Should You Learn Chinese Using Duolingo?

Since as far back as I could remember, I’ve always wanted to learn Chinese Mandarin. As a kid speaking the Teochew dialect, I always felt left out whenever my dad watched Chinese dramas and I couldn’t understand a single word. It was difficult just getting started in learning as a kid because classes were inconveniently far and I lacked the discipline to keep up with my studies. It wasn’t until a volunteer teaching program in China sparked my interest in learning it again. This time I was dedicated.

So it came as a huge surprise to me when I learned that Mandarin was finally on Duolingo. I remembered when Duolingo only had courses in French, Spanish, German, and other European languages when it was starting out.

After a semester of Mandarin in college, having already learned pinyin and basic grammar, I decided to supplement my learning with Duolingo in 2017. I dove right in and I have to say that my experience has consisted of a lot of mixed feelings about the course.

Disclaimer: I started the Chinese program prior to the crown system but didn’t dedicate much to it until after the crown system was implemented. This review is based on the course under the crown system.

One thing I really like about Duolingo is the variety of practical topics that you will learn. This course will teach you how to

  • introduce your friends, family and most importantly, yourself
  • order food and drinks at a restaurant
  • express your passions and hobbies

and much more.

Another feature that I found unique to the course is the pinyin (the phonetic pronunciation of Chinese characters in Mandarin) to character match.

This incredibly useful because it teaches you how read and pronounce the characters.

However, one issue that I have with this is that Duolingo doesn’t exactly teach you pinyin but rather expects you to learn it from these exercises. This could be an issue in the sense that it doesn’t set a solid foundation for learning pinyin overall such the differences in tones of the same sound (e.g geng, gēng, géng, gěng, and gèng). While this wasn’t an issue for me since I learned pinyin prior to starting this course, I felt that it would perhaps have been beneficial for absolute beginners if there was a tutorial.

In addition, many of the lessons have mini grammar explanations.

While these are incredibly helpful, I often found that some lessons didn’t have grammar explanations and those were the ones that I felt I needed were needed the most. Instead, I simply relied on learning from patterns as well as other sources outside Duolingo.

In regards to the crown system, I really like it. However, one criticism that I have about it is that the lessons don’t get progressively more challenging after Level 3. Every lesson in each level was basically the same as the first three. This felt repetitive and misleading. But fortunately the desktop system has a feature that allows you to test out a level, which makes reaching Level 5 so much faster and convenient.

However, the main criticism that I have and what is perhaps the most frustrating part of the course is it’s strict acceptance of answers. Often, I encounter issues where I felt few parts of the course were inconsistent with the rest. For example:

“A lot” essentially means the same thing as “many”
It doesn’t seem to be aware of nuances. In this case, “want” and “would like” are basically the same.

There are many cases like this and this is the biggest issue that I have with the course. However, what I admire about Duolingo is that they allow for feedback and often fix these issues relatively quickly. I feel so relieved whenever I get an email saying that they accepted my translation.

In addition, a few things I wish Duolingo had that I think would make for a better experience. This includes:

Traditional Characters

Duolingo only uses simplified characters. It would be nice to have a feature for those that are interested in learning traditional characters.

Writing Characters

It would beneficial to learn how to write the characters you learn as well.

More Pictures

The Mandarin course relies primarily on character matching and translations. However, it doesn’t use mnemonics techniques such as images to help the learner associate words with their meanings.

Despite these flaws, my experience with this course has been great overall. My listening skills and character recognition has greatly improved since I’ve made a conscience effort to practice a little bit every day.

Because of that, I’m going to say that Duolingo is currently the best program available to learn a new language for free, especially if you’re considering to learn Chinese Mandarin. While it won’t make you fluent, I believe that this is a great resource if you’re anywhere from beginner to intermediate as well as a great refresher for advanced learners.

Software Engineer