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Learning Basic Russian with Duolingo

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By Ryan B in the group MDDE 610 June 5, 2021 - 1:28pm


Learning Basic Russian with Duolingo




What I learned

For my assignment, I chose to start learning Russian with Duolingo. The app is available for mobile devices, but I chose to use it on my desktop computer. I chose Duolingo partly because of its popularity. With over 40 millions users, over 38 available languages, and hundreds of millions of downloads, I was curious about what the app was like to use. Duolingo is being used casually and in formal education contexts for both primary and additional language learning.

I hoped to learn some basic vocabulary and mechanics of the language, maybe some useful conversational phrases, and basic pronunciation rules for the Russian or Cyrillic alphabet. I have learned much vocabulary and some conversational phrases, but Duolingo does not seem to focus on pronunciation rules. Rather, it trains you to recognize words and remember their pronunciation through rote learning. Interestingly, Duolingo doesn’t teach the alphabet one letter at a time (at least not in the levels I made it to). I do not know much about teaching additional languages, so I just assumed I would need to learn the alphabet! Maybe knowing the alphabet well is only important for when learning you learn how to write in a language.


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Words I learned


How I achieved it

Duolingo uses a tree-branch approach to lessons, and each lessons uses activities like translation, repeating words, transcribing, multiple choice, arranging provided words, and matching picture cards to words. Like a Personalized System of Instruction (Polson, 2002a), you only get to move on once you have completed a lesson with a prescribed level of mastery or proficiency. While the program doesn’t encourage you to practice saying every word out loud as you move through the modules, I found doing this was helpful. I was surprised that the program did not actively encourage me to practice saying the words I was learning.

I also wrote down every new word I learned. I wrote it in Russian, in English, and then in brackets I wrote my own phonetic pronunciation. I don’t know my International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) very well, so I just made up my own system for this. Writing down what I was learning wasn’t required by the program, but I felt it helped because then I could look back at this reference when encountering a familiar word that I couldn’t remember the meaning or pronunciation for.


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Translation exercises 


Critical Reflection

I have many critical reflections on this technology after using it for this short time. What I have learned most strongly through this is that actually using a technology for a while and thinking critically as an educator is a very effective strategy to discover the benefits and shortcomings of a particular technology. 

Research into mobile assisted language learning (MALL) is diverse. There is not a lot of research involving Duolingo. Most of the research comes from universities in Indonesia, studying the effects of Duolingo on young students who are learning English as a second language.

What works well

Duolingo and apps like it provide a highly gamified experience (Fadhli et al., 2020). Gamification in learning uses game-based mechanics and aesthetics to engage learners, motivate them, promote learning, and create problems for users to solve (Fadhli et al., 2020). Elements like points, badges, and freedom to fail are included in the Duolingo experience, but the intent is not to create a game (Fadhli et al., 2020). The intent is to use elements from games to encourage learners to engage with content and progress towards a goal (Fadhli et al., 2020). This is a highly behaviorist approach to learning. Correct behaviors are rewarded through fun sensory stimuli, and incorrect ones are rectified at the end of each module or level. Gamification itself can also act as a reward. Since apps like Duolingo are best used in conjunction with other methods of learning, permission for students to use Duolingo can be part of a larger reward structure. My perspective is that the gamified elements and reward structure help making the learning more fun and enjoyable. I can see how the app could support learning of an additional language for young students.

There is a certain convenience to Duolingo that is attractive to both students and teachers (Ajisoko, 2020). It can record the amount of time spent learning by each student in the class, offers many opportunities to practice, and is easy to navigate (Ajisoko, 2020). When interest and motivation are increased because of mobile app learning, independent learning outside of the classroom is fostered (Hidayati & Diana, 2019). The exact nature of this motivation remains unclear, and whether some apps might be more motivating than others (and why) is still unknown.

Apps are appropriate for learning small chunks of material and for encouraging frequent engagement with learning content (Hidayati & Diana, 2019). This makes them good for learning vocabulary. This does not mean that students automatically choose to engage with the app regularly, and with meaningful focus. Social mobility can be a valuable opportunity in the process of second language learning, and apps like Duolingo help facilitate this through peer-to-peer connection and friendly competition among connected users (Pareja-Lora et al., 2013). When apps focus on lower-level learning like basic vocabulary they can overcome different learning styles, through their gamification elements and ability to individualize the learning experience (Kusumadewi & Widyastuti, 2018).


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Selecting your daily XP goal and enrolling in a classroom


What doesn’t work well

There are drawbacks to using mobile apps for language learning. Duolingo doesn’t present learners with grammar rules, leaving learners to deduce the principles of grammar themselves (Nushi & Eqbali, 2017). This is a difficult process. Sample sentences in the app are often unnatural, and sometimes learners are introduced to a new word but don’t get to hear it spoken yet (Nushi & Eqbali, 2017). Because there is a lack of real human interaction and conversation, users may end up with a false sense of the true sound of the language (Nushi & Eqbali, 2017). There are many nuances in how words connect to each other in speech that are not necessarily reflected in the app.

Duolingo relies on translation as a method of teaching. Translation as a pedagogical tool is useful, but shouldn’t be the only tool used in language learning (Nushi & Eqbali, 2017). Introducing a language through short phrases and sentences is also not the best way to learn conversational language (Nushi & Eqbali, 2017).

