After years of waiting, the beta version of Chinese for English speakers course was finally released on Duolingo.
It’s been a long time coming and many people had given up on it ever being released. After all, they’ve released courses for over 20 languages, even Klingon and High Valyrian (with even more in development) before tackling the most widely spoken language on the planet.
With millions of users, Duolingo is probably the most popular language learning resource around today – and it’s completely free to use.
But should you use it?
That’s not to mention all the other online Chinese courses.
So, does the Chinese for English speakers course on Duolingo live up to the hype? Should you use it to learn Chinese?
The short answer is no. Don’t waste your time with it.
But, let’s see why I feel this way.
There’s a lot to look at here. So, let’s start at the beginning…
Duolingo is available from their website or as an app. I’d recommend using it online as much as possible. The main reason for this is that sometimes the online lessons will include a Tips and notes section. Here you’ll find some written explanations regarding grammar rules and sentence structures. It’s badly needed as the lessons themselves don’t explain any of this. You’re expected to just learn it intuitively. This section is completely missing from the app.
When you first log in to Duolingo and select Chinese, you’ll be greeted by this screen to select your goals.
The fact that 20 minutes per day is considered insane, is well, sort of insane. For anyone studying Chinese even somewhat seriously, 20 minutes per day is nothing at all. This gives a clear glimpse into the nature and target audience for Duolingo – very casual learners.
You can then choose to start from the beginning or take a placement test.
The course structure is quite similar to what you’ll find other places.
There are 88 mini-units based on a specific topic, such as sports, body parts, health, and so on.
Each of these mini-units contains between 2 and 6 lessons.
At any point, you can try to test out of these mini-units and jump ahead in the course.
The process for testing out and skipping ahead in the course is quite similar to all of the other lessons – which I’ll talk about in just a minute. The one difference is that you’re given three lives to pass the test. If you miss more than three questions, you’ll have to try again or work through the lessons in order.
Unfortunately, the translation exercises can be very unforgiving of different ways to word a sentence. This can make it quite frustrating trying to test out of the lessons.
We should give Duolingo a bit of slack here though as it’s still in Beta. As more people use it and report sentence errors, the more accepting of variations it will become.
The First Lessons
One of the first things you’re likely to notice is that the lessons are incredibly easy. I know, I’ve been studying Chinese for quite awhile, so of course, the first lesson will be easy. But, hear me out…
This was the first question which could be challenging if you’ve never learned any Chinese. You don’t really need to understand any Chinese to answer correctly though. The audio automatically plays. So, if you have ears, it’s pretty easy to hear the correct answer.
You answer a bunch more questions just like this.
I do like that they include learning characters early in the course though. It’s not uncommon for beginners to ignore characters which can be detrimental in the long-run.
You answer probably 10 or so different questions matching the sound to the pinyin and the pinyin to the characters.
But, you still haven’t been told what 你，好，or 你好 actually means. Then all of a sudden you’re greeted with this question…
How are you supposed to know this when you’re nearly done with lesson one and they haven’t told you the meaning. Maybe this is easy enough that anyone can figure it out. But, if you’re starting as an absolute beginner, I don’t see how they can expect you to know this.
The second lesson of the first mini-unit is essentially the same, but instead, you’ll learn 再，见，and 再见. Again, the amount of time matching sounds to pinyin and pinyin to characters without ever actually telling you what 再见 means is really bizarre.
Pronunciation and Tones
Pretty much everyone will tell you that learning tones and pronunciation are critical for learning Chinese. If you use the app, you’ll never learn anything about either of these. On the website, there is a short explanation of tones, but nothing about pronunciation.
It’s not a particularly good or thorough explanation of tones, but it’s better than nothing. If you’re a beginner and insist on using Duolingo, try to use it on your computer as much as possible so at least you get this extra information.
Chinese pronunciation can be fairly challenging to learn. I expect many people taking this course will simply get in the habit of pronouncing pinyin just like they would English.
Don’t do this! People will have a hard time understanding you and it’ll take a lot of effort to fix your pronunciation problems later.
The lessons later in the course are essentially the same as the first ones. Let’s take a look at a later lesson, one question at a time. The topic here is telephones.
Again, these are just incredibly easy to answer. The audio automatically plays, so if you’re not deaf, it’ll be hard to answer incorrectly.
I like that they included the third tone bai here. This will make the questions more challenging and help students learn to distinguish between the sounds of different tones. Part of me thinks it was just a coincidence though.
More than halfway through the lesson and we still haven’t learned anything besides pinyin and characters. What does this mean anyway?
Then, all of a sudden, you’re asked to translate something. How are you supposed to know that 明白 means understand?
Same thing here. They never told you what 快 even means! I guess from the previous question, you can use process of elimination to deduce that the answer isn’t 明白. This just seems like a really pointlessly inefficient way to teach vocabulary.
We learned 慢 in the previous lesson. So, I guess this is just basically a chance to review.
And that’s the end of the lesson. I’m not sure what just happened. The structure of this doesn’t make any sense to me.
They do at least include a little be of a grammar explanation with the website version.
Now let’s just take a look at a few more examples from other lessons…
We still have the issue of not enough answers being accepted.
