How to Rock Duolingo (Even If You're Convinced It Doesn't Work)

Posted by   Annette on    March 24, 2014


Ah, Duolingo: Our fearless, tracksuited, owly leader into the breach of language learning.

When it came out, it changed pretty much everything that was currently the established Deal with online language learning. One could make the argument that it changed language learning in general.

A free language-learning program, backed by household-name investors and accessible on any device with an internet connection, the program sits on the leading edge of smarter-making.

If you've tried--and failed--to get into it, however, you're not alone. I nearly threw in the towel on Duolingo myself, free or not.

I figured out a system, though, that helps to make the information stick. These days, I've topped out the skill tree in four languages (German, Portuguese, Spanish and French), and I maintain solid-gold boards on the latter three.*

Before I developed the below method of Duolingo hackage, my retention was terrible: likely, because the app is a great-but-imperfect system. It shortcuts the brain’s all-important reticular activating system (RAS). The RAS – uniquely stimulated by handwriting – acts as the brain’s gatekeeper, telling it what to remember and what to discard.

Longhand, you ask? Yes. Longhand. (But it has to be done in an organized way, or it's useless.)

Here’s what to do.

1. Duolingo every day.

The app’s “streak” function helps motivate you to do so – as does the fact that your strength level diminishes for each day you get lazy, leaving a trail of “weak” lessons in its wake. If you’re having an overwhelming day and can’t commit to a new lesson, just repeat a basic one that doesn’t require all-hands-on-deck brainpower. It’ll count for your streak, and you’ll keep your commitment. 

2. Seriously. Write it down.

As aforementioned, there are lots of reasons that memory retention is better when you write material down in longhand. In addition, having written notes of the app’s sometimes-complex sentences gives you a “cheat sheet” to review and enter back into Duolingo when it asks you to. This isn’t truly cheating – once you’ve reviewed and regurgitated a few times, you’ll remember the sentence just fine on your own (and Duolingo will continue to ask you to do so). 

3. Get the right notebook.

For Duolingo, you need a modular notebook: one that allows you to move pages around and add sections where needed. It’s very helpful to have a system that includes flagging tools, so you can easily navigate from section to section. I used a standard notebook for several months and, while it was useful simply to write down the lessons, it was difficult to find lessons to review.

I use the Staples ARC notebook system, as I get extra travel hacking juice from using my Chase cards for Staples purchases. They’re by no means the only option, however. (In fact, I’m convinced that the ARC system is a near-direct lift of the posher, classic Levenger Circa notebook design.)

I use just two page styles for my Duolingo notes: plain ruled pages, labeled at the top with the lesson name, and a “task pad” tabbed sheet for simple vocabulary. 

4. Go notebook-free on lessons you feel confident about.

It’ll help you strengthen different methods of recall – and you can do it when you would normally be browsing Facebook with glassy cow eyes.

duolingo-notebook-2.jpgThe Process

OK, so you’re on board with the idea of writing everything down and you have your modular notebook at the ready. What’s the method? 

  1. Set up a notebook page by writing the lesson name in the top box.
  2. Set up a task pad tab the same way.
  3. Write down every sentence in the lesson on the notebook page.
  4. Write the “official” Duolingo translation underneath.
  5. Write each new vocabulary word on the task pad tab.
  6. Do it in pencil.
  7. Do it even when you’re reasonably sure you’ll remember the sentence/vocab word.
  8. When you start with a new lesson, do the same. Organize it alphabetically into the notebook by the lesson name.
  9. When you’re asked to review an old lesson, add new sentences and vocabulary to the lesson area you’ve already set up. Add new pages where necessary.

Your retention of the material will near-magically improve. Promise.


*German and I are, like, not buddies.