Distraction disguised as learning: Duolingo, Codeacademy and why you should get back to basics

Greg Dickens
5 min readMar 7, 2019
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

I moved to Greece this past fall after quitting my job in banking. The first thing I wanted to focus on before I got around to all of the project ideas I had in my head was to learn Greek.

On the first day I arrived in Athens, I enrolled in a language school close to my apartment and started going to class every day, Monday to Friday. Classes are 4 hours per day, with another 3–4 hours of homework on top of that.

In case you’re wondering, yes that’s a lot of Greek to absorb.

A few months later and I am getting up to a level where I feel comfortable speaking and can understand most of what is going around me —but learning new words is a big challenge, it really takes time and repetition to absorb an entire vocabulary.

So a little while back, I thought, why not add Duolingo into the mix to help with the vocab and to keep things fresh. I was familiar with Duolingo as I had experimented with it on and off over the years to try to keep from forgetting Spanish, but I had never really tried it for a language I was actually going to use every day.

But what I found was really surprising: as my Duolingo streaks and lingots added up, my confidence in my classes and speaking Greek while out and about actually started to go down.

What’s going on here?

I shook it off for the first few days and put it down to having a couple of bad days in a row, but after a week of feeling shakier out in the real world, I pulled the plug.

It was tough for me to put my finger on exactly what the problem was, so I did some searching around to see what other people’s experience has been with Duolingo.

It turns out, it’s actually not that difficult to find stories of people who went through the entire course and find that they can only communicate at the most basic level.

Ok, this is for someone who is exclusively learning with Duolingo. It would be a pretty high bar to set to think that you can learn a language exclusively from an app and I’m sure most people don’t have that the expectation…

Greg Dickens

Maker, recovering banker, living in Greece. Building affordable digital tools for local news and other indie publishers at https://www.epilocal.com