Our reviewers evaluate products and services based on unbiased research. Top Consumer Reviews may earn money when you click on a link. Learn more about our process.

Duolingo Review

Monday, May 20th

2024 Chinese Lesson Reviews

Duolingo Review 3.5 Star Rating

Duolingo

3.5 Star Rating
  • Free to use
  • Useful for building good study habits and acquiring basic vocabulary
  • Step-by-step learning path with progress tracking
  • Gamified learning that's addictive and encourages daily practice
  • Competitive leaderboard
  • Easy to switch between learning different languages
  • Lessons for learning Pinyin (Chinese phonetics) and Chinese characters
  • Practice lessons to improve pronunciation and understand tones
  • Provides stroke order practice for writing Hanzi (Chinese characters)

In 2009, a professor Luis von Ahn from Carnegie Mellon University and his student, Severin Hacker, came up with the idea for Duolingo. After selling his second company, reCAPTCHA, to Google, Von Ahn wanted to do something related to education. He grew up in Guatemala, where it was costly for people to learn English. Hacker, who is now the CTO of Duolingo, wanted to offer free education to change the world. For his work in language learning and tech, Von Ahn is honored in the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Today, everyone knows the platform affectionately referred to as "the Bird App," and memes about it abound.

Over 2,500 word exercises

Duolingo promises that you can learn to speak confidently with their 2,500+ fun exercises. It also says it can give you a vocabulary of 1,900+ useful words and phrases. It uses reminders and challenges to help you develop good habits. You can start learning from the beginning or answer some questions to skip ahead if you know some basics. But is Duolingo the most effective way to learn Chinese? Let's find out.

Get to know Duolingo characters

One of the defining features of Duolingo is its fun and engaging characters. As you progress through stories and lessons, you get to know these characters, each with a unique personality, voice, and cartoon depiction. Take Lily, for example; she's a main character known for her introverted, unenthused, and deadpan goth teen demeanor, yet she secretly cares a lot. An official bio on Duolingo's wiki page describes Lily's emotional level (a -4) and an unamused expression that seems to tell people to stay away. Her bio even hints at her music taste, possibly featuring Girl in Red on her playlist, alongside a quip about hair dye being her chosen alternative to therapy. Unfortunately, there are no Duolingo Stories for Chinese yet, so you won't see as much of these characters as learners of other languages might.

Use the Guidebook to get your bearings

Duolingo's home screen is set up as a step-by-step path. Each circle on the path represents a level. When you click on a level, you start a lesson. Each level consists of about five lessons, and a ring around the circle shows your lesson progress. Your learning journey is divided into units that introduce new concepts. At the beginning of each unit, there's a Guidebook filled with grammar tips and useful phrases that can be accessed anytime. For example, the Guidebook for the first lesson includes an explanation of how "ne" is used to form questions.

Best Chinese Lessons

Addictive gamified language learning

Duolingo falls into the gamified language learning app category, and it's addictive - some of its most committed users have built up a streak of hundreds or even thousands of days. As you go through your lessons, you earn XP for every activity you complete. You start off with five hearts, and every time you make a mistake in a lesson, you lose one. But don't worry, if you get something wrong, you'll have a chance to try again at the end of your session. This way, you learn from your mistakes and get better as you go.

Fight your way to the top

The leaderboard is where the competition heats up. You earn XP to climb up ranks in your league, from Bronze all the way to Diamond. Every week, the leaderboard resets, and if you're one of the top performers, you'll move up to a higher league. If you're at the bottom, you might move down. Keeping up with your lessons every day increases your streak - shown by a little flame icon. The longer your streak, the more you'll want to keep it going.

Silly sentences won't help you in real life

But will maintaining a really long streak on Duolingo translate to fluency in Chinese? Duolingo's critics say no. They acknowledge that Duolingo makes learning fun and can help you build a daily study habit, but argue that the phrases it teaches are often silly and not very useful for real-life conversations. Duolingo defends these quirky sentences as being intentionally memorable, serving as "grammatical anchors" to help you remember grammar rules. However, critics counter that immersing yourself in meaningful content and engaging in regular conversations are far more effective ways to grasp those grammar patterns than repeating odd, out-of-context sentences. For instance, imagine you're meeting a native speaker and need to ask for directions to the nearest subway station. But all you have memorized is something like "The duck enjoys reading detective novels." In that moment, you're not going to be thankful for memorizing that grammar pattern. Instead, you'll be wishing you had learned something practical, such as "Qingwen, zuijin de ditiezhan zai nali?" (Excuse me, where is the nearest subway station?).

