use Duolingo, my nine-year-old loved the interface and characters, too, not to mention the rewards system, where you get things like gems for completing lessons and other achievements.

Duolingo’s mascot, Duo the owl, as well as the other characters, will send messages and reminders to do your daily lesson, via email or phone notifications (you can choose these in your settings). This makes it easy to stay motivated – first, simply because you’re being reminded, and second because the reminders are associated with these characters. For instance, one day I got a message on my phone from Lily and was ridiculously delighted.

If you don’t care much about these fun details, on a more practical level, the characters’ diverse backgrounds and personalities mean that each has a  different voice and inflection, which is helpful for listening practice.

Continuing with the practical benefits of Duolingo, from the start you can choose how long you want your daily lessons to be.

Duolingo motivates users with the concept of “streaks”, or the number of uninterrupted days you’ve done exercises. Rewards and praise are given for unbroken streaks, and a lot of Duolingo users seem obsessed with keeping their streaks unbroken. I didn’t think this would necessarily be the case for me, but I’m actually low-key worried about stopping Duolingo French after this review!

The lessons themselves move along at a good pace and are varied, especially as you get into higher levels. You’ll be asked to fill in sentences, match vocabulary, practice pronunciation, type a translation, and more, one after the other. I personally enjoyed this – it kept me on my toes and rarely felt repetitive.

As you might imagine, Duolingo takes a joyful approach to language learning. But that doesn’t mean it lets you off easy. The free version of the app only allows you a certain number of mistakes until you’re blocked (at least for the day) from going forward. Although some early level questions are very easy, overall the app’s exercises can be challenging.

By the final lesson, you’re expected to have an upper intermediate level of French (the equivalent of B2 for the CEFR), and easily use concepts like the present subjunctive tense and double pronouns. No slouching here.

You also can’t just jump to a higher level; if you want to skip lessons or levels, you have to take a short test – and the questions are not easy!

I really liked a bonus feature offered for learners in higher levels. In the “My collections” tab, users have access to a section called “Stories”, which 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 app tries to touch various bases of language learning, incorporating reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

That said….

Can I learn French with Duolingo?

A man, seen from chin to thighs, is outside on the sidewalk, leaning against his bike as he does something on his phone.

Duolingo offers a lot of different ways to learn and practice various aspects of French. But for absolute beginners or lower level learners, I don’t think it’s enough.

The app’s approach to grammar and learning is one of intuitiveness; 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 wonder if longtime users only know how to conjugate for the subjects and verbs they’ve become familiar with through the app’s example sentences.

This is also a problem when it comes to vocabulary and usage. Because the app isn’t, of course, a live person, it won’t accept alternative ways to say the same thing. This might not be so much of an issue if the set phrases and vocabulary were the most common ones in everyday spoken French, but that’s not often the case…which is why my translation of the phrase “What would you suggest?”into French was counted as wrong.  

Equally troubling – if not more so – is the fact that Duolingo doesn’t seem to take culture into account. 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.

So, with all this in mind, the French you’ll learn with Duolingo would be understood by native speakers, but it might raise a few eyebrows at times, or possibly come off as rude in certain cases. And of course, users may not know other, often better or more common ways to say many of these words and phrases.

So you could say that Duolingo can help you learn or practice basic French but not necessarily – or at least not systematically – French as its spoken in everyday life, the way the French Together app would, for instance.

What’s not good about Duolingo?

We see the arm and hand of a waiter, who is placing aplate of what looks like salad, on a restaurant table beside a glass of wine and a glass of beer. There is an open purse on one chair at the table and a woman in an orange shirt is sitting beside it, her back to the camera. A man in a coral colored t-shirt is facing her across the table.
Whether it’s from a server or a friend, when you ask for food in France, don’t use “Je veux que…”

The app’s limited vocabulary options, lack of consistently clear grammar explanations, and disregard for the importance of politeness in French are big issues for me. There are a few other downsides to Duolingo, as well.

One of the biggest is that when you do an exercise 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.

On another note, while Duolingo’s interface is amazing and lovely and delightful overall, I found it hard to find things like what level different lessons belonged to.  

I also found that ads seem to get more present the more you use the app. On the first day, I think I only had an ad or two for Duolingo’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.

Of course, Duolingo is free and the app does offer an impressive amount of lessons (219 in total) plus bonus material, plus its delightful look and characters. So suffering through an ad now and then seems like the least you could do….

The best and worst things about Duolingo

To sum it up….

Here’s what I like most about Duolingo:

  • its charming and delightful interface and characters
  • the variety of ways to practice and learn French (listening, reading, speaking, and writing)
  • the variety of different exercises mixed together in the same lesson
  • the “Stories” feature  
  • the way the app motivates you to practice daily
  • the fact that you can go back and review, and also access guidebooks for later lessons, no matter what lesson you’re currently on
  • the cost: free

Here’s what I don’t like about Duolingo:

  • grammar explanations are brief at best, and often not particularly clear
  • the app only recognizes the vocabulary and phrases it teaches you, not synonyms or equivalents
  • phrases and translations aren’t always the best choice for contemporary spoken French
  • cultural aspects of French, especially the importance of politeness, are ignored
  • the fill-in exercises have each word pronounced, instead of liaisons
  • the app’s free version has ads, including video ads

Is Duolingo the best French learning app?

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 someone who is a little intimidated about starting to learn a language 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 is also worth considering, and a reasonable option financially, since Duolingo  is free.

To give you an example of how I personally think Duolingo would best help someone, I’m planning to switch languages and use it for Spanish. I took Spanish for two years in high school, so I have the basis for things like the grammatical framework of the language and am aware of basic grammatical rules pertaining to things like genders and verb tenses and conjugations.

I plan to use Duolingo Spanish to help me review and strengthen my Spanish skills, and to keep me motivated.  But I’ll bear in mind that not every phrase may be the best one to use in contemporary spoken Spanish, and I’ll try to supplement Duolingo with other Spanish learning apps and resources.

The verdict

Duolingo is a great way to practice French and to stay motivated. But it 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.

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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.