German was never available as a language to learn at school, and it never started to learn German until after I moved to Germany in 2011. I arrived in Germany without knowing a word! Even though English is related to German, the pronunciation is very different and I found that not being able to make myself understood to be very disorienting.
Apart from the additional vowels through umlauts and combinations, the grammar of German sentences feels like it has been turned on its head. Numbers are back-the-front, and all nouns require an article with the correct gender, which also changes the adjective endings and plurals! There is so much to remember as a new German-language student.
Having said that, I went from zero to an intermediate level in a few months of almost daily exercises and speaking practice.
But, can Duolingo German help you get there quickly? Especially if you live in another country?
How Does Duolingo Make Learning Fun?
Duolingo has gamified language learning – when you have more fun, you can more easily remember what you have learned, and keep your motivation high. There are many fun and useful features that Duolingo uses to encourage you to study German daily.
- Level up! As you complete and repeat each lesson and maintain your daily language study streaks and XP goals, you earn points (Lingots), hearts and level ups (crowns). With each level you unlock, you receive achievement badges. You can purchase costumes and access to bonus lessons using the Lingots and hearts.
- Smooth design: The app is well designed with a cute and fairly busy artwork style that will appeal to some language students. The interface itself is intuitive – quick to learn and easy to use – and is the same across Duolingo’s languages. New words are usually presented with cute graphics which may aid in recall. It’s not boring, and unlockable mascot costumes will certainly keep some people playing and learning.
- Intelligent revision: The spaced repetition system, while it doesn’t contribute to your experience levels, is useful for cementing the German you learn and making it easier to recall. As more time has passed since you last covered a word or phrase, you will be prompted to revise it.
- Community spirit: The language community around Duolingo is large, regularly participating in events and communicating via the busy forum. Studying alongside other people learning the same language is motivating. Plus, you can compete with your friends and the community to place on the leaderboards each week.
- Limited hearts: While earning hearts with which you can unlock further lessons is a good incentive, it can also feel like it breaks up the learning process.
How Does Duolingo Organize Its Lessons?
Duolingo German follows the standard Duolingo formula but has also been redesigned to align more closely with the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).
In each short themed lesson (called skills), you will learn a handful of words and phrases, and revise others that you have learned in earlier skills. As the vocabulary is grouped by skill (topic), and not by difficulty, the related context may make it easier to remember and start using what you have learned.
The app guides you to learn in a natural way through exposure, which works well for English native speakers who are studying German because the two languages are quite closely related. Duolingo German is also good for those who like to jump in at the deep end.
Step-Through Duolingo Skills
The skills are arranged into loosely related groups, with each skill building on the previous skills, revising the words and phrases you learned there. You do need to complete each skill multiple times to level it up enough to progress to the next skill, with 133 skills in the full German tree today.
You can’t dip into skills randomly, however – you must progress through the Duolingo German lessons in order. This is frustrating if you just want to learn a few phrases for a holiday or to ask some basic questions of a German-speaking visitor. The earlier skills, in particular, are geared more towards school-aged German students, containing vocabulary that an adult learner does not often need to use.
Use German Placement Tests to Skip Skills
When starting with Duolingo German, you can select whether you are a complete beginner, or sit a placement test. These placement tests are available at any time to jump to a ‘checkpoint’ at the end of a very large group of skills.
While this is fantastic in theory for more advanced learners, in practice, the test questions are very restrictive, harshly graded, cover too many topics, and allow few errors so you won’t unlock many (if any) skills or levels.
How Does Duolingo Teach German
Receptive Language Skills – Reading and Listening
This is an app for smartphones and web browsers, so you’ll be reading and listening to spoken words and phrases most of the time. The audio is not of the highest quality, as the spoken phrases are very fast and often cut off abruptly.
The stories available in Duolingo German provide you with more of a challenge for improving your reading and listening comprehension skills. Stories in the German language tree, in particular, are quite over-the-top and sometimes amusing, even if the language is not necessarily what you need for every-day communication.
Productive language skills – Writing and Speaking
Even more important than reading and listening when learning a new language, are the two productive skills of writing and speaking. Unfortunately, there is little practical speaking practice in Duolingo German apart from simply repeating phrases out loud.
Duolingo makes you complete many translation activities which reinforce bad habits, such as not requiring the correct capitalization of nouns in German phrases, or ignoring punctuation in both English and German tasks. Plus, where there are many different correct answers, only one is acceptable, which can lead to frustration. For example, occasionally, only an idiomatic or regional phrase is accepted, even when there is a simpler, more literal correct translation.
What Should I Expect (Or Not) From the Duolingo Course?
Each skill (and placement test) is a collection of activities chosen randomly from a pool of a few limited types of tasks.
