Table of Contents
2. Gamification & Duolingo
2.1 What is Gamification?
3. How well is Duolingo suited for Students?
In recent years, language learning apps have become increasingly popular. Due to the omnipresence of smartphones, it has become easier than ever to start learning a new language just by downloading an application. An important reason, why these ‘apps’ have turned the otherwise tedious task of language learning into a popular free time activity is their ease of use. Many of these apps are relying on gamified mechanics, which can make the process of language learning generally more fun, keeping learners engaged and motivated. Especially the language learning program Duolingo relies heavily on gamification, which might be one of the reasons why Duolingo is one of the most popular language-learning applications: According to Duolingo itself, it is the most popular education app with over 300 million users (cf. Blanco Cindy and van Ahn 2020).
However, even with its popularity, is Duolingo also the best-suited language learning app for all learners? This term paper aims to answer this question by discussing the advantages and disadvantages of Duolingo for students in schools in- and outside the classroom, while also analyzing the gamified mechanics of the application, as they are a core element of the learning experience.
It should be noted the information and conclusions presented in this paper are formed by other studies and personal experiences with the application and are not based on first-hand research data. Furthermore, while the desktop version of Duolingo offers additional features, like a forum and the option to join virtual classrooms, this paper will only focus on the mobile version of Duolingo as this is its most common use case.
Structurally, this paper first looks at the topic of gamification. Secondly, Duolingo and its gamified mechanics are introduced, followed by an analysis of how well the app is suited for students, discussing advantages and disadvantages. Lastly, a summary of the findings and a conclusion will be presented.
2. Gamification & Duolingo
2.1. What is Gamification?
Gamification has become a buzzword for all kinds of fields in recent years. Many companies have realized that through gamified mechanics, potential customers are more easily captivated by a certain product and are more willing to spend time with it (cf. Zichermann 2011, xiv). Moreover, the potential of gamification for pedagogical use, for example in schools, has been the topic of many studies. While there is yet to be a conclusive answer to the question of how well gamification can enhance student performance, many studies suggest that gamified mechanics, if used correctly, can have a positive impact on students and learning in general (cf. Kapp 2012, xxii). But what is gamification?
According to Zichermann and Cunningham’s book Gamification by Design, Gamification can be defined as the following: “The process of game-thinking and game mechanics to engage users and solve problems.” (2011, xiv). Applying gamified mechanics to non-game environments can yield to higher user engagement and motivation: “Everything has the potential to be fun” (2011, 2), as Zichermann and Cunningham point out. Potentially, gamified mechanics – or more specifically, the motivation they create – can lead people to participate in activities they would usually not. (Zichermann 2011, 16).
Zooming in on the pedagogical use of gamification, similar mechanics apply and can lead learners to be more motivated even in serious environments like language learning. However, “merely adding game mechanics to non-game situations to encourage engagement is a narrow approach [to the definition of ‘gamification’]” (Kapp 2012, 15): Just adding points, rewards and leaderboards does not immediately lead to learning (cf. ibid., 12f.). Game mechanics have to be chosen with care and appropriate to their task if they are to promote learning. This perspective is shared by Hoffman and Nadelson. In their study Motivational engagement and video gaming: a mixed methods study, they observed that players show a very high level of motivation and engagement, even a state of flow, with the games they are playing, but were doubtful if videogames as they are could be used for instructional purposes (cf. 2010, 245-270).1
Applied correctly, however, gamified mechanics can have a measurable positive effect on students. In their small-scale study, Abrams and Walsh observed that students showed higher motivation and engagement using a gamified learning program, therefore spending more time learning the language, which generally helped the learning process (cf. 2014, 55). They found that students especially enjoyed the social aspect of gaming, the control over the task given, and the flexibility of learning. They concluded that five categories contribute to the quality of the learning experience when using such gamified learning tools: Control, competence, appropriate challenges, immediate experience, and clear feedback (cf. ibid., 56).
To conclude this section, if applied correctly, gamification can have a positive impact on non-game environments. However, there is still a lack of research in this domain and, therefore, the possible potential of gamification in learning environments is still unclear as of now.
Duolingo is a free language-learning platform. It was developed by Luis von Ahn and his graduate student Severin Hacker at the end of 2009, with the aim of creating a free platform for language learning (cf. Siegler 2011). Over the years, Duolingo has raised millions of dollars through backers and investors and aims to “dominate the language-learning market” (Lardinois 2014). Today, Duolingo has over 300 Million users and offers 36 language courses, all available in English and 23 in other languages. Duolingo can be accessed through all major platforms - smartphones, computers, and tablets. While everything on Duolingo can be accessed for free, Duolingo also offers a premium service that charges a monthly fee.
According to Duolingo’s website, language courses are designed to make the process of language learning as easy and enjoyable as possible, while also taking into account research on long-time memorization and international learning curricula. The exercises are designed with a clear communicative goal in mind, choosing sentences and words learners might use in real-life situations (cf. Duolingo). Duolingo’s approach to language teaching is heavily relying on implicit learning: While there are some formal aspects mentioned, learners are to learn vocabulary and grammar by actively speaking, hearing, writing, and reading the language without any instruction.
1 However, Hoffman and Nadelson‘s study only focused on the effects of gaming on learning in general. Focusing on how gaming can help explicitly with foreign language learning, we can also find different opinions: Jensen, who observed young learners of English in Denmark, showed that especially playing English video games helped young learners in learning a foreign language and advocated more research on the field of extramural language learning (cf. 2017, 1-18).