The quickest way to describe the differences between them would be…
Duolingo is best for casual learners who may want to dabble in a few different languages, may struggle with staying motivated, or aren’t willing to spend money.
Babbel is best for more serious students who are only interested in learning one language, would like clear explanations, and want to learn content that they’ll use in real conversations.
Let’s now take a deeper look at both platforms, starting with Duolingo.
What it’s like to use Duolingo
Duolingo is a great way to get introduced to learning a new language. Millions of people have done just that.
The fact that it’s completely free to use has opened up language learning to people all over the world, regardless of their economic situation.
There are currently over 21 million students learning Spanish on Duolingo. With over 30 languages available, the number of users on Duolingo is really staggering. They’ve even had some fun by adding fantasy languages like High Valyrian and Klingon.
The fact that they’ve opened the doors for so many people to begin learning a new language is really an amazing thing.
Duolingo organizes its content around Skills. These are short mini units centered around a specific topic, such as family, emotions, routines, or weather.
Because of the way that the Skills are organized, you’ll likely end up learning some fairly obscure vocabulary before more important essentials.
Duolingo also doesn’t have typical lessons like you may expect from a language learning platform. Most of the material is taught simply through repetitive exercises.
Some important words may be first introduced with pictures, but others will show up for the first time in an exercise where you’re supposed to translate a sentence. Luckily, you can click on the words of a sentence to see a translation.
The exercises aren’t particularly hard and you can fly through them. Most exercises are pretty similar, with lots of translating, matching pictures to words, and some listening practice.
One thing that I found to be really frustrating is the way that the sentences are recorded. Each word is recorded separately, presumably so that same recording can be used in any sentence which uses the same word.
Since the sentences aren’t recorded as a whole, when you listen to a sentence, it sounds extremely unnatural.
An important part of language learning is listening and mimicking natural language. If you try this with Duolingo, you’re going to sound ridiculous. Speechling can help a lot with this, I’d suggest checking it out.
Another issue involves the types of sentences that Duolingo teaches. While many of the sentences are normal enough, there are quite a few that you would never use in real life.
You can find some pretty funny ones on this twitter account.
While it’s completely silly, you are at least learning to construct sentences and they may make you smile. Certainly though, some people would prefer using their study time on more practical sentences.
Another issue is that Duolingo completely ignores the culture of the language you’re learning.
While Duolingo does have more than a few issues, it’s hard to complain about something that’s free. They also do something better than any other language learning platform around – even the most expensive ones.
Nobody does as good a job as Duolingo at keeping you motivated and coming back to study each day. Even if it’s just five or ten minutes a day, creating a daily study habit is essential for learning a language.
On Duolingo you can get achievements, streaks for studying each day, earn lingots to spend on power-ups, track your study time, and compete for a spot on their leaderboard. They make studying feel more like playing a game.
Duolingo does also offer a premium plan but most people would be happy with the free version. In their Duolingo Plus plan, you can remove ads, download materials offline, and get a monthly streak repair.
It costs $9.99/mo and falls to $6.99/mo if you subscribe for a year.
What it’s like to use Babbel
While Babbel is one of the most popular online language learning resources – it has nowhere near as many users as Duolingo.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise considering Babbel costs money to use whereas Duolingo is completely free.
The good news is that Babbel is one of the most affordable language learning platforms around. Their subscriptions start at $12.95/mo and fall to $6.95/mo if you were to purchase an annual plan.
Unfortunately, if you’re the type who likes to dabble in multiple languages, Babbel probably isn’t the best option. Their subscriptions only give you access to one language at a time. A tool like Mango Languages could be a good alternative worth considering.
Babbel also doesn’t offer nearly as many languages as Duolingo.
They currently have 14 languages available – German, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, Turkish, Dutch, Polish, Indonesian, Russian, Danish, Norwegian, and English.
Like Duolingo, the courses are created for beginner to lower intermediate level students.
Babbel’s lessons are organized into modules with each module containing various lessons. I found that the content is organized a bit more logically with the more important language being taught earlier on.
The lessons themselves aren’t so different than Duolingo. Neither is the most exciting thing you’ll use to study a language.
Both platforms use similar exercises, such as matching pictures to words, translations, organizing sentences, and so on.
Duolingo teaches the language by having users complete lots of exercises while including few explanations. Babbel teaches the language in a much more traditional manner, sort of like you’d expect within a classroom.
This means they’ll take the time to explain grammar and how the language is used much more explicitly, instead of just expecting you to pick it up on your own.
I personally prefer this method as it makes it easier for me to have a deeper understanding of the language as a whole.
Another major advantage of Babbel compared to Duolingo is their focus on conversational language that you’re likely to use in real life. Babbel doesn’t teach you to make lots of silly sentences that you’ll never use. Instead, you’ll learn to say things that you’ll actually need.
Babbel also doesn’t have the same issues with regards to sentence recordings that Duolingo does. Whereas Duolingo’s recordings often sound unnatural, Babbel’s audio sounds just like you’d expect to hear if you were visiting that country.
Its just the difference forming sentences from recordings of individual words vs sentences being recorded as a whole. It might not sound like much, but it really makes a big difference.
Babbel does have some game-like elements, but they don’t take it as far as Duolingo does. For those who struggle with motivation, this could make it a bit less fun and more challenging to study regularly.
It’s not until you start to dig a bit deeper that you see how these two platforms differ. It’s the content itself that really differentiates these two online language courses.
Duolingo is amazing for a free resource. They make learning more fun and less intimidating. They offer a ton of languages and teach them through lots of exercises. While there’s plenty of room for improvement, the fact that they make language learning accessible to people all over the world is incredible.
Babbel is quite good considering the fact that it’s not very expensive. Unfortunately, a subscription only gives you access to one language. They teach much more explicitly, using conversational language. It’s a bit better for serious learners who want a stronger foundation and a deeper understanding of the language.
Both platforms are a good way to get started learning a language, though I personally prefer Babbel. However, neither Duolingo or Babbel is great at developing your speaking skills.
Pimsleur does much better with that – though they also have their own weaknesses.
Alternatively, taking regular classes from a tutor on italki would be a great way to complement either of these resources. It’s also not that expensive, often less than $10 per hour of private classes.