Language apps like Duolingo are addictive—but not particularly effective.
Late one chilly evening last September, I excused myself from a small group huddled around a campfire to peck at and mumble into my phone.
No way was a camping trip going to make me miss my Italian lesson.
For most of the preceding year, I had religiously attended to my 15-minute-or-so daily encounters with the language-learning app Duolingo. I used it on trains, while walking across town, during previews at the movie theater. I was planning a trip to Rome in the late spring, and I’ve always been of the mind that to properly visit a country, you’ve got to give the language a shot.
But I had another reason for sticking with it: Duolingo is addictive. It pulled me right in, helping me set daily goals and then launching into simple phrases. Sometimes it demanded that I speak an Italian phrase or sentence (which I always did correctly, to hear Duolingo tell it). But more often it asked me to translate Italian phrases and sentences into English, or vice versa, providing multiple-choice responses. No tedious grammar or vocabulary drills—that stuff, apparently, would seep into my consciousness via exposure to increasingly varied, complex, and interesting sentences.