Duolingo today added support for Chinese and that’s a big deal for a few reasons. The language learning app has provided Spanish and German since it was in private beta back in 2011, but didn’t add Asian languages until recently — Japanese was added in May and Korean in September. That’s generally because those languages are difficult to learn and involve composing completely different curriculums.
Chinese is the most-spoken language in the world, and its absence on Duolingo has been a shortcoming of the app since launch. As it stands today, there aren’t any really good ways to learn the language without spending boatloads on tutoring, courses, or actual trips to China. So, as a native speaker, I looked to see if Duolingo would be a solid alternative, even for beginners.
Duolingo’s first Chinese lesson starts you off learning numbers. Even if you know nothing, the audio guides you through the English pinyin, which is a Romanization of Chinese characters based on their pronunciation. That way, you can at least guess your way through the first lesson. Unfortunately, this also means that you’ll learn sounds and characters without knowing exactly what they mean. Recognizing the character as “yi” from a phonetic standpoint is one thing, but knowing that it means the number “one” in English is another. Duolingo isn’t great for taking that extra step. Weirdly enough, if you tell Duolingo you’ve learned Chinese before and take a placement test, it quizzes you on saying “hello” and “my last name is...”
As a point of contrast, there’s an app called Memrise, available on iOS and Android, which has a space theme and offers Chinese. It starts off the first lesson more logically with Hello, and provides definitions and recordings of natives saying, “Ni hao.”
Duolingo’s other language lessons are similarly spotty, like when the app expects you to simply obtain French grammar as a byproduct of memorizing vocabulary and typing words to chatbots. But with the added difficulty of Asian languages like Chinese, you’ll need a lot more handholding than Duolingo can offer. That’s the same reason why I can’t go into the app and learn German from scratch.
It can also feel frustrating to see your progress bar drop every time you make a mistake. But without material to study, mistakes are inevitable. And Duolingo doesn’t offer much room for failure. If you miss a word in a sentence, the response gets marked wrong. (Duolingo’s chatbots, on the other hand, pretty much nod and smile no matter what you say to them.)
For now, Duolingo offers Beijing-style Mandarin in simplified Chinese, which is the most common writing system and dialect for the language. It doesn’t have any other dialects available, so those eager to learn Cantonese won’t have much luck. The app also doesn’t provide traditional Chinese, which is the written form of Chinese used in Taiwan, Macau, and Hong Kong. That’s to be expected, given that most schools in the US teach simplified over traditional, but it’s disappointing since competing apps like Pleco and Skritter offer both.
With more updates and hopefully a rework of the first lesson, Duolingo could become a substantially better Chinese tutor. But in its current iteration, the app can only serve as a light refresher to a more expensive main course had somewhere else. And maybe for some, that’s enough. For its part, Duolingo claims that its app will teach you 1,000 Chinese characters and bring you to an upper beginner level of fluency, and for that it seems competent.