Best Chinese Lessons

A free springboard for good study habits

Even with its drawbacks, Duolingo can be a great starting point for your Chinese learning journey. It's fun, game-like features can grab your attention and keep you coming back, which is especially good if you're not usually into learning languages or if you find it hard to stay focused. We think it's a great way to start building the habit of daily study and acquiring a basic vocabulary, which you can then use as a springboard into more rigorous Chinese study methods. One of the best things about Duolingo is that it's free. You can learn Chinese, and even jump between this and other languages, without spending a dime. It's super easy to switch from learning Chinese to picking up another language or using your second language as a base to learn a third.

Learn Pinyin and tone differentiation

Duolingo recently added exercises for learning Pinyin and Chinese characters. The Pinyin section is laid out similar to a glossary, with sections for Tones, Initials (sounds at the beginnings of syllables), and Finals (sounds at the ends of syllables). You can come back to reference these at any time, and you can also run through Pinyin practice lessons. For example, the first lesson will teach you how to differentiate between the first tone, mā, and the second tone, ma, by playing two clips, then asking you if they're the same sound or different. You'll be able to see your progress on each tone, initial, and final on that glossary page.

Learn stroke order of Hanzi

It's pretty much the same deal for Hanzi practice, except that characters are divided up into sections and units like "Shop for clothes, discuss birthday plans" . Clicking a character on the glossary shows its animation in proper stroke order, and Hanzi practice includes tracing exercises. Nice!

Best Chinese Lessons

AI speech doesn't perfectly replicate native speaker pronunciation

Before you get started with Duolingo for Chinese, there are just a few more bugs you should be aware of. A minor issue some learners encounter is the choppiness of the AI voices, particularly when characters (like Lily) are speaking. An AI voice model trained on the speech sounds of a speaker of a language other than Chinese won't be able to replicate a native Chinese speaker's pronunciation, which may be a bit of a setback when you're trying to grasp the nuanced tones of Chinese.

Some accuracy issues

One user of Duolingo to learn Chinese has reported frustrating mistakes in pronunciation, saying that the app sometimes matches Chinese characters with the wrong sounds. For example, the Chinese word pronounced like "le", is voiced as "liao" instead. The Chinese word typically said as "mei", is pronounced "mo". These mistakes can make learning harder, especially when you're translating or building sentences.

We're not jumping on the hate-train

So, to sum up, we think Duolingo is a decent option for learners new to Chinese. While the criticisms from those who love to hate the Bird App are valid, we think there are still benefits to using it - especially since it's totally free. Our recommendation would be to use Duolingo to establish a daily study habit, build up a basic Chinese vocabulary and get familiar with tones and stroke order, and then switch to one of our higher-rated Chinese learning websites or apps for more advanced study - might we recommend one-on-one lessons with a tutor?

Where Can You Get the Best Chinese Lessons Online?

The motivations for learning Chinese are as diverse and compelling as the language itself. Perhaps you're fascinated by the rich history and culture of China, eager to read its classical poetry or modern literature in its original form. Maybe you're looking to expand your business skills and communicate directly with the vast Chinese market. Or, you might dream of traveling through China, exploring everything from bustling cities to serene landscapes, all while engaging with locals in their native tongue.

Learning Chinese, however, presents a unique set of challenges unlike those found in learning languages like Spanish or French. For one, there's the intricate system of Chinese characters, each carrying its own meaning and pronunciation, which can seem daunting at first glance. Then, there's the tonal nature of Mandarin Chinese, where the meaning of a word can change dramatically with the pitch of your voice.

