Duolingo is one of the most popular language-learning apps that has been operating for many years now, and its main goal is to help people learn a foreign language. In this Duolingo Chinese review, we’re going to talk about how Duolingo can help you learn or improve your Chinese language skills, and, more specifically, we’ll focus on how the app works and what its teaching methods are.
Chinese Is Not as Difficult as You Think! – Difficulties and Key Points of Learning Chinese
Before we begin our actual app review, let’s first see what the main differences between the English language and the Chinese language are.
Pronunciation: Pinyin and Tones
Needless to say, Chinese pronunciation is completely different from the English one, therefore, how can an English speaker pronounce Chinese characters?
Since Chinese characters, unlike most languages, are ideographic, the pronunciation of Chinese words can’t generally be derived from the characters themselves. That’s why different systems have been created to represent the Chinese pronunciation of characters using the Latin alphabet system.
The standard way that is currently used to serve this purpose is the “pinyin”, a system designed by Chinese native speakers that allow English speakers to recognize and be familiar with the sounds used in the Chinese language.
However, pinyin alone isn’t enough to help a non-native Chinese person properly pronounce Chinese characters; in fact, a series of tones is also needed to perfectly be able to speak this language and be understood by Chinese native speakers.
More specifically, Chinese has four different tones that are necessary in order to avoid any possible confusion when speaking. Remember that a word’s meaning can change based on the tone the speaker uses to pronounce it, therefore, mastering the four tones is essential to properly learn and speak Chinese.
Grammar: No Conjugations
Another main difference you’ll find between Chinese and English is the fact that the former doesn’t really have any verb conjugations. Basically, this means that since the verbs have no tenses, you won’t get any type of information whether the action is taking place in the present, in the past, or in the future.
Although this might sound confusing to the average English speaker who is used to tenses and conjugations, in practice this isn’t an awfully complicated concept; it simply happens because the Chinese language relies on adding different types of particles to the sentence or the words instead of changing the basic form of the verb.
Alternatively, time expressions can also be included in order to specify the exact time of the action.
The Written System: Characters and Radicals
The Chinese writing system is probably the first difference an English speaker notices when they approach this language.
As we’ve previously mentioned, Chinese uses an ideographic system instead of an alphabet, therefore, it’s quite normal to feel confused at the beginning.
Generally, each character conveys the meaning of a word and, by combining different characters you can either obtain other words or a full sentence.
Looking deeper into the structure of a single character, you’ll find the radical, namely a graphical component that is commonly used to list Chinese characters in a dictionary.
In general, a radical is a semantic indicator, almost like a morpheme, but we can sometimes also find radicals that serve as phonetic components that suggest the pronunciation of a specific character.
In other words, radicals are the base components of Chinese characters and they often carry information either about the meaning or the sound of a word. In total, there are around 200 radicals used in Chinese and, although they can be placed anywhere inside a character, you can oftentimes find them in the leftmost part.
How Does Duolingo Teach Chinese?
Now that we’ve briefly gone over the main differences between Chinese and English, let’s move on to analyzing how the Duolingo language learning app teaches Chinese to non-native speakers.
What Does A Typical Duolingo Chinese Lesson Look Like?
The way Duolingo is structured is quite similar to that of other free language learning apps on the market. In this case, specifically, there are several mini-units that are based on different topics (such as family, health, body parts, etc…). Each topic includes two to five lessons that are useful to learn Chinese grammar and the user is usually able to complete a single lesson in around 5 to 15 minutes.
One lesson usually is split into different activities; more often than not you’ll start off with learning 4 or 5 characters that are relevant to the topic at hand and, once you’ve learned how to properly match a character with its pinyin, you’ll move on to creating sentences in English or Chinese starting from a sentence in the other language.
📌Keep in mind that Duolingo gives users a set number of ‘lives’ that start going down whenever you get an answer wrong. Once you’re out of health, you’ll need to either wait it out or, alternatively, you’ll need to use the coins you’ve built up to get a spare life.
