Duolingo and an Example of How to Use It Effectively

Duolingo is in no way a means to an end in language learning. If used in a practical way, however, it can be a powerful tool. It’s important to know how to use Duolingo effectively.

Use Duolingo in Moderation

The best way to use Duolingo is to use it in moderation. As a result of the gamification built into the app, it can sometimes be easy to impulsively burn through lesson after lesson without thinking about how much you’ll enjoy the app tomorrow after spending an hour on it today.

It’s good to build a habit of reaching a daily goal and stopping. Duolingo gives you the ability to choose 5 different tiers of XP Progress as a daily goal. The highest XP goal is 50, setting it at this mark is a good rule of thumb.

50XP will be reached in a maximum of 5 lessons. On average this takes 15 minutes to complete depending on where you are in your language tree. It also matters level of a given skill you’re on and how advanced you are in the language relative to the lesson.

15 minutes is the minimum amount of time per day I recommend anyone spend on a target language that they’re serious about learning.

There really is no maximum limit when it comes to the time you spend studying a foreign language on any given day. Perhaps there is a limit on the amount of time you spend on a single app or activity.

More than 30 minutes a day on Duolingo is okay. More than an hour means you could be spending at least 30 minutes a day on a more immersive activity in your target language.

As a rule of thumb, I complete enough activities on Duolingo to reach my daily 50XP goal for any given language and stop or move on to something else.

How to Use Duolingo Effectively with Tips

Looking at Duolingo from a perspective of utility, no feature is more underrated than the Tips summary built into the majority of language skills.

The summaries give you some background on the skill you’re about to study, often covering grammar concepts, pronunciation, vocabulary or generally odd features of the language.

Not all languages are treated equal in this regard, however, as the aesthetics and detail of some of the languages I’ve studied on the app recently, those being Portuguese, German and Mandarin Chinese, seem to differ.

For instance, Portuguese doesn’t have the colorful imagery and the audio infused pronunciation tips that German and Mandarin have. It’s likely that the lesser studied languages, or those with fewer contributors, share this trait.

Snapshot of the user dashboard for Portuguese

Pieces of these Tips sections frequently lingered on my mind after using Duolingo. They became a short-term asset during the first several months of my Portuguese studies. These summaries were the largest source of direct grammar studies for my Portuguese. They add a certain depth of knowledge to the skill that you can’t get from simply doing the lesson exercises.

I highly recommend reading these, when available, before starting every skill.

The use of the Tips summary leads me to my next point. These short intros into skills along with the evolving degree of difficulty that comes with advancing through skill levels makes for a dynamic but simple combination. It makes an excellent starter tool for learning a new language.

Snapshot of a tips summary for a Duolingo Mandarin lesson explaining Chinese tones

Example: Studying Mandarin with Duolingo

This week I began to study Mandarin Chinese. As a native English speaker who’s learned to speak two languages very closely related to mine, relatively speaking, and has collected hundreds of study hours of various methods in each language, learning Mandarin, a language that could not be more different from my own, is a task that I consciously understand to be incredibly difficult, even taunting.

It’s a language that I know with a busy schedule will likely take me several years to master.

But this is where the simplicity of Duolingo is useful. My initial plan for studying Mandarin is to simply reach a 50XP goal each day on the app. Why? Because with a challenge of this size pacing yourself is incredibly important Time management is also going to become an even bigger factor learning a third foreign language while maintaining two others.

A second snapshot of the tips section explaining Chinese tones. Tips are an important aspect of how to use Duolingo effectively.

Duolingo has a structure that increases in difficulty both in the individual skills as well as the general content as you progress through your language tree.

The structure enables you to progress through the language in a way that’s chosen for you. This way you won’t have to take the time researching what you should study next. This can be a daunting question when starting a new language.

How to Use Duolingo Effectively Across Languages

The best way to use Duolingo can depend on your target language, life circumstances, and goals.

I approached Portuguese in a similar way as Mandarin. Because of life circumstances I had more time to dedicate to it and my general goal for the language was different.

For Portuguese I jumped in by practicing with Duolingo and Lingq.com, and only a short time later began taking lessons on italki.

I ultimately used Duolingo to study Portuguese for more or less 6 months. If I were to do it again, I would have stopped using it sooner. 3 months earlier to be exact.

Snapshot of the match the pairs feature on Duolingo

Portuguese was not, however, the long-term challenge that Mandarin will be. The reason I’m choosing Duolingo over other apps is Duolingo’s simplicity.


Since writing this article my point of view on using Duolingo across languages has gained some clarity.

I used Duolingo to study Mandarin Chinese for several months before moving to LingQ. Duolingo was effective in helping me pick up basic verbs and pronouns. Ultimately I felt that LingQ was a better tool for studying Mandarin.

Spanish has also become a target language of mine. My experience studying Spanish on Duolingo was disappointing.

I enjoyed using Duolingo some years ago to brush up on my Spanish. This time around Duolingo was not challenging enough for me. My knowledge of Portuguese gave me advantage in terms of picking up vocabulary in Spanish.

LingQ was a better tool for Spanish from the start. It’s more ideal because I could start studying through intermediate reading.

Read my LingQ review to find out more about the app: LingQ – The Best Language Learning App?

Maintaining Languages with Duolingo

Although I do believe Duolingo is best fit for beginners. I’ve managed to utilize it as a tool for maintaining languages that I already know well.

I took a break from studying German for roughly 18 months when I began to study Portuguese almost 2 years ago. When I came back to it a few months ago one of the first things I started to do was Duolingo lessons. The short lessons were a great way for me to freshen up on the language when I had a bit of spare time.

After some time, I developed a new regiment; Monday, Wednesday and Friday were for studying Portuguese and Tuesday and Thursday were for German. Saturday or Sunday were more flexible, but I had to choose one or the other, Portuguese or German.

The first thing I would do before I allowed myself to study any other way was to reach my Duolingo goal for the day. The reason being was that going to the website would become an easy decision. I knew where to go when I had an extra 10 minutes to spare. Not to mention, it’s a good way to brush up on simple vocabulary that you might not have seen in a while.

Stories have also been a great tool for brushing up on a language. You move through a simple story. As you go through the story you’re quizzed on vocabulary.

The test feature of Duolingo also makes for more challenging review. Rather than speeding through old lessons I challenge myself by testing out of skill levels.

Snapshot of the user being asked if they want to take a lesson test

This is a feature that comes from the gamification that’s integrated into the app. In order to take these tests, you currently pay 5 Lingots, the Duolingo currency that you earn through various achievements such as completing a skill or completing a streak of certain lengths.

How to Use Duolingo Effectively: Wrap-Up

Duolingo has been a kind of go to for me whenever I’m in a kind of language learning grey area. Whether it was preparing for a German course in an upcoming Fall semester, brushing up on what little Spanish I remembered from high school before a trip to Puerto Rico or using it as a way to build good study.

It’s the gamification and positive spirit of the app, something you won’t find in any textbook, that will help me build good habits as I begin to study Mandarin.  

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