Why do so few people complete a Duolingo language course? (2023)

Once government restrictions were issued at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, Duolingo saw a 300% rise in new users anxious to make productive use of their time in isolation. An overall 30 million new users accessed the free language learning software in the weeks after lockdown. Unfortunately, there is a wealth of difference between installing an app, and learning a new language. An informal study estimates that course completion rates fall as low as 0.01% for Spanish learners (second most popular language on Duolingo), and peak at 0.24% for Ukrainian learners. I, and many others, are victim to this crushing curve of failure, which seems to beg the important question: Why is it that so few people complete a Duolingo Course?

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Cindy Blanco, a senior language scientist at Duolingo, suggests that differences in goals might provide for such low success rates. After all, many people approaching softwares such as these are not in search of complete mastery over a certain language. Cindy poses an example: “I want to go to Portugal and feel comfortable ordering in a restaurant, how much of the course do I need to work on to feel comfortable with that experience?” Clearly the answer must cover a fraction of the entire course based upon the specificity of our ambitions. To an extent this is agreeable, but unfortunately many seldom go on to achieve even their small goals, and thus even topic completion rates are estimated to fall extremely low throughout the app. What then, is the key to success?

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The common sentiment between many duolingo users, (me included!) is that individual motivation is often particularly volatile, and thus one day you could spend a few hours laboriously progressing through topics, and the other would be completely absent from any activity. The typical language learning curve exhibits an initial spike in interest, before an almost inescapable plummet extracts the large majority of online language learners away from their course. It is perhaps this common initial misconception of the effort and time involved to even attempt to reach proficiency. It is often said that consistency is the best approach to combat the unforgiving language learning curve. Though it might be dismissed as trivial advice, I think it bears more importance than it seems to let on. Replacing these high energy bursts of motivation with slow, controlled practice over an extended time period is regarded by many successful language learners as the most important thing to be considered when taking a course.

Once we extricate ourselves from this insistence on perfection and hastiness, we will begin to obtain the value out of the courses that we take, and no longer will be afraid to revisit material for further revision. In short, people often fail to complete online language courses for the simple fact that they neglect to envision the long-term prospects of their journey through the exciting new opportunities available online in the 21st century.

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