Additionally, if you already feel confident about a lesson, you’ll be able to jump ahead and move to the following topics. However, in order to test out of a lesson, you’ll need to take a test and you’ll only be allowed to move forward if you pass it. The app gives you three chances to successfully pass the test and, if you fail, you’ll either have to try again or simply make your way through the lessons in order.
Duolingo’s way of teaching grammar heavily focuses on Chinese to English translations and vice-versa, and, although hint words are provided by the app to help you, oftentimes Duolingo has a low tolerance of translation diversity.
In other words, Duolingo’s Chinese lessons are a mix of listening exercises and translation exercises, however, we found that the app doesn’t put enough focus on the actual explanation of grammar rules.
How Does Duolingo Teach Pinyin and Tone?
Earlier in the article, we’ve explained why learning pinyin and tone is crucial for an English speaker in order to learn how to speak Chinese. Unfortunately, Duolingo does very little to help the user learn or improve Chinese pronunciation.
While you won’t find any information about pronunciation inside the app, the Duolingo website does offer some tips and explanations about the different Chinese tones, but there still won’t be anything about the actual pronunciation.
During the first few lessons, Duolingo includes some exercises that make the user match some characters with their respective pinyin, however, it results quite difficult for beginners to successfully learn when there is no explanation provided.
As for the listening part, the app’s pronunciation of the characters is quite fast, and therefore hard to follow for people who are just starting to approach the Chinese language. The risk is that, since the explanation isn’t included, many users will get the habit of pronouncing Chinese words as they would pronounce English words and, needless to say, this will cause complications when they’ll have to interact with actual Chinese speakers. Moreover, fixing pronunciation problems further on will be harder and will take a lot of effort.
Does Duolingo Teach Chinese Grammar?
In terms of teaching Chinese grammar, let’s say that although Duolingo does offer some tips before each topic or lesson, there is still very little grammar explanation included. On the Duolingo website, sometimes you’ll find more information or further explanations of Chinese grammar rules and structures, however, the app often only includes some exercises and fun games that don’t actually give you a complete explanation of the grammar you’re using.
As we’ve previously mentioned, Duolingo is heavily based on translation exercises and that’s often the method it uses to teach grammar concepts to English speakers. Needless to say, it becomes clear that getting the translations right without first having a solid grammar explanation becomes quite hard.
Moreover, you can also notice in the previous screenshot how Duolingo often doesn’t tolerate different translations than the ones it has in its database, this means that it can become a bit frustrating to get the answers wrong just because you used a synonym. Not to mention that users only have three tries to pass a lesson test to move on with the course and, if they fail, they’ll have to wait and take it again later.
📌One of the main faults we’ve found Duolingo to have is that it basically requires the user to look at a character, hear its pronunciation and then answer a question about its meaning without ever being told what the character translation is. For this reason, using Duolingo can be quite confusing for beginners that are still not used to Chinese characters and grammar.
Does Duolingo Teach Chinese Characters?
What Duolingo should get credit for is the fact it introduces its users to Chinese characters right away. This means that during the very first few lessons, you’ll soon get in contact with a few characters. However at the beginning, as long as the possible answers are written using pinyin, it’ll be quite easy to play the audio and select the right option about what you’re hearing, but after a couple of questions, Duolingo quickly switches to asking you what a character or a specific combination of characters means without never having given you an actual explanation. In the following screenshot, you can see how Duolingo asks you to properly use the word “快” without having introduced it before in the lesson.
📌Basically, the user will have to guess the answer and learn by trial and error.
To try and improve this aspect of the app, Duolingo has recently been adding more pinyin throughout the lessons so that the users will be able to see and get in contact with pinyin more often to learn how to properly pronounce Chinese characters.
Moreover, the hope is that seeing pinyin and characters placed side by side will help English speakers see the connection between one and the other and, since Duolingo is introducing the ability to type in the language you’re learning, knowing how to spell a character is becoming more and more important.