- Arrange the words in a translated phrase into the right order.
- Rearrange a mixed-up sentence.
- Translate an entire phrase or word from one language into the other.
- Tap matching pairs of words.
- Transcribe what you hear spoken in German.
- Choose the right picture to match a word or vice versa.
- Choose the correct pronunciation of a word.
- Listen to a phrase or story and answer a question correctly.
At the end of the Duolingo German tree, you will have learned approximately 2000 words, putting you somewhere around A2-B1 for listening and reading skills, using the CEFR levels (not quite intermediate). Duolingo German does not let you practice writing or speaking, which means these skills will be at a much lower level than your listening and reading skills, which means you won’t reach conversational fluency.
Is Duolingo a Good Option For You?
Everyone who learns a language has a different goal, they have different learning styles, and have fun with different types of activities.
Personally, I think Duolingo German is a good taster for complete beginners to see if they like the language. It may also be a good refresher for upper-beginner to intermediate students. But its lack of grammar explanations, nonsensical phrases and poor audio meant it was not the app for me.
Duolingo German Is Good For …
- People who are trying out various languages to see which one they want to learn.
- Beginners who want to learn their first 2000 words.
- Busy people who want to dip in and review basic vocabulary and phrases.
- Students at the A-B1 levels in the CEFR language learning system.
Duolingo German Is Not So Good For …
- People who prefer grammar explanations or learning more systematically.
- Students who want clear audio or who want to work on their pronunciation.
- Beginners who learn best when they receive appropriate feedback on written and spoken phrases.
- Intermediate+ students who are looking to expand their vocabulary beyond their first 2000 words.
- People who want to learn some German phrases for their next holiday.
Long Term Effects of Using Duolingo to Learn German
- Trying to learn grammar purely from exposure makes it difficult to learn how to conjugate verbs, and use sentence case and gendered articles correctly.
- Because the audio in Duolingo is too fast and not clear, students’ pronunciation will suffer. While the iOS app allows you to record yourself speaking, the Android and web apps don’t.
- Duolingo German does not explicitly teach the difference between polite and casual German. This is considered especially important in business situations in Germany.
- The lack of capitalization correction when typing German sentences cements poor spelling and bad habits.
Verdict Duolingo German Review – Is Duolingo Good for Beginners?
If you want an easy, gamified, and cute introduction to German, but don’t want to study the language seriously, it’s great!
If you are aiming to reach a conversational level, or to write correctly in German, or even just pronounce words correctly, you will need to supplement Duolingo German with another program, app, textbook or tutor.
Alternatives to Duolingo
Of course, to get fluent in German, you need a variety of tools in your language-learning toolbox. Apps, textbooks, podcasts that you can listen to on your commute and online dictionaries are the best tools to have.
Don’t forget to add listening to music and watching movies in German to work on your listening skills and have fun at the same time!
German Language Learning App
LingoDeer currently offers two German language courses and a Travel Phrasebook (along with many other languages). The tasks that you complete in each topical lesson are more varied than Duolingo, and the Learning Tips ensure that you understand the grammar and the context in which you can use the words and phrases you have learned. The Learning Tips are particularly useful as they are often more detailed than a textbook.
The audio in LingoDeer was recorded by native Germans, initially spoken slowly, then repeated faster, which ensures that the pronunciation you hear is much better than the other apps I have tried. Plus, each phrase is recorded separately, and not cobbled together from single recorded words – there is no abrupt cut-off audio here.
Finally, the Travel Phrasebook and vocabulary are extremely practical for practicing before you go on holiday.
LingoDeer German is available as iOS and Android apps, as well as on the web with your browser.
German Language Textbook
When I arrived in Germany, I needed to get fluent fast. My intensive language course powered through the textbooks from A1-B2 level in just a couple of months, alongside conversation practice classes. Those textbooks are no longer available, sadly. The closest textbooks to the ones I used would be Themen aktuell or Deutsch im Einsatz.
Studying by myself after the intensive course, I’ve found the Essential Grammar in Use and Practice Makes Perfect series for the German language both very useful, but then I learn best when drilling vocabulary and grammar in writing. You may find another German textbook more to your liking.
Learn German with a Podcast
GermanPod101.com follows the very successful formula pioneered by Innovative Language, and is a good way to hear a range of pronunciation and natural sentences. They provide podcast lessons for beginners through to advanced.
German-English Online dictionaries
Dict.cc has the most comprehensive explanations of German words in English, and shows you a wide variety of alternatives.
Linguee.de will translate a phrase from German into English and vice versa, and provide you with examples of it being used in context. Like all online translations, take these with a bit of salt. The examples have often only been machine translated, and not checked by a native speaker. But it’s a good tool to ‘get a feel’ for how to use a particular word or phrase in a sentence.