| Dec 20, 2022

Duolingo’s Secret to Success: Learning Languages Like a Child

By gamifying learning and mimicking language immersion on a smaller scale, the app has quickly overrun its competition.

The CEO and founder of Duolingo, Luis von Ahn, says there are more people learning languages on his company’s gamified platform than there are students learning a new language in high school. While 91% of schools in the U.S. offer a foreign language program, only 4% of foreign language learners go on to become fluent, and most people regret having let their language skills slip. Are we doing something wrong?

As a former English teacher to people of all ages, I particularly enjoyed my classes with children because, when they didn’t know an answer, they would start shouting out English-sounding sounds until they eventually said something that was close enough to the answer. Meanwhile, in my classes with adults, people were typically harder on themselves — sometimes so hard that they would lose the motivation to come to class. 

Duolingo has harnessed these observations about human behavior when it comes to language learning, and has done it so masterfully that it has quickly overrun the competition. Duolingo has 42 million monthly active users, while Babbel, its closest competitor, has around 10 million purchased subscriptions. Because Babbel focuses on a paid model, it initially posted more revenue than Duolingo. That changed in 2020 and despite less than 3% of Duolingo’s users paying for Duolingo Premium, it posted $250 million in revenue in 2021 — compared to Babbel’s $198 million (Babbel, however, still has not made a profit).

So what is Duolingo’s secret? It’s the app that enables us to learn languages like kids again.

Learning Like a Grown-Up

While it was once supposed that it is significantly easier for children to learn languages, recent science suggests the reality is much more complicated. For example, while typically only children can obtain a completely native accent, adults learn languages faster and more accurately than children. 

There are certain aspects of one’s non-native language that will simply never get into the hard-shell grown-up brain (I can’t detect my own accent in Spanish, but my friend once kindly described it as macheteado, or “chopped up,” as if with a machete). The biggest difference in language learning may have less to do with brain plasticity and more to do with the way we teach kids and the way we teach adults.

Dr. Carmen Muñoz, a language researcher, put the fact that learning a language is really tough without immersion like this: “You have to live with the language, use the language, and function in the language.” Some language teachers joke that the way we teach languages is like showing someone how to play piano without ever putting them in front of the instrument. 

Kids are often required to learn languages. But if an adult found themselves in the middle of a foreign country needing to speak their second language in order to find food, water, and shelter, suddenly their self-consciousness would feel less important. They would be surprised by how quickly they would learn.

Duolingo combats this lack of immersion in language-learning settings by incorporating the “streak,” which lets users know how many days they have been studying in a row. By keeping them coming back, the app keeps that language at the forefront of students’ minds and can mimic immersion on a smaller scale.


Make It a Game and Incorporate Feedback

Staying motivated after that initial push of inspiration while learning isn’t unique to language education. But with Duolingo, you can unlock prizes, compete against friends and strangers, and win gold coins as you learn. As a result, it often doesn’t feel like an exam — it feels like a game. As Von Ahn says: “[W]e spent a lot of effort making Duolingo as fun as possible.” 

Just like my young students making English-y noises until they landed on the right one, Duolingo is low-stakes. Users aren’t quite as worried about someone judging them — or at least not worried enough to outweigh the little dopamine rush they get when the app lets them know that they have completed another day in the streak.

In 2020 during the pandemic, there was a spike in people downloading and using language-learning apps. To maintain those numbers, many apps went back to language-learning basics.

When my adult students’ cheeks turned red, and they lowered their gazes, a lot of that embarrassment likely came from fear of being criticized or making mistakes. But they had nothing to be embarrassed about. When people learn a language, they work new muscles in the mouth, tongue, and face. Your brain can change in size and ability. Making mistakes is inevitable and a supportive environment can help overcome that embarrassment.

With research showing that people experience a better emotional response to positive feedback, creating positive emotional associations with an app helps ensure people will come back to it. Babbel put this theory to the test in 2020 when they invited users to create motivational messages in local idioms to encourage fellow users. The open rate on the app jumped to almost 70% above average. Positive feedback was similar to having a supportive classroom environment, where classmates and teachers might take the time to tell you that you’re doing well.

Strategic Methods

While the language-learning aspect of Duolingo uses simple and even childlike methods, Duolingo’s business strategy is more sophisticated. In 2011, when Duolingo was founded, it was far more common for companies to prioritize their website presence over the design and UX of their mobile app. But from the get-go, Duolingo took a mobile-first approach. It was an innovative decision that catapulted them into the future.

Eleven years ago, language learning software like Rosetta Stone could cost hundreds of dollars, as could in-person classes. But by choosing to earn their income primarily from ads, Duolingo was able to make their app free. It proved irresistible to many people. 

Duolingo has also managed to stay relevant since its inception by keeping up with social media marketing strategies. On TikTok, they leveraged the Flicker, Flash, Flare method to create viral TikToks and gain more than 5 million followers. Duolingo prioritized entertainment on their TikTok by hopping on popular trends and playing up the “inside joke” of Duo, the green owl, threatening people to do their language lessons. 

Explain It to Me Like I’m Five

Like most things worth doing, learning a language is difficult. But by focusing on learning like we did when we were children, Duolingo has been able to make it fun (or at least a little bit less difficult). Advances in technology give us the opportunity to take a fresh look at the way we educate ourselves and one another. Looking backwards towards childhood for hints to revolutionize learning has certainly worked for Duolingo.

Siobhan Brier
Siobhan Brier

Opinion Contributor, Strixus

Siobhan Brier is a novelist, freelance writer, editor, and translator, and the manager of Inkless Writing Agency. view profile


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