In some lessons, vocabulary is actually sort-of taught. Unfortunately, there’s no need to have learned any Chinese to answer correctly…
Really? People have been waiting years for Duolingo to release a course and this is what they come up with?
To me, it seems like the whole course was designed to give students the illusion of progress and keep them coming back for more. That leads to the next point…
What Duolingo Does Well
I’ve said very few positive things about Duolingo so far in this review. But, there’s one area where Duolingo really excels. That’s in motivating people to actually study Chinese. Plenty of people want to learn, but it’s easy to get caught up in the difficulties or not knowing where to start or just feeling like it’s impossible. Duolingo really makes it easy to get started and keep going.
* Duolingo excels at motivating people to build a daily study habit. They set the bar really low. Often times this may only be five minutes per day. But when people complete these mini-goals, they’ll often find themselves studying more than they intended to.
* Using Duolingo feels a lot like playing a game. They add a lot of gaming elements to learning Chinese. For example, you can earn lingots to reward you for studying.
You can then use these lingots for a few different things, such as power-ups and outfits. I’m not particularly motivated by these things. I’m motivated by the fact that I live in Beijing. The better my Chinese gets, the easier and more rewarding my life becomes.
Most people don’t have such a strong motivating factor for learning Chinese. So, for them, these extras can help push them to study and provide a small reward for doing so. Again, they do a great job of pushing people to build the study habit.
* Duolingo also does a very good job of building a community of language learners. You can create or join an already existing club of people learning Chinese. You can also see leaderboards and invite friends on Facebook to join. Learning Chinese is easier when you aren’t doing it alone.
* The lessons are generally very fast and easy to pass through. This isn’t an accident. They excel by getting casual language learners to want to study. If the lessons were too difficult or took too long to complete, people would get bored, feel demotivated, and give up. Duolingo keeps these people going.
* It’s free. Sure, you can pay $9.99 per month if you want to remove ads or download lessons from the app. But, for the vast majority of people, it’s completely free. It’s hard to complain about something that’s free, but you have to consider the value of your time as well.
What Duolingo Does Poorly
Truthfully, I think Duolingo does most things poorly and can’t see myself recommending it to anyone unless they were to completely overhaul their course.
* There’s a strange emphasis on exercises that match sounds to pinyin and pinyin to characters, while almost completely ignoring the meaning of the words and characters. Somehow, they expect you to deduce the meanings based on those two components. When they do actually include the meanings of the vocabulary, it’s so incredibly simple that it feels like an insult to my intelligence. You can answer those questions correctly without having actually learned any Chinese.
* The app version doesn’t include any grammar notes. You’re supposed to learn these things intuitively, but I doubt that works out well for many people. You’re not a child, learning different grammar rules can make things much easier to understand why a sentence is structured a certain way. The website version has these grammar notes, but they aren’t very complete.
* Ignoring tones and pronunciation is a great way to develop bad speaking habits and struggle to differentiate similar sounding words.
* The course doesn’t seem like it’ll really help you to communicate effectively. There’s not a lot of listening practice and no speaking exercises.
* As far as the recordings go, the pronunciation is fine when it’s only a single character. But in real life, you never hear Chinese only one character at a time. In the translation exercises, you’ll often hear a full sentence, but it sounds really choppy and unnatural. This is because each character was recorded separately, so it doesn’t flow together smoothly.
* The exercises don’t include enough variations of the answer. Many times, you’ll get an answer marked incorrect because it’s not phrased in the exact manner. This will surely improve over time, but for now, it’s pretty frustrating.
If Not Duolingo, Then What?
I think most people should avoid using Duolingo to learn Chinese. The only exception, I guess, would be for people who literally are only interested in studying for 5-10 minutes/day and find the gamification aspect enough to get them to study when they otherwise wouldn’t bother.
Even then, there are several free apps that do most things better – especially the important stuff. HelloChinese, ChineseSkill, and LingoDeer are all significantly better than Duolingo for learning Chinese.
If you’re willing to pay a subscription and like the gamified nature of Duolingo, I’d suggest Ninchanese. It’s significantly more thorough and useful for learning Chinese.
Finally, there are several courses that, although they cost money, are worth considering if you’re willing to put in the work required to learn Chinese. ChineseFor.Us would be the best for absolute beginners, with Yoyo Chinese being another very popular option worth looking at.
Learning Chinese takes a lot of time. But, some resources are better designed and will help you learn the language much faster than others.
If you’re only willing to look at free resources, there are other apps that teach Chinese in a much more logical and useful way.
If you’re serious about learning Chinese, I’d suggest spending a little bit of money and gaining access to one of the many online Chinese courses.
My attitude has always been, if spending $10-$20/month on a course will save you a bunch of time, and give you a better foundation, then that’s just a good investment. Maybe you won’t get badges and achievement points, but you’ll actually learn to communicate in Chinese.
It’s a little bit disheartening that so many people are already using Duolingo to learn Chinese. They’re a huge name in language learning, and the number of people taking this course is only going to continue to grow significantly.
Unfortunately, Duolingo just isn’t very good for learning Chinese.