The Italian course is one of the most popular language courses in Duolingo and at the time of writing (spring 2022) it sits in Duolingo’s top six, with over 6.6 million users. Duolingo is a good tool to get you started in learning Italian but it is limited in a number of ways if you are looking to develop proficiency in the language.
If you are considering learning Italian, and are wondering if Duolingo might be a an effective tool to use, then this article is for you. I have interviewed two learners of Italian who use Duolingo and researched the opinions of learners of Italian on the Duolingo forum, so you’ll get to hear about student’s direct experience with the Duolingo Italian course.
Can you become fluent in Italian with Duolingo?
Duolingo teaches you just under 3,000 words in Italian, as well as basic sentence structures, key grammar rules and verb tenses.
The idea behind Duolingo courses is that, with around 3,000 words and sentence structures, a user will be able to express quite a lot in their target language, although obviously not enough to get to native-speaker level.
Exercises within the Duolingo Italian course aim to test you in the following areas:
- Listening (write/ tap what you hear exercise)
- Vocabulary (multiple choice questions)
- Speaking (record what you say)
- Translation (from Italian into English and vice-versa)
- Grammar (translation or multiple-choice exercises to test you on various grammar topics, for example, verb tenses – in the picture below)
Duolingo aims to teach languages primarily through an implicit method, that is, by letting the user discover grammar rules through exposure to examples. Some explicit instruction is given in Duolingo’s Tips, which are brief grammar explanations.
Although this approach is beneficial for some learners, many users of Duolingo feel that it doesn’t fit their learning style, and more explicit instruction would be needed to make their learning easier.
The nature of the activities in the Duolingo course leads to some disadvantages:
- Sometimes it is possible to guess the correct answer by exclusion or common sense because the majority of the exercises are multiple choice
- If your response is correct, but not an answer that the Duolingo algorithm accepts, your answer will be marked as wrong, with no explanation
- There may be other correct answers to the exercise which are not presented as an option in Duolingo
Take, for example, the Duolingo sentence below:
They were making great progress in architecture
…the only option for a correct translation of this in Duolingo is:
Stavano facendo grandi passi nell’ architettura
Although the word passi is correct, a more direct translation of progress into Italian is progresso. A better English translation of the Italian expression grandi passi is great strides.
Duolingo is much better for beginners than advanced learners and useful for practising vocabulary and refreshing your memory but not sufficient on its own if your aim is to become fluent in Italian and do things such as reading a book or holding a more-than-basic conversation in Italian.
I have heard students of Italian who found Duolingo very helpful in the early stages say that they weren’t benefitting as much from it anymore once their Italian got to higher intermediate or advanced level.
The types of activities you engage with in the Duolingo course mainly help you develop your reading and writing but neglect your speaking abilities. For this reason, if you are learning Italian through Duolingo, it is a good idea to have someone to practise with, or a teacher, to focus on your speaking.
The shortfalls of the Italian course in Duolingo
Below I have summarized the main complaints of users of the Italian course in Duolingo.
1. No suitable explanation of grammar topics
In Duolinguo a response is either correct or incorrect, with no additional explanations as to why you’ve gone wrong.
Take the example below:
Duolingo’s acceptable answer is sono entrambi importanti esempi di architettura.
The reason for this, from the perspective of the Italian grammar, is that, when an adjective is placed after the verb essere (and a few others) it modifies the subject of a sentence. Placing importanti before esempi makes this adjective more key to the meaning of the sentence.
To a native Italian speaker, this is a fine distinction, and, in practice, most would use both positions for the adjective importanti, especially in spoken Italian:
- Sono entrambi importanti esempi di architettura
- Sono entrambi esempi importanti di architettura
This is an example where, for a learner of Italian who made a mistake in this sentence, it would be very difficult to understand why their response has been marked as wrong, and it would require them to do some very thorough research on the internet for rules on adjective positioning in Italian.
Although grammar explanations do exist in Duolingo Tips, in many cases these are not sufficient for many of the Italian grammar topics, unless a learner already has a knowledge of grammar concepts and has learned other Romance languages before.
The lack of comprehensive explanations relating to lesson materials within the Duolingo course can be frustrating for learners of Italian, particularly for complex topics such as Italian pronouns.
It is understandable that Duolingo, as a language-learning app, cannot give you personalized feedback on the mistakes that you make in the exercises. However, there is a risk is that, if a learner gets too frustrated or disheartened by a complex topic, they might give up learning.
2. Duolingo closed its language forum
Users of Duolingo, whenever they had a question on an exercise, used to turn to the Duolingo language forum for help in the first instance.
It used to be possible to post a question that would then be answered by either more expert learners or native Italian speakers who volunteered in the forum as moderators.
Duolingo users used to find the forums incredibly valuable and, in fact, some found the discussion on specific grammar topics more valuable than the Italian course itself! They appreciated the sense of community, the opportunity to interact with other learners of the language, and the helpfulness of some of the users in providing specific in-depth explanations of grammar topics in relation to the questions within the language course.
Duolingo closed its language forum on 21st March 2022, and the information stored on those servers throughout the years is now no longer accessible. Many Duolingo users were upset by this, since it is felt that learning on Duolingo will be much harder without the help of the forum and that having someone to ask questions to is essential to learning a language.
3. Gamification in Duolingo does not apply to real life
Duolingo is based on gamification to keep learners motivated and engaged. Although Duolingo is useful in giving you a general background in Italian, many of its gamification aspects are only useful within the app itself, but do not apply to what interaction with locals is really like if you are visiting Italy.
An example of this is the number of idiomatic phrases used in Duolingo Italian, which can be difficult to understand for a beginner, but also unlikely to be heard while you are on a holiday in Italy.
4. The Italian course was not developed to the same standards as other language courses
The Italian course in Duolingo is short compared to other European languages in the top six. In addition to this, Duolingo users have also complained that, particularly past Level 3 of the course, the quality of the sentences used in the exercises is poor.
Native Italian speakers have commented on more than one occasion that Duolingo sentences sound artificial and they don’t convey concepts in the way that a native speaker would.
5. The Duolingo Italian course can be boring
In Duolingo’s crown system, if you don’t practise regularly, this will cause your language tree to loose its gold, and you will have to go through the same exercises you already did again to get your tree back to gold before you can progress to more advanced learning.
Many learners find this boring and frustrating, because it involves repeating sentences that they already know over and over again, and prevents them from seeing the progress they have made, which eventually can become de-motivating for your learning.
6. The Duolingo Italian course does not deal well with complex grammar topics
Learners of Italian on Duolingo have pointed out that the course does not deal well with complex grammar topics.
One example of this is the topic of clitics. This is one of the most challenging topic of the Italian grammar but Duolingo deals with all clitics in one unit, rather than dividing them up into more manageable units.
This makes the clitics, and other units, very difficult, particularly for someone who is new to Italian and does not have pre-existing knowledge of grammar concepts, especially since, in Italian, several different pronouns are spelt in the same way although they are different types of pronouns.
Is it worth learning Italian on Duolingo?
Overall, learners of Italian on Duolingo think that the platform is good to acquire basic knowledge of Italian, to practise your vocabulary and to refresh your memory. However, it is likely that you will need to also study elsewhere for more in-depth grammar explanations and more conversational knowledge of the language.
The fact that Duolingo is free and accessible to all is a major advantage of this platform, and one that shouldn’t be forgotten. In fact, some Duolingo users have even said that, if Duolingo was a paid course, they would not be using it.
In conclusion, it is well worth using Duolingo, possibly not on its own, but as one of multiple tools and methods support your learning of Italian.