Up until very recently, Duolingo’s favorite way of teaching characters was making the user complete “tap the pairs” exercises that basically required the learner to match a character with its right pinyin pronunciation, and, although the method is not wrong per se, in the long run, it can get quite repetitive.
Due to this, Duolingo adding the option of typing using pinyin to actually write the characters makes for an important change to provide the users with a different learning method while at the same time making the app more pleasant to use.
Why is Duolingo NOT Good for Learning Chinese Initially? Reviews from Users
Although Duolingo is a professional in teaching Latin and Germanic languages, the same cannot be said when it comes to Chinese. This is due to the fact that the app is quite new in this field, therefore, there’s still a lot that can be done to improve some of its features. In other words, beginners are bound to have a bit of a hard time learning Chinese from scratch through Duolingo.
To get more into the details, Duolingo isn’t the best app for beginners because Chinese tones and pronunciation are almost completely ignored and, since they are the main factor in successfully learning the language, this is an aspect that should be improved. Moreover, Duolingo has a lack of basic grammar explanations that isn’t going to offer the users a solid knowledge of grammatical rules. Needless to say, this might cause some confusion in a beginner.
Another aspect that could be improved is Duolingo’s interface. This doesn’t refer to the graphic of the games, which is actually quite enjoyable, but to the way the exercised are implemented in the app. More specifically, the hints Duolingo gives are sometimes misleading, almost as if they were put in generically without checking exercise per exercise. As for the difficulty of the sentences, the main concern users had is that it doesn’t grow regularly; a user might find difficult sentences at the beginning of the course, or an easy one further on with the lessons.
As we’ve mentioned during our Duolingo review, the translation exercises provided by the app could certainly be improved, especially because they often sound too mechanic and the software rarely accepts solutions that are even slightly different from the ones in the database.
As a matter of fact, we can say Duolingo makes the user rely too much on rote memory that involves a lot of repeated exercise rather than provides more insights into the Chinese language.
Last but not least, even though the app is free, there is a really high number of ads that often interrupt the users’ learning.
Is Duolingo Chinese Worth Trying?
What is Duolingo Good At?
Even though Duolingo might not be the best app to learn Chinese from scratch, it’s still a good option if you want to review your knowledge of Chinese while having fun with games that are, for the most part, well designed. Also, if you wish to learn new characters about specific topics, Duolingo can help you do that.
Duolingo’s Course Does Not Match the HSK Test
Duolingo is a fun way to practice and review your Chinese, however, the course doesn’t match the HSK test. Remember that Duolingo focuses on conversational sentences and some specific characters, but the HSK test has a different list of characters you need to learn in order to pass. Not to mention passing the HSK test requires a knowledge of Chinese grammar rules that Duolingo still doesn’t offer.
Alternatives to Duolingo
In terms of other mobile apps you can use to learn Chinese, there are two honorable mentions we’d like to suggest:
The first one is HelloChinese, an app that was specifically designed to teach Chinese to beginners in order to help them improve their knowledge lesson after lesson. Unlike Duolingo, HelloChinese starts its course with a thorough explanation of Chinese pronunciation and pinyin, making sure English speakers understand the main phonetic differences between their mother tongue and Chinese.
Afterward, the users will have the chance to play rewarding games designed to help them learn new characters and expand their vocabulary, as well as understand grammar rules and translate sentences.
The second option one can take advantage of is LingoDeer. This mobile app is a good alternative if a user wants to improve their Chinese level. LingoDeer focuses on teaching how to speak, read, and write in Chinese and, more importantly, the app doesn’t constantly use English so that the user can be surrounded by the Chinese language as much as possible.
Furthermore, LingoDeer will help you learn how to write Chinese characters while also expanding your vocabulary to reach a conversational level, moreover, the app allows beginners to listen to Chinese native speakers speak in slow motion helping them constantly improve their pronunciation.
Last but not least, LingoDeer will show you a summary of your performance after each lesson; this will help you spot your weaknesses in order to highlight which aspects you need to work on using the app’s Review mode.