I love Duolingo. I find it fun, and sometimes the questions are absolutely hilarious, but ultimately, my love of the language-learning app boils down to two simple reasons: a love of languages and of the free exchange of information.
As a disclaimer, I’m not a language expert, but I have learned a second language to fluency, so I know a little bit about the process.
I’m the first to admit that it’s not a perfect app, and I really don’t think that anyone can expect to get fluent by the use of Duolingo alone. However, it’s great as a supplement to other methods of study, whether that’s a formal class in the language or a language immersion experience.
It can even be useful for languages that the user is already fluent in. I occasionally go to the Spanish course just to practice, especially at times when I’m not actively in a Spanish class, and I don’t have a lot of people speaking Spanish with me on a regular basis.
I think Duolingo’s biggest strength, though, is that it’s free.
One of the most radical ideas that has been growing over the past few decades and fuels online communities is that information should be free. It’s a rather beautiful idea that anyone who has the time and interest to learn about something — anything — could have access to that information at little to no cost through the free exchange of information.
The movement toward increased freedom of information is one that is distinctive of the digital age. It’s also international and interdisciplinary. It can encompass the sharing of skills via YouTube or another online platform or, on the more illegal side of things, pirated academic papers, journals and textbooks.
In his New York Times article, Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia University, points out how unlikely it is for academic texts to yield much of a reward for their authors and poses this question: “Given those odds, might it be worth devoting the efforts into a book designed to be cheaper, or even free, as a form of public service?”
This is the kind of free exchange of information that has the potential to create better access to education around the world.
Duolingo does a fairly good job of acting in this spirit. Sure, there is a “premium” option, but those inside the paywall don’t really have access to any more content than those outside of it. All a paid subscription really does is remove ads and allow the user to make more mistakes.
Their blog can also be interesting and provide information about linguistics, language development and explanations about how Duolingo courses are designed.
Free exchange is particularly important in the world of language education, especially considering that the world is becoming more and more globalized. Better language education can increase opportunities in areas such as commerce and government, especially for those who might not otherwise have access to such fields.
Additionally, language education contributes to cultural exchange and can help instill a more global mindset. This idea is especially important in an American context, as it’s very common in the U.S. to have very limited or stereotypical knowledge of other cultures.
It’s not without noting that there is no national mandate for non-English education in the U.S. Only about 20% of American children can speak more than one language, compared to an average of 92% among European students.
One of the scariest consequences of this statistic in the U.S. is that it contributes to American ethnocentrism and can give people a very narrow view of the world and its wide variety of cultures, histories, values and more.
Quality language education is incredibly important, especially in an age of globalization via the internet. Luckily, access to such education is free through organizations such as Duolingo.