Superficial engagement is a real concern in this space (Hidayati & Diana, 2019). Using mobile devices in learning can lower anxiety levels for students, but to avoid overuse of mobile apps for learning (or to avoid general distraction when using them), students need practical training on healthy use of technology, and a change in teacher and student attitudes is also required (Syahputra, 2019). Overuse of devices must be avoided (because this in fact would raise anxiety levels), and teachers must know appropriate strategies to guide students in their use of these apps.

Lastly, accomplishing tasks that require higher order thinking or lots of time are easier on computers than on cell phones (Hidayati & Diana, 2019). Many aspects of language learning require higher-level thinking, and certainly require time. The reality is that not all students have both cell phones and computers. Mobile learning will necessarily remain the more prevalent option in places where the majority of students have cell phones but not computers, like countries around the Persian Gulf and South-East Asia.

Some other considerations

I feel it is necessary to mention the general sentiment among the literature I have found. Most academic studies on Duolingo come from Indonesia, where there seems to be a particular attitude towards cell phone use by students. Cell phones and mobile learning are considered ‘exciting’ technologies by almost every author. It is unclear what is meant by ‘exciting.’ There is some connotative uncertainty here, perhaps because of translation. Many authors comment on how too much cell phone use, especially for social interaction and general entertainment, has negative consequences. The younger generation of Indonesians struggles with understanding cell phones as a vehicle for academic learning. Students are generally unfamiliar with the idea of learning flexibly outside of the classroom (Hidayati & Diana, 2019). They don’t grasp the expectation to just casually learn when they want or can, and end up gravitating towards using their language apps in certain places and at certain times (Hidayati & Diana, 2019). I also found this happened to me.

There is an unease about not knowing where to draw the line on cell phone use. At what level of usage are cell phones most effective in mobile language learning (Syahputra, 2019)? Does too much gamification of learning reduce the overall academic ability of users (Syahputra, 2019)? Does using these apps for language learning provide any tangible long-term benefits to students (Syahputra, 2019)? These are important questions to consider moving forward.



Apps like Duolingo do have use. Learning an additional language is a difficult and complex process that requires consistent practice, and apps can be a useful piece in the process. The conclusion to this discussion is that a combination of several apps is more efficient than using just one. Different apps may focus on different aspects of language, with various learning theory approaches (Kruchinin & Bagrova, 2021). Apps cannot substitute the need for teachers, group study, and other more regular forms of education when learning an additional language, especially for oral or written communication study (Kruchinin & Bagrova, 2021). This has been my perception as well in using Duolingo for this short while.

There is still much opportunity to use gamified platforms for language learning (Syahputra, 2019). Apps like Duolingo are getting more intelligent. They can now recognize the difference between actual mistakes and mere typos by users. They can focus in on an individual learner’s weaknesses and target them with specific lessons. They can listen to a student through their microphone and confirm immediately if their pronunciation is basically correct. The potential for artificial intelligence to detect errors, reduce need for human interaction, continuously improve the individual learning experience, and analyze user activity and skills is promising in this field (Kruchinin & Bagrova, 2021).

One study stated that apps must be supplemented by a teacher. I thought this was interesting, since I assumed that the opposite is more correct – teachers should be supplemented by apps. My take is that Duolingo is a great way to start, and seeking out more traditional learning support in addition to the app will provide the best and most effective learning experience.


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 Still lots of Russian to learn even in the first batch of lessons!



Ajisoko, P. (2020). The Use of Duolingo Apps to Improve English Vocabulary Learning. International Journal of Emerging Technologies In Learning (IJET), 15(07), 149-155. doi:

Essa Ahmed, H. B. (2016). Duolingo as a Bilingual Learning App: a Case Study. Arab World English Journal, 7(2), 255–267.

Fadhli, M., Sukirman, S., Ulfa, S., Susanto, H., & Syam, A. R. (2020). Gamifying Children's Linguistic Intelligence With the Duolingo App: A Case Study From Indonesia [Abstract and Introduction]. In Papadakis, S., & Kalogiannakis, M., (Eds.), Mobile Learning Applications in Early Childhood Education (pp. 122-135). IGI Global. http://doi:10.4018/978-1-7998-1486-3.ch007

Hidayati, T., & Diana, S. (2019). Students’ Motivation to Learn English Using Mobile Applications: The Case of Duolingo and Hello English. JEELS (Journal of English Education and Linguistics Studies), 6(2), 189–213.

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Kusumadewi, H., & Widyastuti, M. (2018). The Effects of Using Duolingo Towards Student’s Vocabulary Mastery (An Experiment of Junior High School Students at Omega Sains Institute). IJET (Indonesian Journal of English Teaching), 7(2), 172–186.

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Nushi, M., & Eqbali, M. H. (2017). Duolingo: A Mobile Application to Assist Second Language Learning. Teaching English with Technology, 17(1), 89–98.

Pareja-Lora, A., Arús-Hita, J., Read, T., Rodríguez-Arancón, P., Calle-Martínez, C., Pomposo, L., Martín-Monje, E., & Bárcena., E. (2013). Toward Mobile Assisted Language Learning Apps for Professionals that Integrate Learning into the Daily Routine. In L. Bradley & S. Thouësny (Eds.), 20 Years of EUROCALL: Learning from the Past, Looking to the Future. Proceedings of the 2013 EUROCALL Conference, Évora, Portugal (pp. 206-210). Dublin/Voillans.

Polson, D. (2000a). Fred S. Keller and the personalized system of instruction. Athabasca University Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences.

Syaputra, S. (2019). Duolingo Gamification: Does It Reduce Students’ Grammatical Errors in Writing? Getsempena English Education Journal, 6(1), 1-12.






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