The Best Chinese Lessons Compare Chinese Lessons Compare Chinese Lesson Reviews What are the best Chinese Lessons Best Chinese Lesson Reviews

Chinese Lesson FAQ

With China being the most populated country in the world, it will come as no surprise that an estimated 1.31 billion people speak Chinese - approximately 16% of everyone on the planet! And, that only includes those whose first or native language is Chinese, not those who are learning it as a second (or third!) language.
There are seven primary dialect groups in Chinese: Mandarin, Yue (or Cantonese), Min, Kejia, Gan, Xiang and Wu. Mandarin is the most widely used and is the dialect you'll most likely use if you travel to Taiwan, Singapore, or China, particularly in the northern regions. Most Chinese lessons are based on Mandarin.
Chinese is one of four languages ranked as a Category IV by the State Department's Foreign Service Institute: a designation that means that, for native English speakers, Chinese is "exceptionally difficult" (along with Arabic, Japanese, and Korean). However, if you're patient and hard-working, you can learn to speak and write in Chinese!
Many experts recommend focusing first on learning how to speak Chinese. The written language is extremely complex, because it's based on pictographs and not a phonetic alphabet, and most learners have a bigger need to communicate orally than in writing. Chinese is a tonal language, where shifting the "shape" of one's voice can change a syllable into a different word. (In Mandarin, for example, the syllable "ma" can mean everything from "mother" to "horse" and even "to scold" depending on the tone!) That can be very tricky for non-Asian learners to master, making it a great place to start.
There's no way to study Chinese that's more convenient than online lessons. You don't have to worry about making it to class on time, being able to register for a course, or turning in homework! Studying Chinese online is also much more affordable, and it lets you take things at your own pace.
Depending on whether you're using a Mac or PC (or an iPhone or Android), there are different steps you can take to enable a Chinese keyboard. Your best bet is to do a search based on the operating system you've got and follow the steps to turn on the Chinese language functionality.
No! You can choose classes with one-time fees for a complete course or a monthly subscription for continuous access, but both types of Chinese lessons are very affordable. For example, one popular program has a 12-month membership for just $16.66 per month, and another offers two levels of Chinese lessons for $249.90. You'll have a hard time finding an in-person class for less than that!
Sometimes. If you've subscribed to a monthly plan, you'll probably be able to cancel future recurring payments. If you've paid for a package of Chinese lessons, some platforms will allow you to request a refund within the first 30-60 days of use. However, your best option is to use any free lessons or resources that the language program offers prior to purchase: many sites have partial or full lessons you can try before you buy, or a 7-day trial you can use before your payments kick in. That's a great way to find out if the Chinese lessons you're considering are a good match for how you learn and what you want to get out of your studies.
Compare the Best Reviews

Continued from above...

But don't let these hurdles deter you. With commitment and the right resources, you're on your way to fluency. Mastering Chinese opens up a universe of cultural, professional, and social opportunities, allowing you to connect with over a billion speakers worldwide.

Online Chinese lessons offer a variety of approaches to suit different learning preferences. For auditory learners, there are programs focused on immersive listening practices, helping you attune your ear to the nuances of the language. If you're game for a challenge, gamified learning platforms make acquiring new vocabulary and grammar points engaging, rewarding your progress with points and badges.

For those who prefer a more structured learning path, comprehensive courses provide a blend of video lessons, interactive quizzes, and writing exercises, ensuring you develop a well-rounded skill set, from character recognition and writing to speaking and listening.

And if personal interaction is what drives your learning, tutoring services connect you with native Chinese speakers for real-time conversation and cultural exchange, enriching your study with authentic experiences.

Feeling overwhelmed by the options? Here's what to consider as you begin your journey to learn Chinese:

  • Current fluency level. Assess whether you're starting from scratch or if you have some knowledge of Chinese. Choose lessons that align with your starting point.
  • Learning medium. Determine whether you prefer app-based lessons, audio files, desktop platforms, or another format that fits your lifestyle and learning habits.
  • Skill focus. Decide if you want to concentrate on listening and speaking, reading and writing, or a combination. Remember, Chinese characters are essential for reading and writing, and tone practice is critical for understanding and being understood.
  • Pinyin vs. characters. Consider if the app emphasizes learning through pinyin (the Romanization of Chinese sounds) or focuses more on teaching Chinese characters. Some learners may prefer starting with pinyin to master pronunciation before moving on to characters, while others might want to dive directly into character recognition and writing.
  • Cost. Evaluate whether the lessons are priced as a one-time payment or require a subscription. Consider the value of free options and the benefits of paid upgrades.
  • Learner reviews. Look for feedback from other learners. Their experiences can provide insight into the effectiveness of the platform and the time it may take to see progress.

To guide you to the best Chinese lessons for your goals and preferred learning style, our team at Top Consumer Reviews has tested today's leading options and provided honest feedback on what each one offers. So, what are you waiting for? Embark on your Chinese learning adventure today!

The Best Reviews of Chinese Lessons